The LeBron Machine, Personal Branding and Storytelling

Personal branding, and the reputation management that goes along with it, is a continual process that follows the same formula – in a broad sense – as when the craft is applied to the corporate world. You create an identity that is easy for stakeholders to recognize and understand, then maintain and grow it through more activities – stories – that add narrative to the brand.

The benefits of branding is why communicators routinely conduct community relations campaigns. It’s why soft news stories are pitched to the media about the principals of an organization. In the case of both personal and corporate branding, the art that goes along with managing the brand is storytelling – and doing it well requires work.

What does personal branding have to do with crises? If you’ve been adept at telling your story during the good times, you have a better chance of adding currency to your trust, credibility and public goodwill banks ahead of a crisis. When crisis strikes, your story will grow and chapters will be added so it’s helpful if the crisis stuff isn’t the only chapter in your book. As you mitigate the crisis, your brand’s narrative will benefit from having several chapters beforehand (and ideally, many more after.)

What does it take to have an effective story that grows your personal brand? Your story doesn’t have to just be positive, but it has to be compelling.

My friend Thomas is a darn fine writer, so I got hold of him the other day to simply ask, “What does a good story need, and why?” His response, “A good story needs a protagonist on a journey, the Joseph Campbell ‘hero on a quest’ formula. The beginning of the story isn’t nearly as important as the ending but the reader has to care whether or not the hero gets where they were supposed to go. As a writer, you can chase the hero up the tree and throw rocks at them, and if you wish the hero can fall out of the tree and break his neck and die. But the reader needs to care that the hero tried to climb the tree in the first place.”

Thomas was reading a book when I got hold of him, and was a few pages past a line that foreshadowed our conversation, and the hook of this piece: “Narrative. Consumers don’t buy products, so much as narrative.” A magical coincidence.

Celebrities seem to create the best (and worst) narratives when creating and maintaining a personal brand, so there are plenty of lessons to be gleaned by paying attention to how they do it.

Short Case Study: King James and JFF

The rest of this is not a sports piece (I promise), but two narratives I’ve been following closely the last few weeks are those of LeBron James and Johnny Manziel. Partly because I’m a Cleveland sports fan, but mostly because their continuing stories are compelling, and there’s a lot to be learned by how they manage their personal brands.

If you’re unfamiliar with the James saga, four years ago he broke hearts across the Buckeye State in grand fashion when he turned leaving the Cleveland Cavaliers into a circus primetime programming with “The Decision.” Two weeks ago he announced “I’m Coming Home,” to the delight (understatement) of many Ohio sports fans.

Celebrities and personal branding is certainly nothing new. James’ is noteworthy, though, in that there’s a continuing story, cast of characters with “good guys” and “bad guys,” and he is willingly allowing others to write parts of his story, and he embraces those ghostwriters (when they make acceptable additions to the story). As my friend Thomas told me the other day, people care about this character and his continuing story.

So, James’ latest chapter in the story, the homecoming, is brilliant in that he drew from the same emotional well that “The Decision” did. Except, of course, this time in a positive way (for Cavs fans). Because those fans continued to care about his narrative, there were literally parties in the streets of Cleveland when he decided to come back. People throughout the region bought-in to the double meaning of his announcement – not only was their sports hero coming back to the team, but he could also be the region’s favorite son again. Fans used words like “redemption” and “forgiveness” after James’ latest announcement.

People are buying into some kind of emotional response that because he’s from Northeast Ohio, his return is that much more important to fans. Believe me when I write this: No. One. Cares. That. He. Grew. Up. In. That. Area. Well, his family and close friends back home probably do, but that’s different. Fans care that he’s a champion, and that he’s going to play for their favorite team again, and maybe that team will finally win a championship. If James grew up in Spokane (a fine town), people would be just as excited about his return to Cleveland sports. (full disclosure: just like LeBron, I grew up in Akron. That’s probably about all we have in common. Unless maybe he also craves JoJos from Fiesta with Lawson’s chip dip fortnightly.)

Sports fandom is weird, but that’s a whole ‘nother piece. That emotional well that James’ has drawn from in Cleveland? It’s also flavored with this: In North American professional sports, Cleveland has suffered the longest championship drought. It’s been 50 years since any team there has won anything.

Besides being from that area, how do I know that right now a compelling story is the most important part of a few personal brands in Cleveland? More important than those emotional assertions that draw on regional pride? Unless you’re following the narrative, you might not know that Manziel is currently his team’s backup quarterback. And, unless you’re a football fan, you’ve probably never even heard of the starter, Brian Hoyer.

Hoyer grew up in Cleveland, and was a fan of all the city’s teams in his youth (and, by the way, LeBron grew up as a fan of the Cowboys, Yankees and Bulls. Such hometown loyalty!). There weren’t any parties in the streets when he “came back home” last year. Which quarterback has his image on billboards around town, and currently has the number one selling jersey in all of football? Manziel. Is this love based on talent and ability? How could it be? He’s never played a down in the NFL (undeniably a highly skilled college QB, of course, with a LOT of potential for greatness [touch wood]). He just happens to have a more compelling story, and his personal brand is stronger than Hoyer’s. He has more currency in the trust, credibility and goodwill banks, at the moment, for many people. Also, that 50-year championship drought has fans hoping for elite athletes, homegrown or not.

Manziel doesn’t have the army of professional contributors (yet) to help tell his story like James does (publicists, handlers, social media managers, etc), but they do share this in common – other people are adding chapters to their story, and both athletes are embracing them. Manziel’s famous friends post party pics of him on social media, and he responds to criticism adeptly, reminding people that he’s young and is going to have fun during his free time. Both narratives continue to develop through third-party sources.

Lessons Learned

The lessons for all of us non-celebrities?

During our routine work, we’ll build a narrative that people care about. If we’re good at personal branding ahead of crisis – telling people our story, and making it compelling – we, too, will have many ghostwriters. The old crisis comms adage of, “If you don’t tell your story, someone else will,” can be a benefit. You supply these potential ghostwriters with a good, compelling foundation ahead of time, nurture it with facts when crisis strikes (assuming that you’re responding to crisis effectively) and they’ll add positive chapters to the book.

Also, if you have currency in your trust, credibility and goodwill accounts, you’ll be able to weather a few storms here and there, because people will care about you due, in part, to the narrative you’ve already established and continue to craft. Lastly, a successful personal brand will mean that people who are already paying attention to your story will listen when you need them to the most – during the response to and recovery from a crisis incident.

A former boss imparted words of wisdom to me years ago when he said, “It’s not about who you know, it’s about who knows you.” People know you through the story you tell, so make it a good one.

Talk to me, Goose.

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