An enduring legacy: Arnold Palmer lives on through his trademark umbrella
Licensing of name and umbrella logo is enjoying a resurgence
March 05, 2019
By Cameron Morfit, PGATOUR.COM
Arnold Palmer used to say that he was born at 5:30 a.m., and that’s when he started most days thereafter. Those long hours, plus his natural curiosity, outsized charisma and 62 PGA TOUR wins, many featuring his signature charges up the leaderboard, added up to a new gold standard for sports marketing that endures some 2 1/2 years after his death at 87.
Palmer the brand remains as vibrant as ever and, in some categories, even more so.
“I would go as far as to say it’s been a resurgence,” says Cori Britt, Vice President of Arnold Palmer Enterprises. “It really is. It’s a fun time right now.”
Anyone who knows anything about golf, sports or even the 20th century knows that Arnold Daniel Palmer was big. He put golf on the map as America and the world fell for his swagger, style and iconic swing. He hobnobbed with Hope. Palled around with presidents. The TV cameras loved him. He couldn’t even be limited to one home town, splitting time between Latrobe, Pennsylvania and Orlando, Florida. And from a branding and sports marketing perspective? Beyond big.
Arizona iced tea still produces more than 400 million cans of Arnold Palmer Tea and Lemonade beverage each year, in eight flavors including Spiked. Palmer’s four-panel umbrella logo (red, yellow, white, green) remains an international licensing presence and a veritable juggernaut throughout Asia, where his clothing transcends golf and is a lifestyle brand. (Of 9,000 point-of-sale locations worldwide, 400 are freestanding Arnold Palmer store fronts in Asia.)
Mastercard and Rolex continue as corporate partners, and there are 300 Palmer-designed golf courses in 25 countries. The Golf Channel, which he helped found in 1995, is healthy, as is the Arnold Palmer Cup, a Ryder Cup-style event between U.S. and International men and women collegiate players. All of the above have been around a while, and stood the test of time.
As with any thriving brand, though, Palmer’s is a blend of old and new.
Jon Podany began his career at Proctor & Gamble before moving on to the PGA TOUR and LPGA and assuming the role of Arnold Palmer Enterprises CEO last fall. He says that with Palmer’s death in September of 2016, it was natural to put the business of the brand on the back burner.
“I think with the renewed focus on the U.S. business, the brand is as strong as ever,” Podany says. “One of the things that we will be doing from a business and a foundation standpoint is aggressively continuing to tell the Arnold Palmer story and build the legacy.”
This year’s Arnold Palmer Invitational presented by Mastercard will feature a new activation called the Arnold Palmer Experience, where fans will learn about the American icon even as they compare their swing to his and try their luck on some of the most pivotal shots of Palmer’s career. (Good luck driving the first green at Cherry Hills, as Palmer did at the 1960 U.S. Open.) There will be a 360-degree theater, and a place for fans to share on social media channels.
But that’s just the tip of the umbrella. If recent activity is any indication, the Palmer brand is like that old Wilford Brimley movie, "Cocoon" -- not only undying but forever young.
Druh belts, out of Europe, and Orlando-based Corkcicle, maker of coolers, water bottles and tumblers, recently began selling Palmer-branded merchandise. Oregon-based Seamus Golf, which makes high-end ball marks, divot-repair tools and bottle openers, also recently became a formal licensee of Arnold Palmer Enterprises. PRG, whose customized golf accessories run the gamut from bags to ball-marks, is also new, as is Smathers & Branson, which makes high-end needlepoint belts and accessories.
Britt and the rest of the small APE staff at Bay Hill Club & Lodge have been busy.
“A lot of interest from companies that I don't think would have looked at us five years ago,” he says. Asked why he thinks that is, he’s careful to give credit where credit is due.
“I don't know,” he says, “and I'd like to think that it's because we did a good job managing the brand, but he's the one who managed the brand. He did it just by being Arnold Palmer.”
Arnold Palmer TV commercial reel
Palmer’s office has been left untouched since his death, full of model airplanes, golf clubs, framed photos, awards, and his army-green cardigan draped over his desk chair. Among the memorabilia: one of Rickie Fowler’s Palmer-themed, high-top Puma golf shoes and two signed hats.
“To the original King,” Fowler wrote on one. “Honored to call you my friend!!” Reads the other: “We miss you!! Much love!!”
The display is a reminder of Palmer’s appeal across all age groups, for few brands in golf have more youthful appeal than Fowler’s clothing partner, Puma.
“It’s been cool to see the interest from Puma in giving up branding to kind of partner with the Arnold Palmer Foundation and put the umbrella on there,” he says. “Obviously, I never want anything to look like it’s forced; I was lucky enough to be able to call Arnold a friend, and this has been fun.
