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.