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LeBron James is arguably the world's most talented basketball player. And he leaves no doubt: he knows it.

But his stock has fallen significantly after the self-proclaimed 'King', adored by NBA fans in his hometown of Cleveland, decided that the best way to announce that he was leaving for greener pastures in Miami was on a carefully-choreographed television event that resembled a Madison Avenue-produced Broadway play.

The backlash was both swift, fierce and wide ranging. From disappointed fans in Cleveland to appalled sports writers, James and his camp clearly underestimated the risks involved with James' media extravaganza. While the furor has died down and the dust settled, it appears that the damage will not be short-lived. For many, the King is dead, even though James is still very much alive and will continue to be one of the NBA's biggest stars.

The incident provides some interesting perspective on the phenomenon of 'personal branding.' James is the epitome of the personal brand, and James and his team not only know it, but are almost solely focused on developing it. LeBron James, the guy who plays basketball? Who's that? This mentality set James up to be the perfect case study for the limits of personal branding, and much of the criticism he's received for his televised marketing charade indicates that he took the 'personal branding' too far. He was so focused on his brand that he forgot that he was first and foremost a human being with a lot of talent.

The notion that individuals can have a personal brand isn't completely invalid. But when it comes right down to it, it's increasingly clear there's a very fine line to walk. If you buy too much into the 'brand' and ignore the 'person' in 'personal', you'll lose sight of what really matters. People generally like other people. Less generally, people like companies. Sure, we may like what they represent, or what owning their products says about us, but the most successful companies are those that find a way to make us believe that they're more than just companies; that they're actually run by decent human beings we just might be able to relate to in some meaningful way.

The risk for individuals who look at everything through the lens of personal branding is that they'll start to act more like companies, cold and impersonal, than the human beings they are. James did this when he went on television to celebrate that he was leaving a city that truly loved him. That was the product of a marketing-focused mindset completely devoid of empathy. And because of that, it negated James' ability to do something that most companies strive to do: deal with an audience of human beings on a human level. Just ask BP, which is trying, with minimal success, to convince the world that a big oil company is run by caring people who can empathize with those who have been impacted by a tragic event the company is responsible for.

At the end of the day, it's important to remember what personal branding is really all about: building reputation. If you're a web developer, you want to be known as the web developer who delivers kick-ass web applications. If you're a salesman, you want to be known as the salesman who can be trusted to provide effective, cost-efficient solutions to your customers' problems. And so on and so forth.

When personal branding is considered in the context of reputation, it becomes clear that personal branding is the process by which individuals can achieve what companies set out to achieve but physically can't: letting others know that they're awesome, trustworthy, decent human beings. In trying to act more like a company, LeBron James sent the message that he wasn't nearly as awesome, trustworthy, or decent as he would like to think he is. If you're 'personal branding', don't get carried away and make the same mistake.

Photo credit: Craig Hatfield via Flickr.

Patricio Robles

Published 18 August, 2010 by Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles is a tech reporter at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter.

2403 more posts from this author

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Mark

Who the hell is Lebron James? and who the hell cares?

It may come as a shock to some of you but most of the rest of the world outside of the US doesn't know who he is and really doesn't care.

So there's a lesson there for all branding strategies.

Just because you're big in your own backyard, you're still a nobody in the big wide world.

Oww, such sacrilege, 'scuse me while i dig out my flak jacket.

about 6 years ago

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Kelly Green

I actually appreciated that he made the decision to leave Cleveland because he wants to win a championship, but I agree with you that he's lost sight of the "person" in personal branding. I hope that he can now focus on his "job" and getting a ring. The King title is only going to last but for so long!

about 6 years ago

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Ronald Redito

Yes, Lebron James has been an icon but he did not brand himself but the team and the fans.

As an athlete and an individual, I think his transfer is a result of frustration and eagerness to win championships.

However, this may have resulted to haters.

about 6 years ago

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Ike Raoul

CAA is managing an entertainment brand. It is not a personal brand anymore. It may have started out that way, but to think of LBJ as a personal brand is to miss entirely the point that Hollywood is now involved, and the script was totally rewritten.  The travesty in all this is that LBJ as a person couldn't be honest with people that he's now living the script. No arguing that people should be themselves, brand or no. And above all be honest. And stay away from Hollywood at all cost. 

about 6 years ago

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Ross

@Mark - I think the fact that econsultancy covered this story suggests Lebron James is something more than just a backyard sensation :)

Good to see some more blog posts that look beyond online as well. Keep it up Patricio.

about 6 years ago

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JohnnyMac

this guy has taken a 'brand', himself, above the rest to sit alone @1 since tiger fell from marketing graces.

what continues to grow each day, the all-time marketing nightmare (the show) has taken this somewhat world icon who definitely had future growth @ the raw age of 25 down to a lone city (miami) with any marketing credibility. and he has to share that with 2 other 'great' players. they actually are probably more marketable than him now.

although he is running out of media, i think the morse code, a bi-plane w/ a banner and smoke signals are the only ones he hasn't used to put his foot in his mouth.

the interviewer for GQ was interviewed for next month. he said all stars have an entourage. he said he has never seen anyhting like lbj's with layers and layers of his peeps (all of who he feeds) telling him whatever he wants to here. the reporter thinks he has no real perspective of the 'real world' because he has so many 'yes' men telling him that he is great and evrything he has been doing has been great.

the is a carbon copy of mike tyson, undefeated and at the time, the greatest ever leaving his old low key cus d'amato for another clevelander Don King. perhaps you remember a few of these: robin givens, crashing into trees w mercedes and leaving them, rape/time in prison in indiana, i'll skip to his most recent- that he did 'the hangover' for drug money. nonehteless a very sad story that just gets sadder. 

about 6 years ago

John Braithwaite

John Braithwaite, Managing Director at Ergo Digital

It would have been helpful to have painted a bit more of a picture of the 'event' in order for the reader to have been more interested in the rest of the piece!

I kind of get what you're saying but what exactly did he / his team DO in the event / announcement that took personal branding too far.

If it was just 'they had an event and lots of people came, but Cleveland are annoyed because he didn't show 'respect' (whatever that means today) then it seems like sour grapes from a fanbase of one of the smaller basketball teams in the US.

If he did take it too far - what did he DO?

about 6 years ago

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Isikeli Raicebe, Manager, Digital Marketing at Suncorp Personal Insurance

LeBron is typical of the current generation where "it's all about me!" I think he's completely forgotten that the public put him there to begin with. I'm not a Cleveland fan (although I'm a big sports fan) and that interview he did felt like a slap in the face. It'll be interesting to see LeBron try to improve his 'personal brand'...along with some other person named Tiger. And thanks for econsultancy for reporting on such a big event in the sporting world.

about 6 years ago

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