An intriguing facet to Jeremy Lin’s meteoric rise to starting point guard of the New York Knicks was experts and casual fans attempting to place Lin on an athletic frame of reference. The original (and lazy) comparison with Tim Tebow was largely due to his religious background. Others placed him as the basketball version of Kurt Warner, another underdog who came out of nowhere to become one of the best players at his position. It’s interesting that instead of finding comparisons to Lin’s skill set (he runs the pick and roll like Steve Nash, for example), the main point of reference has been Lin’s background story. And even then, it’s impossible to find an analogy.
The originality of his story is an important lesson in framing, and in effect marketing, Lin. When the NBA was in a transitional phase in the mid-90’s, every shooting guard who could jump was “the next Jordan”. While many thought this to be a compliment, player’s tagged with this label never lived up to expectations. The players who crossed over to pop culture during that period and became their own brand – Allen Iverson and Kobe Bryant come to mind – were players who didn’t fit any previous description. Lebron James currently has the second most popular basketball shoes (trailing only Kobe). Similar to Lin today, James defied any previous basketball comparison.
The lesson here is that originality is the key to a brand achieving iconic status. Brands cannot be the second coming of something – they’ll never be able to replicate the atmosphere and the timing that made the original so popular. Instead, brands must strive to be the first of their kind. Those who were framed as “the next Jordan” never made the leap, just as referring to a company as “the next Apple” may doom it from the start with consumers expecting Apple and disappointed that products aren’t exact replicas. Successful companies can either have a lot of attention early on (like James) or come out of nowhere (like Lin). Either way, they must be so unique as to have no comparison, thereby eventually creating their own reference point and their own industry.
Of course, Lin has a long way to go. He has to complete a full season at a high level, then one after that, then another after that, and so on. And it’s championships that ultimately come to define athletes who become brands. Yet the foundation of Lin’s brand is correct: he is the first of his kind, an athlete with a distinct story behind him, with a distinct style of play, playing under the brightest of lights in New York City, under contract with marketing behemoth Nike. And, eventually, he will become a frame of reference for future athletes.