Personal brand identities are effected by more than just your game. In the twilight of his career will LeBron be able to get past his biggest obstacles to sketch out a bright future for his personal brand or will it fade away?
On July 1, 2018, NBA superstar LeBron James signed as a free agent with the Los Angeles Lakers, possibly the most famous basketball team on the planet. His decision to leave his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers, for the second time, was not met with nearly the same amount of anger from Cavalier fans, and NBA fans as when he decided to leave Cleveland for the Miami Heat in 2010.
Eight years ago, people burned his jersey in the street, called him a ‘traitor’ and tuned in to watch every show torch him for what they saw as a ‘weak’ decision. This time around, the news came relatively quietly, and he got off scot-free, despite making a nearly identical decision. What was the difference?
Basketball players like other public ﬁgures, are brands in themselves. Their visibility and importance on the court, as well as their size, makes them larger-than-life ﬁgures in every way imaginable. One common avenue that basketball brand identities are expressed is through shoes. Shoe contracts are given to the best, most popular players, and some even constitute more income for them than the contract with their team. While LeBron does have a very successful signature shoe line with Nike, the mother of all basketball shoe brands is Michael Jordan’s ‘Air Jordan’ brand, including the iconic Jumpman logo. Despite all of his success, LeBron’s brand still pales in comparison to the Jordan brand. How did this happen? And why?
Through examination, we will see that James’ career has been carved up in several key periods, and each of these periods marks a speciﬁc lesson about branding, which has directed his pursuit of Jordan, both on the court, and in the eyes of the public.
For those unfamiliar with James’ story, he is nearing the denouement of a career that began with him being heralded as the next great basketball player from the time he was in the tenth grade. He has managed to live up to the hype to the point that he has been generally considered the best player in the NBA for the past decade. All of this success has brought him to the pinnacle of the sport. His accomplishments are no longer compared to other current NBA players, and the only other person that sports fans put in the debate of greatest basketball player of all time is Michael Jordan.
These two men were linked before James even entered the NBA in 2003, and the nearly unimpeachable career that Jordan put together has always been the carrot that LeBron has chased. Jordan is most remembered for two things in particular: his killer instinct on the court, and his ﬂawless 6-0 record in the NBA ﬁnals. Dealing with comparisons to this perfection and immortality from the beginning has greatly affected the decisions that James has made in his career, especially in how he has handled the way that he is perceived next to the immense shadow cast by Jordan.
Like Jordan’s long time association with both Nike and the Jordan Brand, branding and narrative have always been key to James’ public persona. Even while in high school, he gave himself the nickname ‘King James,’ and has made no secret of wanting to be considered the best ever. While this is common rhetoric among most athletes, James has both the talent and achievements to have actually made it into the discussion.
However, as Omar from The Wire so perfectly put it, “if you come at the king, you best not miss.” Basketball fans across the world admire Jordan—his championship perfection, and have always been willing to discount LeBron’s accomplishments in the face of Jordan’s. Although Jordan grew up in North Carolina he spent nearly his entire career in Chicago delivering six championships and immortality in a city that worships him.
Unfortunately, as we will see, the pressure to live up to mythological standards often strained James’ relationship with the game and media.
Selected as the ﬁrst pick in the 2003 NBA Draft, by his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers, James was seen as the saviour for a franchise that has struggled its entire time in the league. The fact that he was a local kid made the pressure even greater. During his ﬁrst stint in Cleveland, James quickly became the best player in the league, but his individual success didn’t translate to team success. The Cavaliers only made one NBA Finals appearance in 7 years, and this failure to win championships became a referendum on LeBron’s abilities as both a player and leader. Additionally, his youth and inexperience with the media prevented him from controlling the narrative, which led to mocking of the ‘King James’ nickname, and many proclamations that he would never be Jordan, regardless of what happened in the rest of his career. His brand was out of his hands, because the story had been hijacked.
As his contract came up in 2010, James was one of the most coveted free agents in NBA history. Many people believed that he would stay in Cleveland, especially because it was his hometown. To announce his choice, James held an hour long TV special, simply dubbed ‘The Decision.’ The special raised over $2 million for the Boys and Girls Clubs of Connecticut, but this gesture did not have the result James intended. When he went against public expectations and joined the Miami Heat, along with two other NBA All-Stars, the public was outraged.
