I am one of those people who think that the concept of personal branding is a nursery myth. I mean, the idea is so generic that it is counterintuitive to what branding stands for. Think about it, everyone has a name that identifies and differentiates them from others, and have a personality, which invokes different meanings and emotions among those who know such a person; that’s simply the definition of a brand, which makes everyone a brand. If everyone is a brand, then no one is a brand. Logically, personal branding is a booga-waga (I made up that word) of nonsense.
But you see, for the advocates, personal branding is more than a philosophical dictioneering (another made up word to mean making up words, yaay!). In reality, if the known personality of a person sells things—gets other people to reach their wallet and buy—then that person is a brand, a person-al brand. I think it just about makes sense, because the last time I checked that happens a lot, so often, it will be quite insincere to dismiss the concept of personal branding; it’s some real shit, people, it is, and Nike has just smashed what it means! That’s why my big head is reeling.
The global sports apparel giant has just signed the NBA superstar, LeBron James, to a lifetime deal. Now, take a moment to process that…a moment of silence, s’il vous plaît. Encore…LeBron James, who grew up without a father, born to a teenage mother who raised him single-handedly, is now going to be paid millions every year by Nike till the day he dies…how he wishes he could live forever. Somehow, this is not too surprising, considering Nike had signed him to a $90 million deal when he was only 18. Now after a 13 year-engagement, their marriage has been signed, sealed and making you jealous…together, till death do them part. Why has Nike fallen so hard for LeBron? This has been hailed as a triumph for what a personal brand can do, so let’s go back to personal branding, shall we.
Nike has a line of LeBron James basketball shoes (like Jordan’s) and clothing that are sold at a price point that could feed my family in Ghana for a month. In the past decade that James has been on top of his game, wining two championships and 4 MVPs, his shoes have made Nike an untold fortune. So essentially, all those people who have been hitting their wallets to purchase these expensive LeBron shoes over the years have put him in this enviable position. But why does Nike want him for life, after all he is 30 now, and his career will soon be over. He won’t sell as many shoes in the next decade, will he? Younger, hotter stars like Curry and Durant are selling well and are expected to out-sell LeBron’s soon. Even Jordan’s sell about eight times more than LeBron’s. So why does Nike want to keep the dude for life, considering they have never done that before?
It’s almost romantic to suggest that for all the fortune LeBron has brought Nike, he deserves it; it’s business people, there’s only permanent interest. Michael Jordan has made much more fortunes for Nike, but he didn’t get no such deal. You could also say LeBron has such a strong brand that Nike has found it prudent to keep him as long as he breathes. I don’t buy that either. Steve Jobs, Henry Ford, Laura Ashley, Kiichiro Toyoda, Michael Marks and Thomas Spencer, and even Michael Jordan were all household names that got things made and sold, even revolutionized the way things are sold, but none of them by their sole personalities, or personal brands, if you are keen, sold the million units of the things they produced. Those things flew on the name and quality they gave them, and became their own. That’s my theory.
Nike has been able to establish an upscale basketball shoes market with the LeBron brand, bringing in $340 million last year alone. Although, the man himself had little to do with the management of the brand, he lent it a necessary foundation. LeBron’s shoes have built and are still building on LeBron’s name and career, but Nike knows that long after LeBron is done playing or living, the brand of shoes will live on, because the brand has taken a life of its own. Air Jordan still sells, and sells crazily well, although Michael Jordan has not shot a professional basketball since James shot his first, and they will sell long after the now 52 year old legend is gone. That’s the reason why Apple, Ford and Toyota cars, and Marks and Spencer apparels still sell. Those names built the brand, but the brand has gone on to build its old own life and will live on, if only it is well managed like any other competing brand.
Nike has only done the reasonable thing, because so long as they used his name to build the brand, they were always contractually obliged to pay him some money. They still pay Michael Jordan; Forbes reported that Nike paid him about $90 million last year alone for his Air Jordan’s brand, and LeBron is on the same trajectory, once he retires. So why not make it official publically, and call it a lifetime contract. Nike has simply redecorated royalty payment into romance; it’s nothing to swallow pebbles about.
Yahoo was arguing that Nike perhaps estimates that LeBron will stay relevant after his career. Uhmm, I don’t think so. Nike knows LeBron’s shoes will still be relevant after his career…and life. You think Nike seems to be telling LeBron, “the shoes we put your name on will continue to sell in your lifetime, and so we will pay you as such”. In reality Nike knows the shoes will continue to sell in their lifetime, not just LeBron’s.
What’s my point? I still think personal branding is a lazy concept. I will take a psychology lecture on personality—and I think psychologists are as boring as a monkey on a rock—over a Wes Anderson movie on personal branding. There are people who do things, and build recognizable names, like Mr. James. But once you put these names on products, the product will go on to build a brand of its own, very much independent of the person.
Of course, so long as the person is alive, they provide a reference point for the brand, and so it’s important the person does not mess up, but that applies to every CEO. The person becomes a brand association of the product, and not the other way round.No one thinks LeBron is good because he uses those shoes; they think the shoes are good because LeBron uses them. Branding is meant for things, and well, animals because they were the first to be branded, but come on you can’t brand people!
Somewhere in my village, there is a storekeeper, a tomato seller, a cobbler, a second hand clothes seller and a roadside food seller whose personalities and relationships affects whether and how much people will buy from them. Even they make a more convincing case to be considered as personal brands. But they are not, because they know eventually they sell things, not themselves. Even if Kim Kardashian and her questionable bunch make most of their money by showing their “lives” on TV, people know they are paying for television, and that will remain the product; the Kardashian brand will remain a TV product or whatever they sell these days, and never the person, really. Even sex workers, who literally sell their bodies, do not claim to be personal brands. But if you ever find one like that, call me, and I will definitely change my mind.