Wilson Staff has a heritage most brands would kill for. It also has as vocal a band of loyalists as you’ll find in golf.
But for many others, it’s an also-ran challenger brand that’s barely a blip on their radar.
Five years ago, we took a deep dive into the former industry leader/icon. Our goal was to figure out how it got to where it was, where it was going and how it was going to get there. What we found was a small but still proud brand putting out solid gear, not content with being has-been.
Stuff sure can change in five years. It’s time to put Wilson Staff back under the microscope to see what progress – if any – the brand has made over the last half-decade.
A Return to Relevance
There are folks with a Dyna-Powered yearning for Wilson’s return to greatness. Others can’t wait to tell you Wilson is going nowhere fast and needs nobodies off the street to design their drivers on TV. And others stay on the sideline, just watching.
In other words: fanboys, haters and everyone else.
“I told you this back in 2015: haters are gonna hate,” Wilson Golf president Tim Clarke told MyGolfSpy during a pair of in-depth interviews this past year. “My view is there’s still 90 percent of the market that’s open-minded and curious about us. We may have lost that last 10 percent for the sins of yesterday.”
Wilson was the game’s standard-bearer for decades but, by the mid-2000s, had spiraled into irrelevance. By 2006, Wilson’s irons market share was only a touch higher than Blutarski’s grade point average at 0.6 percent. That means out of every 200 iron sets sold that year, only one was Wilson. By 2015, market share – according to Wilson – climbed to nearly three percent. Considering where it was, that’s a remarkable turnaround. Wilson’s market share is fairly similar today but the larger point is this: while it isn’t back to where is once was – and it may never be – Wilson is once again relevant.
“We had to change that perception with the consumer,” says Clarke. “We had to get consumer-centric. We had to get innovative. We had to get disruptive.”
Clarke’s first full year as Wilson Golf president was 2007 and even the most hardened cynic can sense that his energy and optimism are as genuine and infectious today as back then.
“The nice thing about 2007 is I was still young enough to be dumb enough,” says Clarke. “I had the mindset that you could do anything. I still have that mindset but at that point in your career you don’t look at the mountain you’re climbing, you look at the opportunity. I was always a Wilson guy and the coolest job you could have was president of Wilson Golf. To have that actually happen, it was like a dream come true.”
That dream wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows. $15 million in losses and a 0.6-percent market share actually sound more like a nightmare.
“The energy required to get it to this point today has been substantial and the energy required to get us to where we’re going is even more substantial,” he says. “I think getting from there to here has been about gaining credibility. Once you have credibility, there’s still hard work but it’s much more strategic than it is to try to change the mindset of millions.”
Say It, Do It
Clarke is a believer in what he calls the Say-Do Ratio: how much of what we say we’re going to do did we actually do?
“I look at low-compression golf balls and what we did there. I said [back in 2015] we were going to refocus on our iron heritage and we’ve retrenched there,” says Clarke. “When you do the right thing for a period of years, you expect to see acceleration, which is exactly what’s taken place.”
“I remember one of my comments to you was it took a few years to get the brand on the wrong path. It’s going to take as many years to get people to forget about that. I think we’re at the point where we’ve done a lot of right things.” – Tim Clarke
Wilson still gets knocked over the whole boxed set/Walmart stigma. It still sells them, but look up boxed sets on Walmart’s website and you’ll see a lot more Callaway than Wilson.
“We walked away from about $10 million in packaged sets,” says Clarke. “That’s a lot of revenue, a lot of business, but it’s not good for the brand.”
What is good for any brand is innovation. Even though equipment cynics scoff at that word, OEMs know they can’t stand still.
“We’ve made huge investments in innovation,” says Clarke. “Over $3 million in additional technology and people. We made a huge investment in simulations. We can run almost 3,000 simulations in a 24-hour period with the system we own.”
