A year can be a long time in golf, so following on from my 2016 interview with Bob Philion I caught up with the Cobra Puma CEO again at the 2017 PGA Merchandise Show to see how time had been treating him and the company.
Hi Bob. What do you think has changed for Cobra in the last year, both as a company and also in the market?
Well, we have certainly seen growth. We are growing market share and we have seen the impact that innovation has had on the brand. The brand has always been known for easy to hit and forgiving product and I think we have now added a reputation for technical innovation.
We have released the first smart golf club with the King F7 Cobra Connect and that is a huge deal for us and we think a game changer on the driver side.
We have also released the single length irons, the Cobra One, which is massive and I would say overall I feel like there is a lot of incrementalism in golf with this idea that things are a little bit better than they were, but we have launched a couple of products that are complete model changers and we think that is a big deal.
The idea that every shot faster and connected and allowing you to analyse your game to get better; the philosophy behind single length and the consistency that will bring to your game. Those are model changers and not just incremental and really help position the brand.
Has a shift to longer product life cycles helped you focus on more ground breaking products?
I think you have seen across the industry that product life cycles have lengthened and we have extended some to two year programs and in fact, some to a bit more in the case of some of the players irons. We have some annual, some 18 months and some two year plus.
Focusing on the Cobra One Length irons, do you think they have the potential to broaden the appeal of the game and how long do you think it will take for that to happen?
That’s a great question. We have sold in 12 days what we thought we would sell in the whole first quarter and here at Orlando we have been meeting with retailers and talking to them about their pre-sales since we launched the club and it is clear it is a monster.
It is an easy story to communicate, it is basically a bag of 7-irons with different lofts, essentially most player’s favourite club, so ease of use and ease of consistency is the message, and I don’t know how big it is going to be, but I know that whatever the size of the market, we are going to own it because we have Bryson DeChambeau and I am really proud of the team and how fast we have turned that product and got it to market.
If you think about it, we are shaking hands with Bryson the day after The Masters when he turns Pro and here we are nine months later with a TV ad, with demos and trials around the world and we’ve been selling for two weeks now, so I give our team an amazing amount of credit for how quickly we were able to turn that around. It’s great.
My thoughts are for One Length to really break through it would help if one or two more Tour Players started to use the clubs. Is that how you view it?
No. I think it may help and of course if Bryson performs well it will help, but I don’t think it hinges just on that, I think there is a pyramid of influence in our game that is real and obviously Bryson gives us that. But the feedback we are getting from retailers and from golf instructors is that it is a different way to play and it is an easy way to play. You are eliminating variables such as ball position, so I don’t think those benefits are necessarily tied to Tour player exposure.
I do think over time, and we have another Tour player who is looking at that concept and thinks within a year that they may switch to that, I think there will be some other players and certainly if you think about it 10 years from now, we are launching this week the King F7 Junior One. If you have a junior that starts down that path they likely would stay with that so in the future you could have a lot of players using one length irons.
Have you had feedback that they are much better for beginners and people taking up the game?
Absolutely. I have a 14 and 11 year old and this idea that golf is hard enough as it is, and practice, practice, practice with a 7-iron, to then say that moving to the other clubs it is a little harder because they are longer or shorter than that club. This eliminates all that and you can say keep that same swing and use single length irons as they are all the same length. It is the same ball position, it is the same everything and it makes it much easier.
When I was recruiting Bryson I wanted Greg Norman’s advice on Bryson and the idea of one length irons and how easy it would be and one thing he said really stuck with me which was in his prime he would have tried these clubs. I thought ‘wow’ that is a player who was number 1 in the world for six plus years and for him to say that told me the concept is relevant at that level, and I already know it is super-relevant for beginners and juniors, so I was confident the appeal would be pretty broad.
Do you think you can extend the concept to maybe have single length hybrids and fairways as well?
We are looking at a number of different things. I think it has really sparked a lot of different research within Cobra and ways that we can make the game easier. There are some challenges in some of that and one of the beauties of the one length concept is that the magic isn’t just in cutting the shafts. The magic is in all the technology in the head and what we are doing with the shaft weighting, to still allow for distance gapping, so it has opened up a new world to our R&D team of options for the future.
