In 1999, David Shaffer and pro golfer, Luke Donald, helped bring home the first Big Ten Championship the Northwestern team had won in half a century. Today, Shaffer and Donald are still close friends. And Shaffer is still working in the golf industry, as director of marketing for golf headwear company, Imperial Headwear.
But before his current position, Shaffer combined his passion for the sport of golf with his marketing savvy. In addition to Imperial Headwear, Shaffer also is a national sales manager for Greg Norman Accessories. Before that, he was vice president of a golf apparel brand he co-founded with friends called Back 9.
The idea of Back 9 began when two of Shaffer’s friends, Andy Hydorn and Harry Conforti, aspired to create a hat whose fit was worthy of wearing. The avid golfers kept their day jobs, selling the caps as a hobby. Soon the hats, adorned with a backward nine logo, developed a small following in Boston.
Straight out of Medill, Shaffer approached Hydorn with a proposal to turn the side venture into a full-scale operation. “I just got this exposure to business and marketing and building brands,” Shaffer, 31, recalls. “I thought, ‘Wait a minute, I have a friend who has a brand—maybe we can turn this into a business.’ ”
Hydorn declined, Shaffer says, but told him to keep that plan in mind.
About a year later, Shaffer, who was working in Chicago as an account executive for a golf technology company, received a call from Hydorn. He was ready to take Back 9 to the next level. Shaffer then moved home to Boston to develop the brand.
Shaffer says an intriguing logo and quality fit differentiated Back 9’s hats from the competition. Many manufacturers let factories dictate production, ignoring the importance of comfortable fit. “We teach factories how we want hats to be made,” he says. “We inspect every single millimeter: the panels, the stitching, how it hugs your head, the circumference and depth.”
As for the logo, many people don’t know what to make of it at first. But Shaffer says, this ambiguity inspires questions like, “Where can I get one of those?”
Though Shaffer has since moved on from Back9, the company has transitioned and is still in business today.
Shaffer credits his interest in marketing to an advertising class taught by then NU Assistant Professor Gail Taylor. After completing the only marketing course offered in the college of arts and sciences at the time, Shaffer says he was hooked. The senior applied to the IMC program and was accepted under one condition: He needed more professional experience.
With Taylor’s help, Shaffer secured an advertising internship after graduation and returned to Northwestern in the fall. The first quarter of graduate school marked the beginning of a love affair with marketing and the return of an old flame—golf. Because Shaffer had redshirted as a freshman, he still had one year of college eligibility left.
Taylor, now a faculty member at Dartmouth College, continues to keep in touch with Shaffer. She remembers searching for ways to tie his passion for golf with his knack for marketing. By combining the two, her former student turned entrepreneur is able to understand his consumer in a way that most people don’t.
This understanding of the consumer, she adds, is the fundamental way to succeed in marketing. “He was able to develop a product that meets [golfers’] needs and communicate to consumers the ways that a product is superior.”
Shaffer says the biggest lesson he learned from the IMC program is the importance of consistent communication, achieved by properly integrating all facets of a business.
“It’s sending one clear communication to your audience, from the way the Web site looks to the way our products look,” he says.
The importance of consistent communication, achieved by properly integrating all facets of a business.