“Callaway has a better name for it but it’s basically a simulation system. If we were a golf-only brand, it would be pretty hard for us to make that kind of investment. But the system works for baseball bats, tennis rackets, basically anything you can hit a ball with.” – Tim Clarke
Based on info from publicly traded companies, OEMs typically budget roughly three percent of their overall sales numbers to R&D. Since Wilson Staff is part of the much larger Wilson Sporting Goods (and is now privately owned – more on that later), its R&D budget is a little harder to nail down but it’s a fair bet the percentage is the same as larger companies.
“Callaway and TaylorMade spend a lot of money to tell you they’re innovative,” says Clarke. “I would argue if you look at innovations – from power-hole technology to low-compression golf balls to changeable sole plates on a driver – there aren’t many brands that have done more innovation in the last five to seven years than Wilson.”
“That’s my personal opinion and have we gotten the credit for it? Had TaylorMade launched low compression, would it be a huger thing today? Probably, but what it’s done for us is it has allowed us to go from very low market shares to relevancy.”
The Journey Back
Wilson fanboy or not, you can’t deny Wilson Staff is a player in premium golf gear once again.
You can chalk that up to several factors: a decade’s worth of high-performing irons, a commitment to innovation, and Gary Woodland’s U.S. Open victory at Pebble Beach last year (more on that later, too). One thing you can’t overlook, regardless of your opinion of the show or the products it produced, is the impact of Driver vs. Driver.
“People can say they loved Driver vs. Driver and people can say they hated Driver vs. Driver,” says Clarke. “I really don’t care. But they sure talked about us an awful lot.”
If you still think Driver vs. Driver was actually about the driver, you missed the point entirely. It was, in fact, a high-profile seven-week branding initiative. According to Wilson, more than 3.2 million viewers watched Season One and more than four million watched Season Two. Wilson’s market research shows people interested in buying Wilson Staff products rose appreciably after both seasons.
“The whole Driver vs. Driver business model was to elevate our brand awareness and consumer awareness of our investment into R&D, which was successful,” says Clarke. “It was also to put out the best possible Wilson driver in the market. If you look at the test data and everything that driver did, I’d say Cortex is the best driver Wilson has put out since maybe the Killer Whale.”
There are talks of a third season and maybe a different product category but Clarke is wary of one too many trips to that particular well.
“It’s hard to get anything as exciting as a driver,” he says. “If you start talking about Putter vs. Putter, it’s interesting, but are you going to be able to hold an audience?”
Torch and Pitchfork Nation did go Code Red when Cortex hit the streets at $499. In fact, many of Wilson’s retail partners thought the price tag was too high. Clarke, though, has no regrets.
“Everyone would have loved the driver at $299 but it wouldn’t have made sense,” he says. “You’re talking about a marquee program that showcased the brand and our R&D capabilities. It did everything we wanted it to do. It’s a space we’re not well known in and I will say we’re selling more drivers today than we were prior to the show.”
In our 2015 series, many of you commented that Wilson wasn’t available at retail in your areas. That’s changing, too. In 2015, what Wilson calls its door count (the number of actual stores stocking product nationwide) was around 700. Today, Wilson says its door count exceeds 3,000.
“The Driver vs. Driver programs have given the consumer confidence that Wilson is a premium brand,” says Worldwide Golf CEO Al Morris. “While the sell-through (of the Cortex) has not been stellar, the value of the advertising has helped the brand tremendously.”
“We’re finding more people asking for Wilson than they have in years past,” says Randy Peitsch, Senior Operations VP at PGA Tour SuperStore. “[Wilson is] actively seeking feedback from us on whether their products are resonating with customers. They take that information and make a game plan on how they’re going to approach the next quarter, season or year.”
Pete Line, GM at Carl’s Golfland, says he’s also seeing more consumer interest in Wilson.
“Most customers are positive about the Wilson brand,” he says. “More are asking specifically for Wilson products. We believe their Golf Channel exposure and social media strategy is creating more consumer brand recognition.”
Clarke has always maintained that wins in major championships move product and the Woodland effect has been substantial.