Moving onto something else I see that the rails are back on the fairways and the hybrids which I think is a great idea. Why did they go away in the first place?
Yes, it’s a great question. The reason it came back is Rickie Fowler. He started working with Butch Harmon on a 5-wood and he was coming into the ball fairly steep and wanting to plane out his swing so we made that product and launched it in the middle of 2016 and the reception was phenomenal.
Rickie is committed to it and it is in his bag and so we felt that the rails are so identified with Cobra, going back to the first baffler in the 1970’s, and now for the first time we are able to move the weight between the two rails so we have just taken it to another level and so far so good.
In the market we have seen Nike stepping away from hardware as well as Adidas looking to sell TaylorMade. At Cobra Puma you are still involved in both markets, so how do you view these developments and how do you see it working moving forward?
That’s a question we hear a lot. We believe in the 360° package which is why we bought Cobra back in 2010 to give us this hard goods and soft goods offering together and we have more than doubled our business in that period of time so we like that strategy.
The fact that one of competitors has moved out of hardware and another plans to be helps our 360° story because we are now really the ones out there with the full package, so we can service the golf shop and ultimately the consumer with that.
I think the big difference for us is when we bought Cobra six years ago that was sized right for us, it matches well from a DNA perspective with the Puma brand and it’s global. We thought about being in hard goods, looking at the next 10-20 years whereas I think the other examples were past and they are kind of adjusting. We feel like we were built for this, we bought Cobra for this reason to have the 360° brand which feels right for our business.
What do you see as the advantages of that 360° approach?
I think it lets us serve our retailers better. It allows us to service the golf shop with both hard goods and soft goods versus only doing one of those. Especially as we are seeing that retailers want to work with fewer partners and partners that really make a difference to their business, which means we can be a better resource for them so we can be one of those companies that they want to work with.
It also gives us more stories that we can talk about as well, there are a lot of synergies on Tour and what we do on TV. If we do a Cobra advert Rickie will be in Puma so we get all the benefits from that and we see a lot of those synergies that we can benefit from.
I saw some sales numbers recently where you had Callaway, Ping, TaylorMade and Titleist and then there was the pack, but the brand bridging the gap from one group to the other was Cobra Puma. Is that the case and do you think you can make it up there to make it a big five?
I think that’s a great question. If you look at Datatech, which is probably the best information you get in terms of market share, there were two companies that grew in metals and irons last year and we were one of those.
Secondly they also do brand perception surveys and it is kind of like what you just said, as we saw Cobra jump out of this pack and really jump into consideration. We have seen that and we have heard that from our retailers, we know we are getting closer to that ultimate consideration set. We are not where we want to be yet, but we are headed in a good direction and our shares reflect that, both at retail as well as an industry report like Datatech.
I know this is a hard question but I am going to ask you to pick your product of the year. What’s your favourite and why?
It is clearly going to come back to the Connect and the One Length and to make me pick between those is brutal! I think the King F7 Connect driver, being the first to launch a smart golf club. In 10 to 20 years from now I honestly believe that every club and every shot will be connected at some point in time, so we were in this at the beginning. We are going to capture the data everywhere.
I heard a great stat yesterday that there are 350 volunteers at Torrey Pines this week doing Shotlink data for the Pro’s for the PGA Tour, and with the King F7 Connect driver we have just put that in the hands of the consumer. They are able to track their shot, they can share and compare, which is pretty cool. When you start to think where this will go and help analyse your game and money balling your strategy and all those kind of things, I think the fact that Cobra started that is unbelievable.
One Length is equally exciting. The reality is One Length, I understand the irons with hickory shafts in the Pro Shop at Augusta used by Bobby Jones were single length, so that is something that used to happen and is something that we have brought up to date and put into line, but I think the smart golf club is a real game changer. If you think of the marketing potential too, having golfers tell their story, being able to take the shots they’ve hit and tweet them and create a groundswell of marketing that is great for the product.
Not everyone is going to download the app and use it, just like people have navigation in a car and don’t use it, but I think it is only going to take one time for someone to play with a guy who is using it, tracking their shots, and beating him because he knows all the stats. It will spread pretty quickly because it will help people play better golf. Once you are monitoring things you get better, you are tracking your game and you are learning your strengths and weaknesses you can only improve.
Thank you Bob.
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