I didn’t think he could do it.
I thought NBA superstar LeBron James would never be able to repair his image (and that of his brand) following one of the greatest PR blunders in sports history.
Quick refresher: As a free agent in 2010, James decided against re-signing with the Cleveland Cavaliers in his home state so he could instead join fellow marquee players Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh on the Miami Heat. The PR blunder came in the form of “The Decision,” an hour-long TV special in which James shocked Cleveland and gave NBA fans the impression that he was taking the easy route to a championship.
At the time, Cavs owner Dan Gilbert called James
“selfish” and said his decision was an act of “cowardly betrayal.” Fans tended to agree wholeheartedly, and reveled when James and the Heat lost in their first trip to the NBA Finals in 2011.
On the court, James won his first championship last season. And while there’s no denying that this feat helped in repairing his image, a deeper look reveals that he’s accomplished this—whether wittingly or not—through some innovative marketing techniques. He’s won favor among media, and he’s used social media to his advantage.
The result is a—dare I say—likable LeBron.
James has also been contrite about the “The Decision” and has said he would do it differently if he could. And what most people didn’t realize, or didn’t care to realize, about “The Decision,” was that it helped generate more than $2 million for the Boys and Girls Club. The organization used the money to build new facilities and bring in new equipment, including computers.
Disliking James for “The Decision” is a tired argument that time and maturity has healed.
The Jordan comparison
When it comes to athlete branding, Michael Jordan carved a path that all big-name athletes since have had to follow. It's been easier for some than others.
Part of the curse of being LeBron James and possessing his incomparable talent is that sports writers, reporters and talking heads think no athlete is incomparable. That’s why James is so often compared to Jordan. During his time in the NBA, Jordan defined what it means to be a modern superstar athlete. It’s been nearly 10 years since he took his last shot as a member of the Washington Wizards, and still Jordan earns upward of $80 million a year from endorsements, according to Forbes
. Not even Jordan’s laughable tenure as owner of the pitiable Charlotte Bobcats has hurt his brand.
Because James has been playing out of his mind this season, with many saying he’s at the top of his game, the comparisons to Jordan have been plentiful. You could spend many a drunken night comparing the intricacies of their abilities on the court, but it’s off the court where branding comes into play.
The knock on James off the court is that he’s never possessed Jordan’s business savvy, and has surrounded himself with advisers who have given him crummy advice. But luckily for Jordan, there was no Twitter when he and his Chicago Bulls were winning their six championships. There were also no camera phones to catch him doing anything salacious. And believe me, after hanging around Chicago sports reporters for a few years, it sounds like there would have been plenty to capture.
Social media to thank for burnished image
Somewhere along the line, perhaps even before “The Decision,” James was cast as the NBA’s villain, a role he even told the Palm Beach Post
in 2011 that he embraced. But that’s shifting, and James has social media to thank for much of it. In an age where social media is continually used to tear down athletes—there’s an entire website, Deadspin
, dedicated to the practice—James has used it to his advantage.
Here’s one example of social media helping shift the public’s idea of James. During a break in the action of a Heat game against the Pistons, a man named Michael Drysch sunk a half-court shot netting him $75,000. Players are usually only marginally aware of any promotions like these. But James, whose foundation was sponsoring the promotion, saw the whole thing. He rushed onto the court and tackled Drysch in one of the more honest displays of shared joy the NBA has seen in a long time. The video has captured more than 13 million views.
It was a move that James might not have made early in his career. At that point, everything seemed so measured and controlled. You felt like every moment of his career, including “The Decision,” had been eerily scripted. Nothing but his raw talent was authentic.
Moments like that have made him more human. It’s easy to empathize with someone who’s having fun doing something they love.
The fun continued last week when James and Wade got in on the Harlem Shake action, releasing a video of the entire team taking part in the meme:
James has even started to rally some of the media to his side. ESPN “Sports Center” anchors could not be more effusive about James if they tried. Wall Street Journal
writer Jason Gay said watching James recently was “a thrill.” It all makes one wonder, whatever happened to “The Whore of Akron
,” as he was once described?
As marketers, PR pros and communicators, if we’re to take anything away from James’ brand overhaul, it’s that no brand is irreparable. James has used the fun factor to get people on his side. But it’s always fun when you’re winning. It’s easy to rebuild a brand in a positive climate. After all, you don’t see the last-place Charlotte Bobcats putting together a Harlem Shake video.