“I want to be more and more like him,” Fowler adds. “He kind of set the bar for what I want to do. It’s not just in the game of golf, but leaving a legacy of changing people’s lives for the better.”
Five-time TOUR winner Fowler will again wear umbrella-branded, Palmer-themed clothing at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, and Palmer-branded shoes and hats will be available on-site. (Act fast as they may sell out.) Moving product is not Fowler’s goal; he simply wants to pay tribute to the King. Still, from a branding and marketing perspective, he and Palmer are a potent twosome.
“To say he was larger than life would be an understatement,” Greg Norman, the 20-time TOUR winner and former world No. 1, says of Palmer, with whom he played countless practice rounds and card games.
Norman was looking for a place to live in America in the early 1980s when he chose Bay Hill. In doing so, he got to observe Palmer up close, from the way he flew his own plane to the way he took on risk on the golf course to the way it all resonated with the public.
Palmer was a living brand, and he moved the needle.
“He could put on a s----y looking cardigan, roll up the sleeves, and make it look cool and sexy,” says Norman, the Chairman and CEO of the Greg Norman Company, whose far-reaching global businesses are well-known in sportswear, course design, food-and-wine and other sectors. “The way he lived life was full-tilt, and he brought an understanding of the corporate value of golf. He was front-and-center with that, and it was something I took notice of.”
Rory McIlroy, the defending champion at the API, recently announced a deal with Golf Channel to bundle golf-related content from playing to learning to travel and beyond into one standalone subscription product called GOLFPASS.
And whom did McIlroy reference in the announcement?
“Arnold Palmer showed tremendous vision when founding GOLF Channel in 1995 and it now stands as a significant part of his legacy,” McIlroy said. “I have the utmost respect for the impact he made on the game and I will carry that spirit forward by helping to lead our sport into its digital future with GOLFPASS.”
Indeed, it’s hard to find anything in golf that can’t be traced back to Palmer.
Arnold Palmer Enterprises, Inc., was established in 1961, and later, at a meeting in Ligonier, Pennsylvania, Palmer and partners brainstormed possible logos. Mark McCormack of IMG called his prize client “an immortal in alligator shoes,” but even an immortal needed some sort of identifiable imagery. Palmer needed a symbol, a signifier that could stand the test of time.
They looked at laurel leaves and crossed golf clubs and other ideas that weren’t quite right until Palmer, frustrated, got up to stretch his legs. He walked into the rain and saw a lovely woman get out of her car and pop open a multi-colored umbrella. Somehow, it worked.
Did it have any obvious connection to Palmer? No. Did Palmer protect people from the rain, even metaphorically? Again, no. Palmer almost never laid up, and had, in the words of the APE promotional materials, “a rebel’s heart over the ball.” He was James Dean in spikes. He would champion children’s causes. The umbrella signified none of these things. But it worked.
The logo was along for the ride as he captured the fifth most career victories on TOUR; captured seven majors; set a round-the-world aviation speed record in 1976; won the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2004; was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in 2009; was the star of every tournament telecast as he led a U.S. golf boom; and popularized The Open Championship in America.
The logo and the business of Arnold Palmer worked because of what he accomplished, yes, but also who he was.
Podany and Charlie Mechem, a longtime friend who worked for APE after his career as commissioner of the LPGA, tell a story about losing track of Palmer’s whereabouts during dinner at a club in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. They later learned he was merely making the rounds and shaking hands with everyone in the place because people were his oxygen.
Larry Guest, in his 1993 book, "Arnie: Inside the Legend," related a yarn about Palmer on a boys’ trip in New Zealand when his hotel was evacuated amid the piercing wail of a fire alarm at 4 a.m. Dragged from his room by a friend, Palmer threw a sheet around him and went into the street, where several Japanese businessmen, also staying at the hotel, recognized him. Palmer posed for photographs and signed every last autograph.
The public has always wanted to reach out and touch its heroes, but rarely has the opposite been so true. How many public figures have loved the people back more than Palmer?
His aggressive playing style, of course, also drew people to him. At Palmer’s memorial service, Mecham told a story about the time he asked the King if he ever considered laying up on 13 and 15 at Augusta National. Palmer considered it, then asked Mecham if he knew how many times he had finished second at the Masters. Mecham admitted he did not.
“Neither do I,” Palmer said.
If you liked Palmer and you want to radiate some of what he was about, you can go around telling these stories. Or, you can just wear the umbrella, because the Palmer brand, like all successful brands, exists as a sort of shorthand. The brand says it all, so you don’t have to.
Scott Rosner, Academic Director of the Sports Management Program at Columbia University, says Palmer resonates now for the same reasons he did when he was alive. The working-class roots, the go-for-broke style, the love of people—it was all undeniably real.
“One of the buzz words of the last five years or so is authentic,” Rosner says, “and there’s clearly an everlasting authenticity about the man, which is huge now, when authenticity is hard to come by. Was there ever a golfer more authentic than Arnold Palmer? Was there an athlete more authentic?”
