Well, that didn’t take long.
Bridgestone Golf announced this week that former Sales and Marketing VP Dan Murphy is rejoining the struggling company as President and CEO, taking over for Angel Ilagan, who left Bridgestone three weeks ago via the dreaded “mutual decision to part ways.” At the time, Bridgestone announced it would begin a search for a new leader, but rumors of Murphy’s return began swirling almost immediately.
During Ilagan’s tenure, Bridgestone dropped from #2 to #4 in golf ball market share as of this past April, behind Titleist, Callaway, and TaylorMade. In the club market, Bridgestone is virtually non-existent.
“I think it is what it is,” Murphy told MyGolfSpy in an extensive one-on-one interview this week. “I’m here for a reason.”
“How did it happen? I’m unraveling that now as I become immersed in the numbers and the situation,” says the affable, easy-going Murphy. “To be frank and to put it into a single sentence, I think we may have lost our way. We may have taken our eye off the things that made us successful in the first place.”
Loss of Focus
Specifically, Murphy cites getting away from a core message of differentiation, and all the elements that go into what he believes makes Bridgestone different from Titleist and other brands - particularly in regards to the better player - led to the current situation.
“The better player is important for several reasons,” says Murphy. “We believe in the pyramid of influence, and the better players at the club, we still believe, have influence with recreational players. To some degree, we took our eyes off them.”
“The better player appreciates Bridgestone quality, engineering and performance. We truly believe we have the best golf ball on the market, and the better player has the ability to discern and appreciate those differences.” – Dan Murphy, Bridgestone CEO
During an almost hour-long conversation, Murphy touched on a wide array of topics, including the equipment side of the business, Tiger’s role in marketing and being part of the $36 billion dollar entity that is Bridgestone.
That said, it's clear Bridgestone's bread and butter is golf balls, and there's likely to be one immediate change coming to a retailer or driving range near you.
The Return of Ball Fitting
You may have noticed a sharp decline of in-person Bridgestone ball fitting events the last couple of years, at the same time Bridgestone's ball sales and market share has dropped. That can't be a coincidence.
“It gave us a point of differentiation from the market leader and was something the better player appreciated,” he says. “They cared enough to immerse themselves into a more scientific, more data-driven selection process for their ball.”
So, will the ball-fitting program make a comeback?
“I think so,” says Murphy. “But probably in a more sophisticated, more scientific and more scalable way. To this day, even though it’s been deemphasized, Bridgestone is still perceived to be a leader in ball-fitting. It makes sense, in a highly competitive market where we don’t have unlimited resources, to have another look at an asset that already exists for us.”
Ball-fitting had its start during Murphy’s first tenure at Bridgestone (2004 – 2015), when Bridgestone reached #2 in ball market share. He says the idea had its genesis in the early 80’s, during the Cola Wars between Coke and Pepsi. It was golf’s version of the Pepsi Challenge.
“Pepsi was Bridgestone and Coke was Titleist, and we compared our ball’s performance versus Titleist,” says Murphy. “We were able to show a difference. Titleist was the market leader, so obviously that was the target, but it became all brands against Bridgestone, and it worked very, very well for us.”
“We don’t all wear size large shirts or size 9 shoes, and we don’t all swing extra-stiff shafts like the pros do, so maybe there’s a difference with a golf ball that’s more engineered for the recreational player or better amateur. There’s a lot of science, a lot of logic and lot of personal benefit there. That’s what made us different from the others – it wasn’t play-what-the-pros play, it’s play what fits your game.” – Dan Murphy, Bridgestone Golf.
Logic aside, the right ball for each player is a difficult message. Play what the Pros play is an easy message to deliver and an easy message for the average golfer – one who isn’t a voracious blog reader – to digest and assimilate. The complicated, albeit correct, message is nowhere near as sexy as the simple, albeit wrong, message.
“That’s the Titleist message,” says Murphy. “It’s a very simple and easy message…there’s one ball that’s #1 on Tour – that’s true and factual. But we would take issues with the story that the same ball is right for every player out there. That’s a nice, simple story to tell, but having an array of balls and a message that says there are different kinds of golfer and different kinds of golf balls for a reason, that offers us an opportunity to tell a differentiated story.”
By definition, a differentiator has to be, well, different. It also has to be something your competition either can’t, won’t or is unable to do, and you have to be able to express that differentiation - and its benefit - simply and in a manner your customer can understand and act upon.
“If you look at some of the folks (in the ball business), they have a pretty strong vested interest in perpetuating a story,” says Murphy. “We think that offers up some vulnerability. As a trained marketer, I look for chinks in the armor. From a validity standpoint, we think fitting golf balls does indeed benefit individual golfers.
"From a marketing perspective, we never wanted to, nor could we, out-Titleist Titleist by buying more Tour players. That’s not our game. Our game is to talk about individual golfers and benefitting individual players, and making this crazy game a little more fun.”
And speaking of Tour players…
“Tiger’s awesome!” declares Murhpy. “What a great asset to come back to!”
Tiger certainly moves the TV needle, but between his Nike days and so far with Bridgestone, he’s yet to show he can move the ball or equipment needle. Murphy says while Tiger is great at bringing attention to the brand, he may be used differently going forward.
“We have a great Tour team, with Tiger, Freddy Couples, Matt Kuchar, Brent Snedeker,” he says. “I see a compelling story using Tiger in conjunction with our other Tour players as opposed to just on his own. I think the interaction between Tiger and, say, Freddy in some sort of consumer message ad would be compelling content that people would enjoy.”
