After Seasons of Sputtering Cobra Hits the Gas

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Perhaps it wasnt an accident that Cobra Golf chose Daytona 500 weekend to relaunch its website.
 
Loggers-on to www.cobragolf.com encounter an animated Cobra logo, supported by throaty audio of a race car revving up. At the end of the introduction, the words COBRA IS BACK appear in large, gold letters.
 
Like an aging NASCAR driver surging forward from the middle of the pack, Cobra Golf is trying to muscle its way back into something like its old top-5 position in the premium golf equipment business. To do it, parent company Acushnet brought in Jeff Harmet, a proven golf and sports marketing expert, from Wilson. And Acushnet, whose other golf brands are Titleist, FootJoy, and Pinnacle, handed Harmet a pile of resources and left him alone.
 
In return for that trust, Harmet delivered what he hopes is a claim on an untapped lode of golf business success.
 
We are clearly not a value company, Harmet said from his Carlsbad, Calif., office. Were not competing in that low-price segment that Tour Edge is in. Our targets are on-course and golf specialty shops. Were offering Callaway quality at Cleveland prices.
 
Harmets industry shorthand translates this way: Cobra wants to make products the industry acknowledges as possessing top-grade technology, but at accessible prices of the kind Cleveland Golf has been getting for its Launcher drivers ($390) and TA5 ($600 per set with steel shafts).
 
Were going to appeal to the masses, Harmet said.
 
And Cobra is betting those masses will comprise mostly golfers with handicaps of 10 and above, players looking for upper-end gear with graphite shafts and a little game improvement built in.
 
Cobra SS 350 driverFor instance: The suggested retail price for Cobras SS350 titanium driver will be $369. Compare that to, for example, Pings TiSi Tec at $515 (graphite shaft).
 
No question, the masses like paying less for golf gear. But what about the age-old axiom of premium goods? Regardless of what youre selling, if you underprice yourself, consumers wont consider you cream of the crop. Ely Callaway and Karsten Solheim lived by that principle, and it served them well. Is Cobra making the worst-house-in-the-best-neighborhood mistake?
 
Harmet says no.
 
The brand equity we have is tremendous. Customers are saying, This is exactly what you did in the mid-1990s; this is what you should have been doing all along.
 
It was in 1997 that Cobra took a turn, some would say in the wrong direction. American Brands was jettisoning its worldwide tobacco interests and looking for healthier businesses. Cobra looked like a good fit with Americans Acushnet Co. The conglomerate wanted to ride the golf wave that rose with Callaway and the Big Bertha in 1991, and was expected to swell with the advent of Tiger Woods.

The prospect was worth more than $700 million to American, more than twice Cobras annual sales. When the deal closed in early 1997, the rest of the golf industry stood agape at the amount of money one brand in a changing cottage industry could command.
 
Once American took Cobra private, Acushnet no longer broke out Cobras annual sales as a line item on financial reports. But it didnt take an income statement to see that sales fell throughout the late 1990s as the entire industry slogged through a 1998 slump from which Callaway, TaylorMade, and Ping emerged as the strongest players.
 
Titleists own club line, positioned for better players, also did well, perhaps taking some aspirational potential customers from Cobra. Until the Harmet hiring, Cobras mission wasnt entirely clear; a succession of managers and product designers took care of the brand while Acushnet chief Wally Uihlein and his lieutenants strategized.
 
By the beginning of this century, Cobra sales had slumped to around $75 million per year, industry sources have said. Acushnet critics wondered how long American, now renamed Fortune Brands, would wait for return on its investment.
 
Hiring Harmet was seen as a step in the right direction. At Wilson, Harmet worked with company chief Jim Baugh and oversaw Wilsons return to prominence in tennis. Prince had beaten back Wilson to just 17 percent of the racquet market Wilson had once dominated. But the Hammer family of racquets got Wilson back to 45 percent. Harmet also got credit for Wilsons success with Fat Shaft clubs, which became a bright spot for the beleaguered brand in the late 1990s.
 
A bright spot for the new Cobra is retailer acceptance, which seems high even before the April 1 nationwide shipping target. (Some Cobra products are already available in the Sunbelt states.)
 
Were happy to see [the brand coming back], said Randy Morton, general manager of Pro Shop World of Golf in Skokie, Ill. Cobra was a solid brand for many years until Titleist bought it. Then it was kind of like an ugly stepchild. But now theyre behind it and promoting it.
 
We think itll be a real good seller, said Edwin Watts, whose eponymous off-course stores cover much of the southeast. The products are good and the prices are good.
 
But will those seasons as a faltering brand be a hurdle with consumers?
 
Brands in golf that have been around for years, like this one, with its connection to Titleist Watts said, well, its really hard to destroy a brand.
 
Cobra hasnt turned around yet, but Harmet is all smiles and enthusiasm so far.
 
The beauty of this industry is word of mouth, Harmet said. You dont need a billion dollars in advertising. You just need a good product ' and to break through all the clutter.
 
Or race through it.