It is 6 degrees, cloudy, and there’s a fine mist in the air and a bitter headwind that makes it feel a touch cooler. But the local range – the kind of place that offers you yellow striped balls and 20-year-old Titleist professionals – is packed with all sorts of golfers. Guys in shorts despite the temperature. Women dressed like it is July instead of March. Everyone is gleefully pounding balls, at a time when in most years they’d be tucked away in their houses.
That’s because in Canada, golf is booming. From sea to shining sea, fairways are packed. It is the game of the pandemic, somehow prospering through lockdowns and provincial bubbles. All of a sudden, while the world was in crisis in the middle of 2020, two decades of flat growth or declining participation were erased in a few months.
And Golf Canada wants it to stay that way. Vanessa Morbi knows that, which is why she’s spent the past few months pondering a campaign to try to get golf’s burgeoning new fan base to stick with the game, even after we’ve tossed away our masks. Morbi is Golf Canada’s chief marketing officer, and part of the team that created the organization’s new buzzy “Golf is Calling” campaign. Though it only went public during the third week of March, it coincided with an early start to the golf season in many parts of the country. Golf is in the newspapers, on the nightly news, on social media – it is everywhere.
The timing couldn’t have been better – and the campaign even trended on Twitter, something that’s more likely to happen for some TikTok star than for the discussion about how we keep people involved with golf.
“This is a hot topic that’s been on everyone’s mind,” said Morbi from her home. “For a while, everyone in the business was operating off their back foot. That’s changed.”
Starting last year, Golf Canada and a group of industry partners began considering how they’d support the industry given the surge in interest that saw golfers flood fairways across Canada as soon as COVID-19 restrictions were eased. Research was key, Morbi says; in a business where anecdotal information is often used in favor of consumer analytics, the goal was to have an understanding of the real stats.
What Golf Canada found was intriguing. Consumer research showed a lot of growth in the game came from the 18- to 34-year-old group, and 65 percent of that was female. On top of it, the group was more diverse than anyone expected, Morbi added, and these new players liked to compete more than was anticipated, even if that meant playing for a beer after the round.
“We wanted to know what golf meant to each of these groups,” Morbi explained. “We wanted to come out of this with a strategic and thoughtful approach. This isn’t my opinion – it is based on our research.”
The result is a modern and splashy promotional approach to player retention that will roll out in the coming months. It was launched with a flashy ad and video featuring young and attractive hipsters who make golf look appealing. “Clear, novel and fresh,” is how Morbi puts it and she’s right. The promotion, at least the initial stage, has the vibrancy that golf needs. There are no 55-year-old white males who idolize Al Czervik, Rodney Dangerfield’s Caddyshack character, anywhere to be seen. Golf, for the first time in recent memory, appears pretty damned cool.
Golf Canada needs it to be. After canceling its two national professional championships last year, and the RBC Canadian Open again this year, the organization has taken a big hit in the wallet, as well as in its visibility. Lacking those prominent promotional vehicles, it has gone more grassroots, and looks better for it.
What does this cost? Morbi isn’t saying, but Golf Canada says it is “a meaningful and important investment,” for the organization. There’s no dollar figure they are attaching to it. Given the media exposure – numerous Canadian newspapers have written about the campaign, and there was the early explosion on social media – maybe the price isn’t the primary concern.
Judging the success of the campaign this early probably isn’t reasonable. In a time when a news story gains attention and trends, only to disappear in hours, the “Golf is Calling” campaign splash seems like a long time ago, when it was only launched in late March. It is so nascent that Morbi hadn’t even received early metrics. But the initial feedback was strong, and she ended her interview by saying she was taking a call with the R&A in Scotland, and had received other positive comments from other organizations in golf.
Truthfully, the success of the innovative campaign might not be obvious this year. The reality of it likely will be witnessed when vaccines are given and some degree of normality returns. Will new golfing Canadians forsake the game and head to movie theatres, gyms and family vacations when the pandemic recedes? Will golf be calling them when other distractions are available?
It doesn’t need all of them to remain in the game, but if even a small but significant portion stay, then Golf Canada’s campaign will be considered a success.