It has been a little more than five years since Arnold Palmer died, at the age of 87, and some three decades since his last professional victory (in the 1988 Crestar Classic on the PGA Tour Champions). But his legacy endures.
This week’s staging of the Arnold Palmer Invitational at his Bay Hill resort in Orlando, Florida, is an example of that, especially considering the quality of competitors in this reduced-field event, which was first played in 1979. In addition to being an important stop on the PGA Tour’s Florida swing, and a key tune-up for both the Players Championship and the Masters, it celebrates one of the greatest and most beloved golfers of all time.
The tournament is also a good occasion to reflect on the lasting strength of the Palmer brand, and Arnold Palmer Enterprises.
Rolex continues to feature Palmer in its advertising, and his association with the luxury watchmaker goes back to 1967. For the past 20 years, his image as well as his signature has also graced the cans of the wildly popular Half & Half drink made by the AriZona Beverage Company. Then there is Palmer’s presence in Asia, where APE has been licensing products on the golfer’s behalf since the 1970s.
“The Asia business has without a doubt been the biggest contributor to APE in the aggregate,” said Alastair Johnston, Palmer’s longtime business manager and a top executive at IMG for many years. “Currently, we have 49 licensees for different products in that part of the world.”
Asia is where Palmer began his association with Rolex.
“Arnold started going to Japan in the 1960s, largely to play in golf exhibitions,” Johnston said. “During one of those trips, the person who ran Rolex in Japan, an Englishman, gave him a timepiece from that company. At that point, Rolex was not involved in sports and using people such as Winston Churchill as ambassadors. But the company’s man in Japan appreciated how much Americans and American culture intrigued the Japanese. They were especially fascinated by the Old West, cowboys and John Wayne. And the man from Rolex believed that Arnold, with his tan, broad shoulders and slow smile, exemplified many of those same attributes. So he cut a Japan-only deal with Arnold. It went so well that headquarters in Geneva made him their flagship ambassador on a global basis.”
From there, Palmer’s business in Japan steadily grew.
“The Japanese continued to be very interested in the West, and many of the things companies made and sold in that country were based on trends and styles coming from the West,” Johnston said. “So we put together a licensing base of apparel, using Arnold as the model.”
Over time, that business expanded outside of Japan to other countries in Asia, which had a tendency in those days to follow Japan when it came to fashion trends.
“We also developed lines of apparel for women and children,” Johnston said.
“And when we did that, we also began featuring another IMG client, Laura Baugh, in the advertisements. She was a very attractive golfer with blond hair and someone the Japanese perceived as the stereotypical American wife.”
“People came to regard the Palmer brand as much as a lifestyle brand as one for golfers. And by branching out to products for women and children, we also made it a family brand and began introducing it to people at a very young age, which meant they would be familiar with it – and hopefully loyal to it – for a very long time.” – Alastair Johnston
Johnston saw great benefits in that evolution.
“People came to regard the Palmer brand as much as a lifestyle brand as one for golfers,” he said. “And by branching out to products for women and children, we also made it a family brand and began introducing it to people at a very young age, which meant they would be familiar with it – and hopefully loyal to it – for a very long time.”
At the start of his licensing endeavors in Japan, which came to include products beyond apparel, Palmer often traveled to that land for photo shoots and to film television commercials. But they eventually came to organize those sessions in the Los Angeles area or Palm Springs instead, including the ones he did with Baugh.
“That change largely came about because Arnold could not fly his jet to Japan,” Johnston said. “And he always preferred to do his own flying.”
A couple of decades later, the decision to broaden the appeal and scope of the Arnold Palmer licensing arrangements in Asia was validated as Johnston and Palmer checked into a Hong Kong hotel.
“The desk clerk asked Arnold for his name, and when Arnold obliged, the clerk asked if he had brought any shirts with him,” Johnston said. “Arnold was not sure for a moment what the man meant. Then he realized that the clerk knew him not as a celebrity or golfer but as someone who designed and promoted clothing.”
It was around that time Johnston started taking Palmer out of the advertisements for licensed products and clothing in Asia and building the Arnold Palmer brand in that region more around the red, yellow, white and green umbrella that had come to be his logo.
“That was another key to his longevity, especially in Asia,” Johnston said. “He did not have to be in the ads anymore, and it did not matter that Palmer was getting older and no longer competing as a golfer. I am not sure Arnold really liked that, as he had an ego like anyone else in his position would. But we were trying to build something that would last beyond his natural life. As an analogy, I would use Walt Disney and how the Disney brand became much more than being just about him.”
Back in the States, the relationship APE formed with AriZona Beverages and its Half & Half drinks back in 2001 is thriving, with Johnston estimating that the company is selling some 400 million cans of those concoctions annually in the United States and Mexico. He also figures that the majority of the people drinking it do not know who Arnold Palmer was – or even that he was a golfer, let alone one of the best ever.
A native of Glasgow, Scotland, Johnston went to work at IMG full-time in 1972 and soon after began his association with Palmer.
“It really is amazing how well and how long his name and his brand have endured,” Johnston said. “Just the other day, I approved some new print ads for Rolex featuring Arnold and realized after doing so that that relationship now goes back 55 years.”
Long live the King.
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