Adds Fowler: “People recognize it when it’s genuine. Arnold never looked like he was doing a publicity stunt or anything like that; it was him. Everything he did, he did it because it was what he wanted to do, and people responded to it.”
Fowler and his ilk are too young to have seen the commercials, but for Rosner, Palmer on his tractor in those old Pennzoil commercials remains burned into the synapses.
“He hasn’t been relevant as a golfer for years, but he never really lost much as he went from his prime to father to grandfather,” Rosner says. “He aged gracefully before our eyes. Usually even the most popular athletes—with maybe the exception of Michael Jordan, which is more apparel driven than anything else—they kind of fade to the corners of our mind. They’re not something that you can continue to monetize from a brand perspective.”
Palmer is the exception to the rule.
“It's an interesting one,” says Graeme McDowell, one of today’s TOUR players who admired Palmer the man while also marveling at the brand. “Do you create the brand and then try and golf your way into it, or do you golf your way into it and then create the brand?”
Palmer seemed to do both, until, as McCormack said, the golf almost didn’t matter.
McDowell is part-owner of Nona Blue, a bustling restaurant with locations in Orlando and Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida, but says he leaves the decisions to others. He had his own clothing line, but like countless others he found the apparel business onerously difficult and got out.
Palmer, too, had business setbacks, and McDowell considers it one of his biggest regrets that he never made it a point to sit down and talk about it all.
“He was 20 minutes across Orlando over at Bay Hill,” McDowell says, “and I never, ever took the opportunity to go over and sit down with him properly, and that's a regret.”
But they were still connected. McDowell is one of 11 Mastercard Golf Ambassadors on the PGA TOUR, PGA TOUR Champions and LPGA. Three of them, including McDowell, were honorary hosts of the 2017 edition of Palmer’s tournament at Bay Hill, the first one without the man himself.
Arnold Palmer Japanese TV commercial
Palmer was big on the hand-written note, an old-fashioned nicety in today’s go-go world. But that human touch was also timeless, as relevant and needed today as ever. His ability to connect with that firm handshake, smile, legible autograph, twinkle in the eye—these things will never go out of style. The Winnie Palmer Hospital for Women & Babies will usher in new generations of golfers and others while the Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children takes care of the existing ones.
His legend is partly why members still join Bay Hill Club & Lodge and Latrobe Country Club, both of which are branded with the Palmer umbrella. Both also serve as destinations for corporate meetings and retreats. Special guests, invited to sit at the desk in Palmer’s office at Bay Hill—still with the trophies, photos, golf clubs, model airplanes his army-green cardigan draped over the chair—often blink back tears as they sign the guest book.
“It’s a meaningful moment,” says Don Emery, President and General Manager of Bay Hill.
Emery used to be the GM at Riviera Country Club in Los Angeles, host of the TOUR’s Genesis Open, and he reported to Megan Watanabe, the daughter of the owner. He knows what Palmer means in Japan, where Palmer-logoed clothing flies off the racks for husbands, wives and kids.
Emery also knows what Palmer means in America, the values that were inherent in the man and his wife, Winnie, and their impact on communities in both Orlando and Latrobe.
“When we get new members, we talk to them about that,” Emery says. “We talk to them about how the club can be a community for them, how we hope that they leave the world a little bit better than they found it and have an impact on it. We think that's real important. The staff down here lives and breathes that. A lot of them were here for a number of years or have been here for a number of years and saw Mr. and Mrs. Palmer in action and not just words.”
Theoretically, the Palmer brand could thrive even as memories of the man fade, a scenario reminiscent of tennis player Henri Lacoste (Izod) or the late baseball pitcher A.G. Spalding. At Arnold Palmer Enterprises, they are intent on avoiding that outcome.
The first Arnold Palmer Experience, located next to the 10th hole at Bay Hill, could become a sort of movable museum to preserve and promote the Palmer legacy of sportsmanship and giving. The theater is expected to remain open to Bay Hill members and Lodge guests for a few weeks after the tournament, and then travel to Latrobe this summer in anticipation of what would have been Palmer’s 90th birthday in September. It may also travel elsewhere.
“I think we're all trying to get our head around what is the right path forward,” says daughter Amy Saunders, who oversees her father’s legacy from the Arnold Palmer Enterprises offices at Bay Hill, and whose son, Sam, plays on TOUR. “My dad was always open‑minded to ‑‑ he didn't love change, but he loved the evolution of a business, and with that does come change.
“But,” she continues, “I would say it's thoughtful change, and that's what I hope to protect, because Dad was innovative in his own way and in his own thinking, and I'd like to just make sure that it doesn't ever deviate from the things that were important to he and my mom.”
So far, so good. Long live the umbrella; long live Arnold Palmer.