LeBron James and Personal Branding: Lessons in Humanity

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(image courtesy of Twitter)

LeBron James’s decision to return to the Cavs is bigger than personal branding.

My relationship with Northeast Ohio is bigger than basketball. I didn’t realize that four years ago. I do now.

LeBron James

Today’s lesson — LeBron James and personal branding: Friday, July 11th, 2014, is the day that LeBron James became human again. Well, he was always a human; but for at least his first season with the Miami Heat (and much longer for many), LeBron was a villain. Televised on ESPN four years ago, “The Decision” became an example of branding gone wrong. Branding can increase a company’s standing and visibility. While the numbers told a story of success – in ratings, attention, and raising $2.5 million for the Boys & Girls Club of America – Lebron’s camp forgot one important aspect: humanity. “The Decision”, in which Lebron revealed he was going to sign with the Miami Heat, publicly embarrassed Cleveland, the city he was leaving. His letter in Sports Illustrated, called “I’m Coming Home”, was about Lebron James, human being.

His return home on Friday and his announcement leaving for Miami four years ago were polar opposites, even outside of the circus of television versus a single tweet and a letter (which itself brings up the difference between ESPN and Sports Illustrated). The signature line of “The Decision” was “I’m going to take my talents down to South Beach”. His basketball skill was a commodity. It was South Beach, not Miami. Now contrast the language of four years ago with his letter explaining why he was returning to Cleveland:

I feel my calling here goes above basketball. I have a responsibility to lead, in more ways than one, and I take that very seriously. My presence can make a difference in Miami, but I think it can mean more where I’m from. I want kids in Northeast Ohio, like the hundreds of Akron third-graders I sponsor through my foundation, to realize that there’s no better place to grow up. Maybe some of them will come home after college and start a family or open a business.

The deeper reason for LeBron’s return to Cleveland

Four years later, LeBron’s return was a decision made out of a sense of purpose, community, and connection. Instead of taking a global perspective in an effort to become the first billion dollar athlete, the letter revealed a more modest, but more significant, goal: to inspire kids in Northeast Ohio. As the saying goes, “think globally, act locally”.

Back to the marketing aspects. Cleveland sports are an easy target. The city hasn’t seen a professional title since 1964. And pop culture has picked up on this, from Major League to Draft Day, the city is portrayed on film as lovable losers. But if we consider that sports branding is about cool, then Cleveland has endured a small renaissance in the last two month. First, the Cleveland Browns drafted quarterback Johnny Manziel, he of the Johnny Football moniker. The jury is out on how effective he’ll be in the NFL, but having aligned himself with Drake, he’s already made an impact off field. And no athlete in the country has the impact of Lebron James. As one marketing president puts it, “the real winner is Cleveland”.

It’s estimated that when you include sponsors, partners, and broadcasts, Michael Jordan made the NBA 10 billion dollars. LeBron’s sponsorship portfolio includes Nike, Gatorade, Samsung, and Beats by Dre. And every time Lebron gets brought up, so will Cleveland and Akron. There will be economists in the future studying his financial impact on the local community. But for now, let’s start with measuring city pride.

For a single day on Friday, all eyes were on Cleveland. Who could have guessed that this city in the midwest with a population of 390,000, without a title in 50 years, could be center of professional basketball for the next decade? That’s the power of a brand. Actually, scratch that – that’s the power of purpose, community, and coming home.


3 LeBron James and Personal Branding Takeaways:

1. Never forget the human aspect of a personal brand marketing campaign

2. Act and create with a sense of community

3. How a campaign appears on paper may not be how it’s received once the campaign is revealed publicly (see “The Decision” from 2010 for how this works in the negative sense)


Read Nao Media’s 13 Crucial Personal Branding Tips

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