LeBron James, the damaged brand
LeBron James moving to the Miami Heat did for his brand what oil spills do to big oil companies. They continue to make money and they achieve success in some way. But they are also tainted, in many ways — irreparably damaged by their actions. As the NBA finals drew on, I kept thinking to myself, I have never seen so many people rooting against someone. How did this happen?
LeBron is an amazing success story. A man among boys in high school, he opted not to attend college and he entered the NBA draft and was selected by the Cleveland Cavaliers. Guy from Ohio gets picked by team from Ohio. The story writes itself, right? And it’s not just any team from Ohio, but a team that has never won. A team whose legacy is sadly embedded on every Michael Jordan highlight reel ever made. The Cavaliers needed a savior and LeBron was it. A community embraced him. He signed a contract with Nike. And on the court, he was a magician. The Cavaliers came close to the championship, but never finished the deal. Again very similar to the early days of a guy named Jordan.
But what LeBron didn’t realize was that his brand, like every brand, is something he doesn’t have total control of. That’s an illusion. The customer dictates your brand. And the customer likes the Ohio boy helps Ohio team win the championship story. They like seeing their guy in all the Nike commercials, crowned king. It made the fans feel all warm inside. That’s our guy! He’s going to take us to the promised land!
Not so fast. LeBron became a free agent. And LeBron let his desires get in the way of what he came to stand for. He walked outside the parameters of his brand. He crossed the threshold of good guy helping team who needs help to bad guy going to bigger city who wants to buy the championship. Not only that, but when he decided to go to that team, the Heat, he put the knife in and twisted it. He aired a live televised event that featured him making the decision to leave his beloved town. He made a new Nike commercial asking “What do you want me to do?” — implying that he was confused and less self aware than he probably should be. And then, upon arriving in Miami, took part in a pyrotechnic inflamed celebration of his arrival in front of thousands of screaming Miami fans, saying he was there to win at least 7 championships.
In other words he was saying that Cleveland, contrary to what the popular song says, doesn’t rock.
No brand is safe from public scrutiny. CMOs everywhere are constantly ensuring that their brand integrity is solid and as bulletproof as possible. Any major change to a brand is heavily scrutinized. What LeBron lost in his quest for a championship is the brand integrity he worked very hard to gain. And the truth is, it remained to be seen whether he could win in Cleveland or not. Now instead of being spoken of with the likes of Jordan, Nicklaus and Aaron, he is spoken in the context of Barry Bonds and Tiger Woods — two infamously great players tainted by missteps that have tarnished their image forever.
What do you think? Is LeBron’s image something he can rescue? Would winning a championship do it? Or is the positive image of LeBron a thing of the past?