Branding Your Club – The First Step is Definition

I grew up at and belonged to a “middle market” club that no longer exists.  I remember often appealing to the club leadership that the club “needed to decide what it wanted to be when it grew up.”  Unfortunately, they declined to look ahead and (like so many other clubs in recent times), failed.  The club is currently being developed as a mixed-use commercial/residential complex.  They never developed and cultivated a brand.

Just this morning, I read an interesting series of articles in the National Club Association/McMahon Group publication “Club Trends” on the issue of club branding.  There are articles on the power of brands, the value of brands, building brands, managing brands and even a listing from a small polling of private club leaders of the “most iconic” club brands.  The first five (5) on that list were:

  • Augusta National GC
  • Congressional CC
  • Pebble Beach GL
  • The Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews
  • Pine Valley GC

For a variety of reasons, these are clubs that would be expected to be included. Given the desire of most club leaders (especially during their tenure in office) to have their clubs included on such lists, I’m sure there are many disappointed board members this month.

Even at my old club, where there was considerable emphasis on reducing costs and expanding (unsuccessfully) membership, many in the club took issue with anyone that didn’t agree that our golf course, food and other elements weren’t “the best in the area”, despite their considerable efforts to reduce the club solely on the basis of cost.  This was all while declining opportunities to reinvest in the club – and its (former) brand.  They tried to be all things to all people and declined to define their brand and establish a mission statement and commit to it.  Every club, in every market segment needs to find the right balance of quality and cost for that club.

In the golf and club world, particularly with respect to golf courses, the term iconic has often been used to describe courses and clubs that have held major championships, been designed by signature architects or have a significant place in golf history.  The ranking mentioned earlier is the first I’ve seen of iconic club brands.   Of particular relevance here is what constitutes a club as having an iconic brand and does the application of such status translate into additional monetary value to the club?

What are the elements that might enhance a club’s brand?

Though I know of no other ranking that lists clubs in order of their level of iconic importance, there are several lists of golf course rankings.  These lists, provided by such publications as Golfweek, Golf Digest and Golf Magazine focus exclusively on the intrinsic quality of the golf course itself with (presumably) no consideration paid to the club’s economics, location, or history (with the exception of Golf Digest, which has a “tradition” category).  Many often interpret these rankings as being intertwined with the concept of “top clubs” which may or may not have anything to do with the actual golf course and may relate to the prestige of the membership, history of the club or even the exclusive nature or cost of membership.

While the “Club Trends” publication is seem largely by the largest and often most financially stable clubs that make up the majority of members in the National Club Association, it is the middle market and semi-private/daily-fee clubs that often need branding the most.

In one of the articles, Jim Fisher, PhD uses the American Marketing Association definition of brand as “a name, term, design, symbol or any other feature that identifies one seller’s good or service as distinct from those of other sellers”.   Simply put, a brand has:

  1. Identity
  2. Meaning
  3. Value

While nobody would dispute that positive recognition of a club’s golf course or clubhouse facility might help that club’s economics, there are numerous examples of clubs with excellent and desirable golf courses and beautiful clubhouses that fail economically and carry limited market value.  Golf properties, like other income producing properties are bought and sold based on their economic potential.  Accordingly, primary consideration for valuation is often given to the club’s market dynamics, operational characteristics and other investment fundamentals like location. If I had $20 for every time someone (seeking to embellish a golf property’s value) started a conversation by saying “it’s a great golf course”, I’d be a rich man.  Clubs need a brand to enhance their performance and thus value, even at the “lower” end of the market.  They need to distinguish themselves.

No doubt, the desirability of the golf course contributes to its economics, however surveys of golfers consistently indicate that course conditions, proximity to home and cost are the major determinants of where players will choose to play golf.  Many more casual golfers even prefer a less challenging course to avoid feeling like they get “beat up” every time they play.  Many of these (well located, well run and with great personal service) courses of the more “plain vanilla” variety are often the ones that achieve the best financial performance, while other more elaborate facilities might struggle.  Just like all politics are local, so are market dynamics in golf.

One particularly successful facility I recently had the pleasure of experiencing in the Winter Park Golf Course, near Orlando, Florida.  The “Winter Park 9”, as it’s known locally is a triumph in the concept of “golf for everyone”.  It’s short, pretty, an easy walk and costs only $16 -$19 for non-residents.  In a word, it’s FUN!  In many of our most storied private clubs, often known as much for their intense rules as their great golf courses, the fun factor has been lost.  Many members would never go on record but among themselves it’s a hot topic.

To clubs and daily-fee courses that are investor or community owned, branding is even more important than to the upper crust.  Their future depends on their financial viability, which is dependent on market acceptance.  Even at those most prestigious of clubs, where the board can simply assess for operational shortfalls or capital improvements, keeping members happy is critical to long-term success.

The bottom line is that simply being considered iconic may or may not foretell success.  Those clubs may not be among those considered the most likely for having FUN.  A few years back Golf Digest published an article entitled “Best Damn Clubs” which profiled clubs characterized as follows: places perhaps lesser known, but whose special atmosphere is tangible—almost hits you in the face the moment you drive in. Though members of the typical country club might share geographic proximity, similar financial health, a penchant for golf and maybe tennis or swimming, members of Best Damn Clubs share much more. The French call it esprit de corps, or the strong pride, fellowship and loyalty of a like-minded group. There would be limited or no value to iconic status here, but the desirability of these clubs is likely to have an impact on financial performance.  The same holds true for daily-fee golf courses.  Recently, I visited an affordable, daily-fee course in Pennsylvania that provided a great experience.  The course was interesting, playable, in good condition and had excellent food and beverage.  Our foursome, all private club members agreed that we’d be happy to head back and play there.  Not having been well-known to us previously, it was an obvious branding/marketing issue that needed to be resolved.

To define a club’s brand takes a systematic approach.

  1. Determine goals – What do you want to be when you grow up?
  2. Establish a mission statement – Clarify the goals so there’s always a place to go review those goals
  3. Get input from stakeholders – (members, customers, etc.)
  4. Develop a plan – Get help!  It may be the best investment one can make.
  5. Implement the strategy

Whether private or daily-fee, member-owned or investor-owned, branding successfully is what generates customers for the business of operating the club.  For sure, it is a myth that a club that simply has a golf course with “pedigree” automatically has a higher market value than another that might boast better economic performance.