What do golf and ERP have in common? Pro golfer Ernie Els, also known as "The Big Easy," sports the SAP logo in competition around the world. In this Q&A, he discusses unusual questions from fans--and whether he might inspire a new SAP marketing slogan.
By Thomas Wailgum
Professional golfers and big corporate sponsors go together like plaid pants and oversized drivers. That is to say quite well: Watch any weekend telecast of a PGA Tour event and you will see Fortune 500 logos splashed upon the hats, shirts and golf bags of the pros walking the fairways and putting on the finely manicured greens.
Since 2003, ERP juggernaut SAP has sponsored Ernie Els—the 40-year-old South African golfer known on Tour as “The Big Easy” due to his 6-foot, 3-inch frame and fluid swing. He’s won a lot: More than 60 professional tournaments around the globe, including three majors: a pair of U.S. Opens and one British Open. (Notes SAP: “His haul of trophies is second only to Tiger Woods.”)
SAP’s golfing “ambassador” (what SAP calls those sports stars it sponsors) has also teamed up with SAP cofounder Hasso Plattner for charity work in Els’s birth country of South Africa. To Els, the sponsorship has become a supportive relationship that offers a two-way branding street.
“As long as I perform, and the better I can perform,” he says, “then the more people can see the brand on my cap, golf bag and clothing. And SAP gets mileage out of it.”
CIO.com Senior Editor Thomas Wailgum caught up with Els last week and talked with him about SAP’s brand recognition on Tour, his ambassador duties and own form of “integration,” and whether he’s ever actually used SAP software.
CIO.com: So, I’m guessing you probably don’t get a ton of media interview requests to talk about SAP products?
Ernie Els: Well, not too much. I used to get quite a few spectators asking me about the name. Some people will call it “Sap.” And I say, “No, no, no. You can’t call it Sap.” It’s like a swear word or something. And then I’ve got to explain to them, it’s called Systems Application and Products. And they’re like, “Where’s the company from?” And I’ll say: “It’s from Germany,” and so forth. A lot of people have asked me: “Does SAP stand for South African Police?”
CIO.com: Why do you think SAP chose to work with you as a sponsor?
Els: They want to be a leader in their field, and so do I. It’s all about TV audiences, and with the emergence of Tiger in early 2000s, there was a huge influx of new people watching golf. I’m a global golfer, and they’re a global company. And I play at quite a high level of golf, and at that time I was in the top five or something. So, globally they can get their brand out there and people can recognize it.
When I go to Singapore, for instance, we do a day of golf clinics and events for prospective clients, and they bring big groups to all major championships. And we have dinners and so forth, and I try to integrate with the clients and the prospective clients. For my own branding, it’s great: People look at me and they see SAP on my head, and they say: Well, he must have done something right if they sponsor him. It works both ways.
CIO.com: Do you ever make appearances at the big SAP shows? I was hoping to catch you at the SAP Sapphire conference this year in Orlando, but I didn’t see you there.
Els: I was actually at Sapphire this year, but I didn’t make it up to the convention center. I was stuck out at a golf course. SAP had a group out there the day I was there. Myself playing golf with some of the Sapphire people in Orlando. We actually had other SAP ambassadors out there: Gary Player, [golf instructor] David Leadbetter and [pro golfer] Paula Creamer were there. All four of us. The only other one that was missing was Andy Roddick, but he’s not a golfer.
CIO.com: I see. So they like to keep you far away from the riff raff like me, I suppose?
Els: [laughs] No, no, no!
CIO.com: Other pro golfers have sponsors that sell products that the golfers can actually use—Gatorade or, say, a brand of watch. So, have you ever used SAP software?
Els: [laughs] Well, SAP runs in our golf-course design company.
CIO.com: OK. Are sponsors a big topic of discussion among pro golfers—how they got theirs or what they have to do for the sponsors?
Els: Myself and Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods, we’re not going to talk about our sponsors. We see each other’s deals, but you don’t take a lot of notice. It’s quite competitive. We do have one thing in common: We take it very seriously, and you need to be acting in a professional way at all times. It basically reflects back onto yourself and the sponsor that you are endorsing.
Nothing lasts forever, and when [a sponsorship deal] comes to an end, you hopefully will be able to go to another sponsor with a good reputation. The only way you can do that is if you behave yourself and do the right thing with the existing sponsor, and hopefully you will have a good relationship that lasts a long time. Because then people can put the sponsor, the player and the branding together, and wherever a guy goes—even if he doesn’t have the branding on—people will recognize the sponsor and the player. When I go to Wimbledon, for instance, people recognize me, and they say: “You look different without that SAP hat.” That gets ingrained in people’s heads after a period of time.
CIO.com: Is it possible for a pro golfer to get by without a sponsor today?
Els: Well, anything is possible. But it gives you a little bit of, let’s call it, “rope” if you have something. It is huge in a financial sense and a reputational sense. Because if you are a really good golfer and you don’t have a sponsorship—either the economy is really in the tank or you might not be the easiest guy to get along with.
CIO.com: So I had a new marketing idea for you and SAP. Here’s my pitch: SAP has historically been known for great software. But it’s also known for necessitating big project rollouts that can be complex and sometimes expensive to do. However, SAP is actually getting better at this of late. So I think they should capitalize on your nickname and come up with a new tagline that uses your photo. Here it is: “SAP: The Big Made Easy.” Thoughts?
Els: [laughs] Sure, we’ll throw that one around a little bit.
CIO.com: But you’ve got one of the greatest nicknames on Tour, maybe ever, and SAP hasn’t taken advantage of that.
Els: Well, you know, I’m not going to go there. [laughs] OK, I think it sounds good.
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