Have you ever really thought about why you play the golf ball you do?
It’s a question a new U.S golf ball company are determined to get golfers to ask themselves as they look to create something truly different in the golf world. Uncommon, based in Park City, Utah, is an enterprise made up of golf-obsessed designers, product developers and, most importantly, friends, which came to life during the Covid-19 pandemic.
The brains behind Uncommon are creating golf balls using cutting-edge materials and tech, but they are determined to cut through the jargon and the confusion that many golfers feel at the choice before them. The Wandering Golfers spoke to the founder of Uncommon, Jonathan Kantor, to find out more.
You guys describe the golf ball market as ‘huge-ass and super established’ – so why choose to try and crack it?
Yes, the global golf ball market is large with very established incumbent brands. Breaking out in these types of markets is hard and I think for most aspiring entrepreneurs that would be enough to stay away. But we saw things differently and I’ll explain that through two lenses; my personal story and the business case for bringing Uncommon to life.
Before starting Uncommon I spent 15 years at market-leading consumer brands. My first love as a kid was snowboarding and I was lucky enough to begin my career at Burton Snowboards, the company that essentially created the sport. Fast-forward 15 years where I climbed the corporate ladder at several other companies – I had more responsibility and made more money but I was never as happy as that first job at Burton, where I was devoted so deeply to the sport and brand that it never felt like a job.
Golf came later in life, but it was exactly the same connection as snowboarding for me and I became obsessed. Despite advice from really smart people, I believe that you can combine your passions with business. That might not work for other people but that is when I am the happiest. I now wake up every morning thinking about Uncommon and its small role in a sport that I really love.
From the business side, the main thing that led us to believe there was an opportunity in the golf ball market was the lack of differentiation among brands. Our view is that if you removed the logo from every golf ball advertisement, ball packaging at retail and website you would have no idea which brand you’re looking at. That’s because every single brand markets themselves exactly the same way.
So, while the market is massive and our competitors will sponsor PGA tour pros and spend marketing budgets 1,000 times larger than us, we saw an opportunity to do something completely different than everyone else from a brand perspective. There’s this technique called the Five Whys used in manufacturing to explore cause-and-effect relationships. It sounds really fancy, but the technique is basically asking “why” five times and it helps you get to the root cause of the question.
Well, we asked “why” five times to really simple questions like “why does every brand use the same exact wasteful packaging?” That led us to a really simple differentiation strategy backed by product that performs, which is, of course, essential in a market where consumers are obsessed with performing better.
Where did the inspiration come from to create the Uncommon brand?
The first source of inspiration was Moe Norman. Most golfers rightfully don’t know the name Moe Norman, but he was known as one of the best ball strikers of all time. He’s not a household name because he was a really quirky (believed to be autistic) Canadian pro in the 1960s that was laughed off the PGA tour.
His story is about being different and misunderstood at a time when society (and golf) had zero compassion or tolerance for it. The guy lived out of his car, wore ratty clothes and played golf in his own way. For example, he would hit 9-iron off the tee and driver into the green during a tournament. Oh, and his swing was completely unique with rigid arms and a super wide stance. Golf was the centre of his universe and his one true love. He was known for hitting thousands of balls a day throughout his entire life.
His story broke our hearts and inspired us. We decided that we wanted to bottle Moe Norman’s spirit and infuse it into Uncommon’s DNA. He would be the way we expressed our desire to be different. Every element of our brand, including the name Uncommon, was inspired by Moe’s story. There are so many subtleties in who we are that are influenced by Moe. For example, our logo is round but there’s a gap between the first and last letters that represent Moe’s unfinished story. No one probably cares about that, but those little details were really fun to think about and bring to life.
Golfers tend to be pretty loyal to a particular golf ball brand, it seems. Talk a little about your research into why we choose the balls we play and the opportunity you saw?
There is no question that low-handicap golfers seem to be loyal to a single brand. However, those low handicap golfers represent only 5% of the market. Most of the average players we spoke to really didn’t know why they play the ball they do. Some were able to regurgitate marketing speak from the brands, but most consumers seem to play an arbitrary ball that they gravitate towards because of a recommendation from a trust source or marketing that resonates with them.
After digging in really deep into the competitive set we felt that the brands were trying so hard to prove their performance that they actually confuse the consumer. The average golfer knows how they score and how they want a ball to react, but they probably don’t know swing speeds, exact distances or the effect of spin on their shots. Moreover, the number of variables that come into the performance of a golf ball are literally infinite. We are talking elevation, humidity, wind, temperature etc.
We wanted to bring balls to market that are designed to work with a very clear target player that wants very specific performance characteristics from their ball. In our marketing we use very easy-to-understand language based around player and shot types. It doesn’t mean our product is any less technical but it is easier to understand.
There is real storytelling in the brand you’ve built. How important is it to you guys that Uncommon is more than just a corporate success but a brand golfers can understand and get behind?
First and foremost our belief is that consumers get behind brands that represent something they believe in. Our intention with Uncommon is to build a game-changing golf ball brand that inspires our consumers’ game, self-expression and love of golf.
Uncommon isn’t built for everyone. I think there will be a lot of golfers who hate what we are about, and I welcome that. We want to be a brand that is incredibly meaningful for a small subset of golf consumers. And we want a deep relationship with these people. If we can do that and build a community around this brand, I will consider it a success.
You’re part of a new wave of smaller brands emerging in the equipment market. Why do you think we’re seeing that, and do you think golfers are more prepared to look away from the traditional giants?
Well, there are a lot of small brands that have come before us. Brands like Seamus, Lie + Loft and Solo Golf have really inspired us to bring Uncommon to life. From the outside, it seems that these brands have really resonated with the consumer and do I think some golfers are prepared to try different equipment. We live in a special time right now. When I grew up you knew who the skaters, jocks and punk rockers were in school based on how they dressed and acted.
In 2021 people don’t live in boxes anymore. Golfers have tattoos and the football players skateboard and listen to 90s hip hop. In my opinion, this has opened the floodgates for people to be more open to trying different products/brands that further solidify their core beliefs. Golf apparel has done an incredible job evolving the last few years and I’m excited to see what comes next from the hard goods side.
What does success look like for Uncommon? How will you know you have got to where you want to be?
This is going to be a terrible answer but I think it will be really special for our team when Uncommon comes to market this July. We’ve worked so hard bringing this to life and just reaching that milestone is going to be really meaningful. After that, it’s all about how the consumer reacts to what we’ve built. I will be delighted if people love what we do and it inspires them to play golf their way.
For more information about Uncommon click here