The concept of branding is incredibly important in today’s world. Companies pay millions for good PR and influential publicity all in the hopes to grow their brand and improve it in the eyes of consumers. This happens in our personal lives too when we go about trying to change how people see or perceive us to be. Our job, education, hobbies, physical/mental health and relationships all help define who we are, or more specifically how the outside world defines us. It makes up our personal “brand”. Knowing how much time, effort and money I’ve put into some of these things I can attest to the importance of this idea. So with branding being so important, it is no wonder how crucial a role it plays in sports, both for individual athletes as well as entire organizations.
Having a strong, positive, public image as an athlete is something that isn’t always as high a priority as it should be. Sure, not every single player on the tennis circuit or PGA will have the same sort of publicized life as say Kobe Bryant or Tom Brady, but it’s important to still be mindful of it. You can argue the merits of it but like it or not professional athletes have been serving as role models for children for years now. Sure, there are still some people who grow up wanting to be the president, an astronaut or a pilot, but there has been a shift towards pro sports over the past few decades. No longer are they just “your favorite player”, but now it’s “who I want to grow up to be”. Case in point, the whole marketing campaign of “I wanna be like mike” that put Michael Jordan on a pedestal for youth everywhere.
This increased focus on athletics in today’s world puts a huge importance on the image, or brand, of a professional athlete. They may argue, as some have, that they didn’t get into sports to be a role model or spokes person for some cause. That may well be true, but it doesn’t change the reality of the situation. It’s now their responsibility. A lot of high-profile athletes have taken this to heart and have started charitable organizations or volunteered for various causes. You can argue how selfless some of these acts are but at least these stars are using their status to promote service and help the less fortunate. Combine that with being personable during interviews and having a scandal free personal life? Well, you are likely in good shape in the branding department. What happens when you falter in one of these areas though? What happens when scandal is introduced? Not only does it throw a player off their pedestal but also, in the court of public opinion, tarnishes, if not ruins, their legacy.
We’ve seen this in every sport and every era. Things like ‘throwing games’, gambling, PED’s, doping, infidelity, animal cruelty, and violent crimes have all happened in the world of sports. They happen far more than they should and, sadly, will likely continue to occur. Most of these offenses are down right despicable, if not illegal. While some players have been able to reshape their image and redeem themselves in the eyes of the public, or at least the sporting public, some athletes are beyond saving. You don’t condemn your public image, or your brand, any faster than when you upset the integrity of the game. Don’t believe me? Just ask Pete Rose, Lance Armstrong and the HOF chances of countless baseball players.
But what about those instances of minor character “flaws” or momentary lapses in judgement? Well, that’s a different story. An athlete can get past that. Sure, they may earn labels like “dirty player”, “locker room cancer”, “immature” and “head-case” but they won’t ruin their legacy.
Plus, while some players keep those tags throughout their career, others – if they are lucky and are mindful of how they are perceived – can turn their image, their brand, around. Re-branding, while not easy, can be done. There are two main ways to achieve this: 1.) through a change of scenery and/or 2.) contributing heavily to a winning team.
A change of scenery, for an athlete or anyone really, means a clean slate. It gives you the opportunity to start fresh and redefine yourself. Sure, some of your shortcomings may follow you but having a new place to call home can allow you to frame these weaknesses into apparent strengths. Are you an emotional, impulsive player? A “hot-head”? Well, under a different light, say the lights of your new arena/stadium, that could be framed as “passionate, tough-nosed, and high energy”. The player may not have changed but given the new “digs” and a fresh start, those traits can be portrayed in a positive light. They can be re-branded as a result of the players relocation.
Some crazy you can’t “spin” in a positive way, though. Like relocating to a new team can improve a player’s image, so too can being a part of a winning or championship team. The flaws in that athlete’s game that once held their team back? Well, they no longer are holding the team back! If they aren’t holding the team back anymore, are they really flaws? Maybe they are “strengths” when looked at through the lens of a winner. On a losing squad a player may be viewed as an impulsive head-case, but if they are a part of a winning club it’s the opposite. That “snarl” and toughness is now an asset. That once volatile emotion is now the passion that drives the team. Winning fixes all sorts of ailments and a player’s brand is no exception.
An organization, too, can change their brand. How? Well in most the same ways an individual athlete can. A new owner, new general manager, and/or new coach can help change the culture of a team or organization. A team can transform from bottom dwellers to recurring title contenders (Thunder), from “thugs” to high character guys (“Jailblazers” to now), or even from a team only focused on offense to a defense-first squad (Knicks under Mike Woodson). These are all examples of how internal management can improve a brand. It comes from having a plan to improve their image and deliberate effort to make the necessary change, much like how a player might seek help and focus to improve their own attitude. A club can also relocate or literally re-brand with a new name and logo. Same as with individuals, this can provide a clean slate for an organization that can help mark the beginnings of change. And then of course there is winning.
Why does this matter?
I got the idea for this post while looking at two current news stories in the NBA: The potential move of Sacramento to Seattle and the name change of the New Orleans Hornets to The Pelicans. While the potential move from Sacramento to Seattle is terribly bittersweet, I couldn’t help but feel like nearly the entire league was rooting for this. That the organization needs this relocation, this brand change. That it would breath new life into this organization. I found this fascinating for the organization, but also for one of the team’s players, Demarcus Cousins. An immensely talented player in need of some “re-branding” himself, seeing how this move affects not only the team but him as well will be an interesting plot worth keeping an eye on.
Similarly, the soon to be Pelicans are in the middle of rebuilding; rebuilding the roster, the culture, and now literally the brand of their organization. This was fast tracked by their selection of Anthony Davis in this past year’s draft, who, when he’s been on the court, has shown the promise and potential that had many GM’s and scouts pegging him as the next great big man. The switch from the Hornets, a name that will forever be associated with Charlotte (and may again officially do so), to The Pelicans will help further signal that this is a new team. It will be branded with its own history that reflects the players and culture that continues to grow ever since they shipped Chris Paul to LA and drafted Davis. This team’s future is bright, and much in the same way that the Thunder were able to write their own history, so too will the Pelicans (minus the terrible loss of a beloved franchise).
So having said all this, what does that mean for your favorite player or team? What does it mean for you, away from sports? At its most basic, it means that there are always way to reinvent yourself. To change your image, your brand, for the better. Re-branding will play a big role for both the aforementioned teams, as well as the athletes that compete for them. I for one am looking forward to watching both of these stories unfold in the coming years.