Tiger and Ilagan – the man who brought Tiger to Bridgestone – were both vocal advocates of rolling back the golf ball. However, Murphy made it quite clear Bridgestone won’t be re-stirring that particular pot any time soon.
“We have a long history of cooperation with the USGA,” he says. “Their job is to make the rules, our job is to follow the rules. I can’t really speak to what was said before. Our game has some magic to it, and one of those pieces of magic is there’s one set of rules for everybody.”
On The Equipment Side…
There are a lot of words to describe Bridgestone’s golf equipment business over the past 5 years or so, but let's settle on just one: haphazard. While the messaging may get more focused, don’t expect more resources to be spent on equipment, at least not now.
“With limited resources, we’re a challenger brand in a sea of giants,” says Murphy. “We’re competing against multi-category brands that have much, much deeper budgets. We chose over the years to focus on golf balls for a variety of business reasons. Bridgestone’s number one priority will be to regain the market share it’s lost, and to take more, quite honestly.”
With limited resources, Murphy says there’s a time and a place to fight the equipment battle, and now is apparently neither the time nor the place.
“If you’re a challenger brand and you have limited resources, you have to be careful about fighting a war on two fronts,” he says. “You have to focus energy, innovation, and resources where you can win the battle. If you spread your troops in too many directions, you weaken your main advance.”
“Our competitors are bigger, have more staff, more money and more ad spend. We know we have the product, but from a business perspective, it’s a matter of where and where do you want to take that fight on. With clubs, it’s go big or go home.”
So when it comes to equipment, will Bridgestone be going big or going home?
“Ahhh, I don’t know. I haven’t started yet,” laughs Murphy. “My official first day is the 25th, so I really need to dig in and understand what the opportunities are for us. We have great product, but can we make it into a viable, successful, profitable business? That’ll be my job.”
It’s easy to forget just how big Bridgestone really is. It’s a $36 billion-dollar international giant – the largest rubber and tire manufacturer in the world with global reach and - of key interest to golfers – over 900 engineers working on polymer science.
“That’s a huge difference maker for us from a resource perspective,” says Murphy. “A lot of that technology can be brought to golf balls, and it gives us that technological edge we’ve enjoyed for some time now.”
Bridgestone Tire’s marketing has evolved, going from a lifestyle message to more of a sports-focused vehicle. Bridgestone is a major sponsor of the Olympics and is heavily involved in the NFL, NHL, and others, using sports as a platform to help sell tires. Golf, of course, is part of the branding equation.
“WGC-Bridgestone is a good example,” says Murphy. “We couldn’t swing that on our own, but with the help of the tire division we can do things that make us unique, that other golf brands just can’t do.”
“Just think about how many big national or multi-national brands want their brand exposed to golf. The list is endless, just look at the PGA Tour’s sponsor list. Here we have a unique way to reach that demographic and release a very positive brand message for Bridgestone.” – Dan Murphy
That may be at the very heart of what Bridgestone Golf is all about. It’s a mistake to look at Bridgestone Golf in the same way you’d look at almost any other golf company. It’s one part of a gigantic whole and while Murphy’s job is create a positive and profitable financial ROI for corporate, it’s also important to acknowledge the potential branding ROI for the overall corporation, because compared to tires, golf is, well, sexy.
“Tire gets to enjoy a little bit of that aura; the fun, the glamour and consumer appeal of Tiger at Augusta, or Freddy walking down the fairway in a Bridgestone cap,” says Murphy. “They greatly appreciate that exposure and I can tell you for sure that part of my job is to make sure they know we’re supplying that.
Being a functional and productive cog in the global Bridgestone machine is part of the end game, but in order to do that Bridgestone Golf first has to become a profitable and successful cog all on its own. To achieve that goal, what Murphy craves most is consistency.
“We have to be more consistent in what we’re doing, what we’re talking about and how we’re presenting ourselves to the consumer,” he says. “I would certainly think that’s the reason I’m here, and one of the things I’ll be very careful of – remaining consistent and not confusing the consumer.”
“We’ve always considered our largest competitor to be someone standing on top of the mountain and yelling down to the people this is what you ought to do. We’ve always felt like we were the ones who'd go down to the valley and talk with those people one-to-one and face-to-face, and try to find solutions that will fit their game.”
What Does It All Mean?
Seeing as how Murphy hasn't officially started yet, we can safely say it's way too early to tell.
Levity aside, we can also safely say leadership matters. We saw how the Mark King leadership group turned TaylorMade from a late 90's also-ran into a billion-dollar behemoth, and we also saw what happened post-King. Chip Brewer turned a debt-laden and struggling Callaway into golf's newest billion-dollar brand and clear industry leader. Steady-as-she-goes Titleist has enjoyed long-term steady-as-she-goes leadership under Wally Uihlein and now David Maher.
On a smaller scale, we've seen Wilson return to relevance under Tim Clarke's guidance and, more recently, the top-to-bottom improvement at Srixon/Cleveland/XXIO since Matt Yasumoto took over two years ago. Conversely, that same two-year period saw Bridgestone's market share and sales plunge dramatically during Angel Ilagan's tenure.
So yes, the guy in charge matters. By all accounts the hiring of Murphy is seen as a popular move, with one anonymous source telling MyGolfspy Bridgestone's sales team is "beyond excited."
Will Murphy and that excitement bring Bridgestone in from the cold? If saying the right things were all that mattered, Bridgestone is already on its way. But saying is one thing; doing is quite another.
As we prognosticators like to say: time will tell.