What brand wouldn’t love to be so popular it could put on a one-hour special about their future and have everyone watching, on the edge of their seats waiting to find out the news? That’s what LeBron James did last Thursday. With his impending free agency, he had the sports and advertising worlds on the edge of their seats. By now, you’ve probably heard the critics and basic public relations bust that this was. I think there are several ways to look at it.
Speaking as a sports fan, this was a complete debacle. Maybe I have too many Midwestern values, but you don’t go on national TV to tell the world you are leaving your hometown. He is literally crippling the Cleveland sports economy – perhaps the economy period. Think of all the tickets (tourism), merchandising (shopping) and advertising (business) he is ripping from the city, not to mention their hearts. This is a hometown kid that made it big, put Cleveland on the NBA map for a while, and is now “taking his talents to South Beach.” That statement says it all for me. He didn’t say “I’m going to the Miami Heat.” He said “I’m going to South Beach” – the glitz and glam of celebrity. I may not be a normal sports fan in that I really don’t care how much a player makes because its all relative. Who doesn’t want to succeed and make more money at their job? I think some sports athletes may even deserve a one-hour special if they are popular enough. Good for LeBron that he generates enough interest that people in the middle of July on a Thursday night will tune into a cable channel to watch him. That’s cool. I just think he lost sight of his decision. If Lebron is staying in Cleveland – have the special, donate the proceeds to charity and the city rejoices. He still gets his money and he is still on a good team. His brand keeps moving forward and he is on to even more riches. If LeBron is going to “South Beach” to seek more fame, then announce it like any other player and don’t crush the city that supports and depends on you in front of a nation. Now LeBron’s personal brand has to hit the “reset” button.
As an advertiser, this event poses an interesting question to me – do you want your brand to be associated with this kind of public relations flop? From what I can tell, most people are down on LeBron, and I haven’t heard too much about the advertisers that actually made this special happen. Many of the sponsors were already tied to LeBron – Nike, McDonalds, and VitaminWater. But some were not – University of Phoenix, Microsoft, and Facebook. This article in AdAge, it breaks down the advertising exposure and value of the mention. It also talks about how this TV special came together. What it doesn’t talk about is who was the biggest brand this night?
I think it was LeBron James, because it’s easier for people to identify with a person over a product. LeBron made it very evident he was the brand “taking his talents”, which include marketability, to South Beach. That’s where he lost relevance to his “corporate brand.” It became his decision without considering his brand community.
In this day and age, sports figures have a lot of control over their message – to the point that they easily make a “corporate brand” out of their celebrity. They no longer have to rely on the media to break a story or message for them, they can take the message to the media themselves and monetize it by asking, “What is it worth to you?” They can even go one step further to break news themselves via Twitter, Facebook or their own personal websites. This is all a public relations puzzle as much as an advertising puzzle. Because the relationship that the person has with their consumer (fans in this case), is what drives the brand they’ve created.
LeBron thought his personal brand was above scrutiny and that people would realize it was a “business” decision. Yes, there is absolutely a business side of sports, but the core of what drives that business is the fans and the personal connection the fans have with a team or a player. LeBron failed to see where his brand starts. He thought that LeBron James creates marketability with his talents. No, the fans create his marketability because they admire his talents. When you tarnish your connection to people, you lose your brand.
The great thing about sports and America really, is there are usually second chances. LeBron’s brand took a big time hit last week. He might think he can just garner new fans in a new city and things will be repaired. I think its going to be more than that. He needs to connect again, which is going to be tough. He had a big advantage being the hometown kid. Cleveland likely would have loved him no matter if he won or lost championships. Now in Miami, he has to win. He has to build relationships and find a way not to come across as a narcissistic celebrity trying to be seen. Winning could be the cure, but a lot of people have a new view of him after last week.
Do you think his brand will be repaired? How might he do it?