“Make no mistake, the business acceleration from winning a major is strong,” says Clarke. “Our business in Europe is up substantially since the win, our U.S. equipment business is up since the win. Major wins matter. That’s just life.”
Signing Woodland for the 2019 season was a big cash investment for Wilson. Clarke had to clear the deal with new ownership, since it was a larger the normal contract for the brand.
“I had to sell my boss on the idea,” says Clarke. “He said ‘give me one good reason why we should make this investment.’ I told him, ‘because Gary Woodland is going to win a major, and he’s going to win it this year.'”
That, as Roy McAvoy would say, was a defining moment.
“Make no mistake, Gary picked Wilson,” says Clarke. “Every brand and his brother wanted to sign him and other companies thought they had him. But he loved the irons. And I insured his major win bonus, so thank God I did that!”
It’s been just over a year since Wilson’s ownership changed hands. A group led by Chinese athletic apparel giant ANTA Sports paid an estimated $5.2 billion for Amer Sports, lock, stock and 5-iron.
Amer was publicly traded on the Helsinki Stock Exchange but the ANTA group, which includes LuluLemon founder Chip Wilson, is strictly private.
“Old Amer, Stock Exchange Amer, was very much a margin/profit company,” says Clarke. “I think this new company wants to see accelerated growth in all the assets it acquired, including Wilson. One of the opportunities they see is the opportunity to open up markets we aren’t strong in.”
That would be Asia, where Wilson has never been much of a player. Clarke thinks ANTA’s expertise and operation ooze with potential.
“It’s my job to present a business case,” says Clarke. “You just spent $5 billion acquiring us. If you want to really see accelerated growth, baseball is going great, tennis is going great, but if you want to grow, golf is where you need to go.’”
Wilson’s sales numbers have always been lumped into Wilson Sporting Goods overall numbers, which have always been lumped into Amer’s Ball Sports Division. We’ve heard the $120-million number bandied about, which sounds high but does include balls, bags, accessories, Wilson Staff and recreational Wilson golf gear.
“I don’t see why we can’t be a $200-million player in North America. That’s a pretty reasonable target,” says Clarke. “If ownership decides they want to play, then I think it’s a whole new ballgame. I’d be looking at a half-billion-dollar global business.”
The Market Share Tango
Wilson isn’t going to be crashing the Big 5’s party any time soon – the status quo simply doesn’t change like that. And growing market share isn’t as easy as saying sell more.
This is purely an example, but say you’re a company selling 50,000 irons sets a year. A 10-percent increase would be 55,000 sets. First, that kind of jump isn’t changing your market share. Consider a market share increase from three percent to four percent may be only one percentage point but it’s actually a 33-percent increase. That ain’t happening. Second, even 10-percent jumps don’t happen without major marketing dollars.
And if you think cutting the price and making it up in volume is the answer, go back to business school and let the adults talk.
Wilson says it’s been achieving consistent year-over-year growth and is fueling that growth with the tool of the new decade: social media.
“The biggest thing I see going forward is our ability to communicate with consumers directly. It’s a much more level playing field,” he says. “Five years ago, you had to spend a ton of money with Golf Digest. Now it was just sold for a lot less than it was bought for.”
From a marketing standpoint, social media takes away the Big 5’s ability to box everyone out by spending big dollars. That gives smaller brands the opportunity to be disruptive.
“I call it digital levelization,” says Clarke. “We can post Woodland’s irons on social media and, all of a sudden, we’ve sold out of them. When those irons came out, we knew what we did for volume with the FG Tour 100 blades so we planned on selling a few more than that. We should have planned for thousands more.”
Wilson uses social media as well as anyone. Clarke admits at his age, he’s never going to be a Facebook/Twitter/Instagram whiz but adds he does enjoy interacting with customers.
“I get more joy hearing from people who just had their career round, or just broke 100 for the first time with their D7s and they want to tell me about it,” he says. “To see people who have unbelievable experiences because of something you’re doing in an iron or fairway wood or driver or golf ball, and to see the joy it brings somebody? Those are special moments.”
