A 54 Brands Deep Dive

A start-up with an unusual new product idea seeks entry into a sport steeped in tradition and suspicious of change. Game on.

Golf has not fundamentally changed since the Scots cooked up the game several centuries ago. Sure, equipment has evolved, but even those advances happened at a snail’s pace as the game’s more influential players, by and large, are loathe to meddle with the game’s traditions.

Along comes a spunky start-up with a clever product called Softspikes and a few ideas about gaining acceptance. Our story begins …


How It All Began

It was 1991, and we had been working with Club Car, the Augusta-based golf car maker, for a couple of years.

You know how it goes: a guy knows another guy whose company needs some help. One of our best friends at Club Car asked us to help out his friend, who was just getting started and whose company didn’t have all the resources to make things happen, wants and needs a little help and, you know, “hey, I’d appreciate it if you’d do what you could.”

Turns out this company is a relative start-up, recently acquired from an inventor-type out west. The new owner wanted to get to the PGA Merchandise Show in Orlando for the January 1992 event, but there was no space remaining on the exhibit floor. They would have to show in the basement of what was then The Peabody Hotel among a number of other small and temporary displays.

The new owner wanted to get to the PGA Merchandise Show in Orlando for the January 1992 event, but there was no space remaining on the exhibit floor.

The Peabody is now the Hyatt Regency, and it’s located directly across the street from the Orange County Convention Center. It was notable for its proximity to the action in the aisles of the PGA Merchandise Show, of course, but also for the … wait for them … here they come … the Peabody ducks.

Yep, the ducks took their march a couple of times a day, just as they continue to do at The Peabody in Memphis.


We Began by Targeting Everyone Except the Golfer

“Is there a giveaway or something we can do to encourage those who come into our booth to go across the street and check out these guys?”

So we came up with a hand-out, a card the Club Car people could give to booth visitors, which, when presented in the temporary space on the basement floor of The Peabody would earn the bearer a package of plastic spikes for golf shoes, absolutely free. “Welcome to Softspikes,” the card said.

Ten years and 10,000 courses later, metal cleats, those big 8 millimeter clackety-clackers, were history, replaced by Softspikes. And we had a story to tell.

The Benefits

Worm Cam No More

For golfers the most alluring feature about Softspikes was putting surfaces. See, golfers can repair ball marks, the indentations golf balls make when they return to earth and land on the green. But cleat marks, those testy little worm-sized holes metal spikes make as golfers twist and turn and use body english as they coax putts into the hole—the Rules of Golf don’t allow those to be repaired.

So putts generally had a bumpy ride from the club’s face to the cup. Professional events broadcast on television liked to show what we called “worm-cam” views depicting bouncing and skittering golf balls, then ending with a golfer’s wincing and the announcer’s cluck-clucking about his misfortune.

Over the course of our ten years working with the brand, more than 10,000 courses had banned metal, the fastest new product adoption in golf history.

At first it was controversial, but we recommended that we ignore golfers. Since smooth greens required 100% adoption of plastic over metal, early adopting, volunteer golfers weren’t as important to Softspikes’ success as course owners and superintendents.

Fortunately, smooth putting surfaces were just one of the benefits Softspikes presented to golf courses. Metal cleats ripped carpet in the clubhouse, marred the fenders and floor mats of golf cars and posed a danger to golfers who might lose their balance walking on wooden planks or concrete.

Convincing a Crowd

Welcome to the Golf Capital of the World, Myrtle Beach, SC

When the time came to turn our attention to golfers, we didn’t recommend and run big ads in golf publications, nor did we turn to TV. There just wasn’t the money for it, of course, but that wasn't the only—or the best—reason behind our recommendation.

We said, let’s go to the beach. Myrtle Beach, that is. The golf capital of the world. More than 100 courses catering to golf pilgrims from all over the world.

We convinced more than 50 courses in the area to “Go Soft” over the weekend, requiring their customers to change their metal to plastic. Before their rounds Softspikes missionaries armed with spike wrenches changed every player’s cleats in the parking lots, bringing smooth putting services and the thrill of FREE to every golfer.

Golf’s own Johnny Appleseed was at work. And thousands upon thousands of golfers were experiencing a revolution in the making.

Have wrench, will change the game of golf, or at least its footwear, forever.

The Conclusion

From 10 to 10,000 Courses and the PGA TOUR

Finally, the time came for the revolution to reach the next level, which moved Softspikes from an aftermarket play to the big opportunity as original equipment. Our first partner was Foot-Joy, who at the time had better than 60% of the golf shoe market.

At first, Softspikes was optional; you could order your shoes to arrive with plastic rather than metal cleats. Then Softspikes were included in the packaging as an option the golfer could change to. Finally, in less than a year’s time, Softspikes became standard equipment on all FJ golf shoes ... and it became more and more difficult to find metal.

Over the course of our ten years working with the brand, more than 10,000 courses had banned metal, the fastest new product adoption in golf history. And although to this day the PGA TOUR allows competitors to wear whatever they want, more than 70% of the players wear plastic. It’s what they grew up on; it’s what they wear at their home clubs; it’s what they’re most comfortable in.

As one would expect, the success of Softspikes’ launch strategy spawned competitors. In the later stages of the relationship, our marketing strategy broadened to include product extensions and print and broadcast consumer advertising to maintain the brand's hard-won dominance.

At its height, Softspikes was no more than a $20 million business. But volume, not even revenue was the story here. This moonshot was a revolution from clickety-clacking footsteps to smooth, healthy greens. Everywhere. When was the last time you saw metal cleats?

Faster than metal woods. Faster than plastic tees. Maybe even faster than Kevin Na would play a competitive round a couple of years ago.

Keeping the offering fresh required new products. Hmm, eight spikes, eight legs. The name for the new, more aggressive product wrote itself — Black Widow.

Early print campaigns in major golf publications reassured golfers they would sacrifice nothing in terms of performance by switching to the Softspikes plastic cleat.

A little computer-generated hyperbole never hurt anybody. And it definitely helped the brand reinforce the idea that Softspikes outperform whatever obsolete cleat was on your shoes.