In 1968, Philip Morris, the cigarette giant, introduced its Virginia Slims brand, aimed at young professional women. The company ran television spots and print ads in women's magazines with slogans such as "You've Come a Long Way, Baby" and "It's a Woman Thing."
In 1971, the brand began sponsoring the Women's Tennis Association to gain more access to the female market. It was the sole tour sponsor until 1989 and a ubiquitous presence in women's tennis, and was widely seen as the savior of the WTA during the 1970s and 80s. In 1994, the WTA parted ways with the cigarette company, due partly to a changed marketing strategy and ever-increasing scrutiny of the tobacco industry. But the relationship worked for both parties. Virginia Slims grew its market share of women smokers, and tennis had a patron that celebrated the accomplishments of women.
I've been thinking about this partnership in relation to the recent resignation of LPGA Commissioner Carolyn Bivens. No matter how badly Bivens misfired during her four-year tenure, it was her failure to sell tour sponsorships that cost her the LPGA's top post.
Bivens, a former media executive, needed a lifeline from a brand like Virginia Slims. The interim LPGA commissioner, Marsha Evans, and her successor should set their sights on brands that are driven to reach women, even if the tour's fan base is 57 percent male. If there are beauty counters at the events, men will bring their wives. Currently, the P&G Beauty NW Arkansas Championship, held in September, is the only event on the LPGA schedule that is directly tied to a women's product.
I'm sure the LPGA has a promising future in Asia, where women's golf is much more popular, but in the U.S. the tour needs to celebrate women and help companies reach the female demographic. Estee Lauder and Avon could use the LPGA Tour to market new products, much like Virginia Slims did in the early 70s with its slimmer, sweeter-tasting cigarettes.
If the LPGA can refashion itself into a women's brand, and not just the female version of the PGA Tour, it can find a place in the crowded space of sports marketing and sponsorship. It shouldn't try to compete with Tiger Woods and the men. Michelle Wie doesn't need to play on PGA Tour events. The tour can be saved by a new spirit of camaraderie around women in sports, and by companies that want to be part of such a movement.
According to The Economist, female consumers make more than 80 percent of discretionary purchases, 90 percent of food purchases, 55 percent of consumer electronics purchases, and they buy most new cars. Frito-Lay, hard hit by the economy and searching for a new niche, has launched a campaign called "Only in a Woman's World" to attract female shoppers to its drinks and snacks. McDonald's was a sponsor of Fashion Week in February for the first time. Office Max has redesigned its notebooks and file folders to appeal to women. Other businesses clearly get it. The LPGA needs to follow suit.
The founding mothers of the LPGA had a vision for women in sports in 1950 when they grew their fledging organization out of the dirt at Pinehurst, and it's now the longest-running women's sports association in the world. A little more focus on women can keep it going strong another 60 years.
In the end, no matter what you think of the cigarette business, Virginia Slims hit the mark when it teamed with the WTA. There must be an angel out there somewhere that can save the LPGA, and it's up to the new commissioner to find it.