Strengths and Weaknesses
Clarke is remarkable at exuding confidence and positivity about his brand but don’t take that to mean it’s all Skittles and cotton candy for Wilson. Golf equipment remains a very competitive game and the status quo is a harsh mistress. Wilson’s market share in irons remains in the sub three-percent range and despite claims of yearly sales growth, it’s still a small number. And while driver sales have improved, that’s an even smaller number.
Clarke has always owned Wilson’s failures as well as its successes and is straightforward about the brand’s strengths and weaknesses. He’s very proud of the team he’s assembled and believes the company’s biggest strength right now is its collective focus.
“We have very aligned strategies,” he says. “Everybody knows what we need to win at, what we need to do well. We need to accelerate our irons business and we need to accelerate our golf ball business. That’s where our focus is. Yeah, we have Driver vs. Driver, it was our disruptive model but, in the building, it’s focusing on what’s going to drive us long term and that’s irons and golf balls.”
As for areas to improve, even in its heyday Wilson was never the top dog in drivers. Clarke says the D7 has been successful but the company enters 2020 with only the D7 and LaunchPad – both priced at $299 – as current (Cortex is on closeout). There is no new “premium” offering. Clarke says other categories need work, too.
“Why couldn’t we be more serious in the putter category?” he says. “Why couldn’t we be more serious in the wedge category? On a holistic scale, the weaknesses we need to improve on are really just staying focused on what needs to happen.”
Wilson Staff, 2020
There’s a new-decade sea change going on at Wilson. The Staff Model moniker represents Wilson’s Tour-level lineup and you can expect the three-year-old FG Tour V6 irons to be replaced with a Staff Model upgrade within the next year. The new D7 Forged is a player’s distance iron, D7 a game-improvement bomber, and LaunchPad a super-duper game-improvement line. You can also expect a Tour-level Staff Model ball to be added.
“I can’t thank our R&D team, our marketing team, our product development team and our product line manage team enough,” says Clarke. “They knew we had to step up our game to get back into the core thinking of golf and they’ve done a lot of great things.”
Market share doesn’t change easily but it’s not the only – or even most important – success metric. For a company the size of Wilson Golf, consistent year-over-year profitable growth is the goal. If new ownership decides to release the hounds and invest in fast growth, well…
“It used to be, ‘yeah, don’t worry about Wilson,'” says Clarke. “Now, with an ownership change, I think a lot of OEMs are watching and wondering what the position is going to be with golf moving forward.”
Clarke is in his 14th year as the top exec at Wilson Golf and very well may be the longest tenured chief in golf today. When he took over in 2006, Wilson Golf was very much in danger of either being shut down or sold off. It’s no stretch to say Padraig Harrington’s three majors helped save the company, but it would be another decade-plus for Wilson to bag another one.
“Harrington’s majors – I used to think we’d have those every year,” says Clarke. “I mean, I get the job and then he wins, he wins, he wins, and I’m thinking, ‘hey, this is easy. Who’s next?’”
It took another 11 years but Woodland’s win was huge for Wilson, as is Harrington being named Ryder Cup captain. “It was one of those years,” says Clarke of 2019. “When I first got this job, we couldn’t sign anyone (on Tour). It didn’t matter how much money I was waving around. Now, if we want to get somebody and we’re willing to pay the dollars, the sky’s the limit again.
“We have a lot of bright, young people on the team with energy, which helps. I’m on the back nine of my career. I want to make sure the brand is in the right spot so when I do move on, I can go through the rest of my life looking back and being proud to have been part of something so cool.
“If you look at brands and their ebbs and flows, I would say that when brands lose their soul is when they usually end up heading for trouble. I think we’re on the right track.”
So yeah, Wilson isn’t what it was in the ’70s and ’80s. But what’s also true is Wilson isn’t what it was in 2006, either. For 2020, that’s the important part.