Both the decision to use the TV show for his free agency decision, and the decision itself, were widely panned. LeBron was called a coward for teaming up with other stars, a traitor for betraying his hometown fan base, and an egomaniac for the TV special. In his four years in Miami, he won two championships, vindicating his choices, but he also became hated around the world. As his contract with Miami came up in 2014, James was faced with the fact that, while he had made the correct professional decision, his public persona had taken a beating.
Two championships, $2 million to charity, and his brand was still suffering. In his pursuit of Jordan’s ghost, LeBron managed to turn most of the country against him. Going to Miami was an excellent business decision, because it allowed him to win the two championships, getting him closer to Jordan, but at an enormous cost to his brand and public image.
In 2014, LeBron chose to return home to Cleveland. He had broken his championship drought, and was prepared to win one for his hometown. By marketing himself as the prodigal son returning home, James’ decision was widely praised. Including a letter published in Sports Illustrated, he masterfully controlled the narrative behind his choice, and his messaging resonated with basketball fans across the globe. This messaging was key to making his brand more famous than ever: everyone could relate to the hometown hero’s return. Contrast this with his decision to leave home, create a superteam, and move to the glitz and glamour of South Florida, and it becomes clear why the second free agency decision was so widely accepted. Once again, LeBron was vindicated, as in 2016, he led the Cavaliers to their ﬁrst NBA championship.
However while his brand was more visible and popular than ever, his professional goals were slipping away. Over the eight years since he ﬁrst left Cleveland, James’ record in NBA Finals was 3-5. In the eyes of many fans, this undeniably him from the discussion of greatest player ever. Jordan never lost in the ﬁnals, and LeBron has lost more than he’s won. He was more famous and beloved than ever, but his ultimate goal was beginning to look unattainable. With his third free agency decision quickly approaching, it was time for LeBron to once again control the narrative behind his brand.
Going home to Cleveland taught James a valuable lesson. By winning just a single championship for his cursed hometown team, he had returned to the good graces of the public, and the staggering achievements and skills that he brought to the game were beginning to be recognized for their own merit, rather than relative to Jordan. LeBron had found his niche, as the hometown hero, and leaned into this role. Doing so had repaired his image and relieved much of the unbearable pressure that he had faced in Miami. However, by rewriting his narrative, and resetting his on and off-court goals, LeBron seems to have conceded the chase of Jordan’s on-court legacy.
By signing with Los Angeles, James signalled that his concerns were with more than just basketball. The Lakers are not considered a contender for the NBA championship this season, and LeBron is already 33, which is nearing old age for a basketball player. Add to this his ongoing ventures in both business and entertainment, and the choice to move to Los Angeles becomes more about LeBron’s life post-basketball. It becomes an acknowledgment that he will never usurp Jordan’s legacy, as well as a rebranding effort into a mogul, rather than just an athlete.
LeBron’s career has been deﬁned by the stories that are told about him. The Hometown Saviour Prodigy. The South Beach Traitor. The Prodigal Son Returning Home. The Basketball Playing Entertainment Tycoon. Each of these deﬁnes a different stage of his career, but what differs between them is the role that he has played in telling each one. As he has become more involved in shaping the narrative around his career, public perception has become increasingly positive. Toss in perks like his $1 billion lifetime Nike contract, and it becomes clear that LeBron has played the game of life perfectly, and is in an ideal situation to transition away from basketball, and into business and Hollywood.
However, in terms of his brand identity, LeBron is still eons behind the Jordan Brand. While his shoes sell quite well, they don’t have nearly the cultural cache and relevance of the Jumpman. A key point to note here is that the LeBron brand seems to rest completely on James’ shoulders, while the Jordan Brand has taken on a life of its own, with outsiders like Spike Lee having enormous impacts on how it is viewed, entirely separate from Jordan. This ability to grow and thrive without the ﬁgurehead always at the centre has been one of the Jordan Brand’s key strengths over time.
There is an interesting application of this line of thinking when it comes to the brands of the mega-companies ruling our economy, and their leadership. We have seen how Apple has made the transition after the death of Steve Jobs, to continue their growth, even though his inﬂuence and philosophy still hang very heavily over the company. It will be fascinating to see how other brands, like Amazon or Tesla, with their charismatic leaders Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk, will be able to ﬁll the branding void that these men will leave, when they must inevitably move on. Perhaps they will ﬁnd similar successors, as the new faces of the company, or make a move like Apple has towards the more conservative Tim Cook. Only time will tell whether the King James brand will be able to survive its icon’s retirement, as the Jordan Brand so successfully has. Perhaps LeBron’s move to L.A. will help him ﬁnish his career with a glossy image that will prepare him for the transition into Hollywood Disney-esc success.