I’m not here to pile on LeBron James and the Miami Heat for all the reasons we’re all suggesting today after they lost the NBA Finals to the Dallas Mavericks last night and we’re all left baffled over LeBron’s lackluster – even seemingly disinterested – effort.
The Decision, the pre-season celebration (which actually infuriated me more) and the proclamations of a dynasty all made James and the Heat the supreme example of hubris and the villains of the past NBA season – and made this playoff season one of the most fascinating in recent memory.
No, what interests me most going forward, as a brand guy, is how the brands LeBron represents will address his failure in their advertising. The theme next year might be about redemption or being more motivated, but the situation represents the danger of brands aligning themselves with one personality. If the personality is damaged in some way, then the brand is too. And, as a marketer, you’re caught in a dilemma. You’ve linked yourself to the personality and you can’t change the public perception as easily as you might think.
It was the same problem facing many marketers when their brands were closely aligned with Tiger Woods a year ago, as I remember seeing workers replace a Tiger-themed Accenture diorama at the Philadelphia airport with an innocuous one right after Tiger’s scandal broke.
The reason marketers so often use celebrity spokespersons – about a third of national advertising features a celebrity – is because it’s easy and fast. The personality of the celebrity instantly gives your brand meaning.
But it’s also lazy marketing. It rarely has a positive long-term effect and, most importantly, it isn’t built on the emotional triggers and belief systems of the target audience – which are the things that create preference. Building a meaningful brand is hard work. The easy way out means you’re constantly recreating the wheel.
Think of it this way: How many personalities directly reflect the single most persuasive thing you can say to prompt the audience to choose you. (Nike and its stable of athletes, most notably Michael Jordan, is about the only example I can think of. Even then, though, those athletes were simply the supporting personifications of “Just Do It.”)
In the end, LeBron James may win a championship or two or more. He is only 26 years old, although he may tire because he started playing in the NBA so early. (He just finished his eighth season.) And there’s nothing to suggest he’s a bad person.
But I doubt you’ll see that McDonald’s commercial with James and Dwight Howard anymore. You know, the one that ends with Larry Bird having eaten their lunch and the younger duo asking, “Who is that guy?”
We all have the answer now: He’s the one with a ring.