Like a Bolt of Lightning: Usain Bolt Loses Marketability

Usain Bolt as a brand

By Tom Dougherty

“And like that (poof) he is gone.”

That’s a quote from one Roger Verbal Kint from the film “The Usual Suspects,” describing villain Keyser Soze, but it might apply to Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt in more ways than one. At the end of the day, it is all about athletic branding.

An Amazing Performance

Usain Bolt as a brandOn one hand, no one with the possible exception as Michael Phelps at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing has been more viscerally electrifying at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing than the 22-year-old, blowing away the competition in the 100 and 200 meters in world record fashion. (He also anchored the final leg of Jamaica’s 4×100 gold-medal winning team.)

He stunned the competition so thoroughly in the 100 meters he ran the last 15-20 meters of it taunting the runners and playing to the crowd. The shock was that he could have finished faster.

However, he could just as easily speed out view on the marketing front, having left behind millions of dollars with his immature antics and simply not understanding the power of perception, especially as it relates to brand.

In the 100, he outstretched his arms and pounded his chest before crossing the finish line. He also ran right up to the cameras and yelled, “I am No. 1! I am No. 1!” He didn’t congratulate teammates or other competitors. It was an obvious sign of immaturity and a lack of counsel from those around him.

Now, before you accuse us of being curmudgeons; the tact (or lack thereof) of his acts is not the discussion here. We like in-your-face attitude as much as the next guy, and more than most brand strategy firms.

The Power of Perception

However, Jacques Rogge, president of the International Olympic Committee, did have a problem with it. He told the Associated Press, “I think he should show more respect for his competitors and shake hands, give a tap on the shoulder to the other ones immediately after the finish and not make gestures like the one he made in the 100 meters…He might have interpreted that in another way, but the way it was perceived was ‘catch me if you can.’”

Rogge used a key word here that should make Bolt and even companies working on their brands think hard about: “Perceived.” Smart marketers know what is most important in the marketplace is not what is true, but what is believed. Or, to use an old cliché, perception is reality.

Right now, Bolt is perceived as a selfish, immature, sprinting wonder. His brand of athlete is about gifted but not coveted.

Usain Bolt as a brand has floundered

As a brand – and, yes, athletes have brands too – that’s not exactly what Madison Avenue is looking for. What works best in marketing athlete in athletic branding, especially in the long term, is actually quite simple: They either need to be someone to aspire to be (think Tiger Woods) or they need to be a reflection of your current self (think Peyton Manning).

Usain Bolt as a brand

There is a reason why athletes with bad “brand of athlete” reputations but athletic success don’t succeed long-term as advertising personalities. Allen Iverson, Bode Miller, Barry Bonds, Mike Tyson are among just a few of those who are one-in-a-lifetime athletes but haven’t hit the marketing success they crave because of the public’s perception of who they are. Their “characters” are ones few consumers aspire to be or believe they themselves are.

In bottom-line terms, consumers seek out brands that are a reflection of who they believe they are or who they want to be. Many riders of Harley-Davidson motorcycles are not true wild ones but they like to see themselves as such. The mothers who have made Huggies the top-selling disposal diaper respond to the Huggies brand of being a good mother.

It’s for that reason why Tiger Woods and Peyton Manning are the most recognizable, most accessible and, frankly, the busiest pitchmen in the country right now. Tiger’s brand is built on being unnaturally gifted (see the recent for the Tiger Woods PGA Tour 08 video game in which he literally walks on water) but carrying those gifts with grace. Peyton’s brand is built on being a normal guy even though he’s a record-breaking NFL quarterback. “Cut that meat! Cut that meat!” (In an interesting twist, LeBron James seems to straddle between the two and has been effective.)

Perception is Reality

Whether they are truly those things is beside the point. The key is that they are perceived as being those things and consumers see themselves or aspire to be like them (like the Harley-Davidson riders).

At this point, who aspires to have the personality of Usain Bolt or sees themselves in his actions? A few simple gestures by Bolt will cost the youngster many millions of dollars. He may eventually adjust the perception of himself, but it can take years. (Think NFL linebacker Ray Lewis.)

The Corporate Lesson

The lesson in this for companies wanting to grow their market share is this: Your brand must be a reflection of your customers. They want to see themselves in the brand or aspire to be a part of it.

Usain Bolt as a brandYou should also remember that what you think about yourself as a company matters little. It only matters what your target audiences believe. Companies that pitch themselves as being better at the mechanics of the nature of your business (like an airline saying, “We’ll get you where you’re going”) are bashing up against the perceived reality.

You, as the company may believe you are the best and may even have data to prove it, but it doesn’t’ matter to target audiences who hear the same thing from your competitors. Consumers will just tune you out.

If you don’t buy into the power of perception or that your brand must be reflection of the customer than you will disappear as quickly as Bolt racing down the track.