Personal Branding; it’s more than just a logo

What a sporting year 2018 has been so far! The World Cup saw England reach the semi-finals and France ‘borrow’ the World Cup (from England) for the second time; Novak Djokovic won Wimbledon for the fourth time and Serena Williams lost out to Angelique Kerber a mere 10 months or so after giving birth; Lewis Hamilton is on course to win another World Drivers’ Championship and has signed another record breaking deal with Mercedes-AMG Petronas; and Wayne Rooney has decided that he’s going to play ‘soccer’ in the US.

So, it’s business as usual then! Well, not quite. Sport is big business, and big business is about making money, a lot of money, but how? How does a sporting enterprise generate the kind of returns that sees club brands like Manchester United, The Dallas Cowboys and The New York Yankees valued in the £/$/€ billions? Of course, television rights, sponsorship deals, kit and merchandise sales, ticket sales etc. deliver considerable income for the club, but it’s their ‘soft assets’ that underpin revenue generation; the players.

While clubs have recognised the importance of players as brand assets – and use them as such, both off, as well as on, the field of play – it’s only in recent years that players have started to appreciate their value beyond simply kicking or hitting a ball. Of course, they are only ‘valued’ (by their club and fans) because they can kick or hit a ball, but beyond their athletic prowess is an inspirational story about the personal journey undertaken to reach the heights of their sport. It’s a story to celebrate and it’s a story that can inspire others.

Players have always had fans and devotees, but becoming increasingly visible is the growth in “personal branding”, which is the practice of actively positioning and building a ‘value narrative’ into one’s persona, and creating a marque, stamp or mnemonic to support this message, association, expectation, belief in the mind of a ‘consumer’ (fan, team, sponsor etc.).

Of course, managing one’s image has been around for millennia, but the strategic process of curating a perception in someone else’s mind, as per the role of positioning in business and consumer branding, was first touched upon in Al Ries and Jack Trout’s 1980’s classic ‘Positioning: The Battle for your Mind’. The actual term ‘personal branding’ was coined by business management writer, Tom Peters in the late 1990s in his essay ‘The Brand Called You’, which examines the role of creating and marketing a distinct image to stand out in corporate America. While the article might be over 20 years old and written around the time Michael Jordan was Nike, the thinking still resonates with, and actually has more relevance to, today’s hyper-saturated, hyper-competitive, hyper-connected world where differentiating oneself from the crowd is becoming increasingly difficult.

So, why is ‘personal branding’ becoming increasingly commonplace? If we look at who is branding themselves – those at the top of their game, such as Lewis Hamilton, to those heading into the twilight of their careers, such as Roger Federer and Cristiano Ronaldo – and the answer is closely tied to the business of sport; simply an athlete’s ability to generate a return on their image.

With revenue in mind, there are 3 underlying motivations when looking at ‘personal branding’ in sports – efficiency, fear and relevance – and the level of importance will change according to where a professional athlete is in their career. If early or midway through, a brand (and supporting logo) is an efficient way of engaging sponsorship, because it signifies the values an athlete possesses that a brand might leverage through affiliation. However, if entering the twilight of professional sports, the motivation becomes fear and relevance, or more accurately, fear about staying relevant.

The abilities of the professional athlete will naturally establish a certain positioning in the mind of stakeholders, and all professional athletes will benefit from this natural order, but actively nurturing a positioning (derived from this ability) is a strategic undertaking that not only requires a shift in an individual’s mentality, but more importantly, a shift in management culture to encourage players to think long term and beyond the immediacy of their physical prowess.

And this is the crux of the challenge; it’s a hard shift to make in the minds of athletes when they’re paid astronomical wages and being traded for ludicrous sums of money. It’s the modern reality where the business of sport validates a player’s sense of self worth based upon their innate ability, but ability will only last so long. Nurturing a player’s mental and physical well being, while a paid professional, is the job of a team manager or coach, but when it comes to ‘what’s next?’ many athletes simply don’t think about it, or are woefully ill equipped for life beyond sport.

As the protagonists in our own story, we’re all narcissists to a certain extent, but this tends to be tempered by a healthy dose of realism. A retiring athlete, however, will be coming from a world that revolves around them into a world where they are fast losing attention. And this must be petrifying.

Of course, the notion of loyalty in the world of brands is as fleeting as the notion of celebrity in the world of sports. The lifetime of a sports star is finite and if you’re not winning, you’re no longer relevant, but that doesn’t diminish the competitive spirit or the quest for personal development at the heart of all performance ambitions. After all, the fundamental characteristics that see an athlete reach the heights of their chosen profession – the passion, focus, dedication, relentless ambition to be the best, perseverance and discipline to pursue their dream, confidence and tenacity – are values that everyday people aspire to, and players are waking up to this opportunity.

You only need to look at Cristiano Ronaldo’s Twitter following (71.4M) to appreciate the immense ‘value’ that his personal brand represents.

While having strong brand recognition will introduce professional athletes to opportunities during their career, once they transition out of sports into a more everyday existence, how effectively they defined, positioned and built their image and values will impact upon their future career opportunities. By this, I mean their ability to leverage the physical and mentalattributes that facilitated sporting success towards another relevant career opportunity.

For example, Roger Federer is well recognised for being calm and measured as a player, so aligning with another brand or industry where such attributes are valued and desired will facilitate his career longevity beyond tennis. I doubt he’ll turn his hand to marketing skateboards any time soon.

Of course, an athlete’s managed perceptions can only open doors, how they subsequently perform in their new role will determine how successful they are in the longer term. While their ‘purpose’ might remain the same, as their career moves beyond competition and in another direction, their value proposition, positioning, messaging and identity will need to evolve in line with their new experience.

It’s the same for branding in any industry; the role of ‘design’ is not always to make sweeping changes to how a brand is positioned or presented, but to build equity into visual assets and language while ensuring the brand remains fresh and relevant to market dynamics.

Branding is a continual journey, and athletes, retiring or otherwise, are but travellers on their own unique path. And everyone’s path is unique; just look at how Serena Williams is evolving from a hard-hitting, aggressive and relatively emotionless competitor to a devoted new mum, and her success in balancing these two distinct personas is impacting everything about the way she positions herself and her abilities.

She has been the figurehead for brands such as Nike for nearly 15 years because of her dominating brand of tennis, but now at age 36 and presenting as more human while still performing at or near the top of her game, will undoubtedly open new doors. I say will, it already has; her new relationship with Ford-owned luxury car maker, Lincoln and the Navigator marque, which replaces her 3-year stint as ‘Chief Sporting Officer’ for Aston Martin, reflects this shift in perception; after all, a spacious ‘sports utility vehicle’ (SUV), is a more relevant mode of transport for a new mother with baby than a two-seater sports car.

Obviously, having a baby is not a strategic decision in terms of brand building (at least it shouldn’t be!), but how she has managed such a change in lifestyle yet returned to the heights of her sport is testament to her mental strength as a professional athlete, as a businesswoman, and as a new mum. Lincoln is just one example, but it will be interesting to see how Serena’s new positioning will activate further sponsorship or endorsement deals, although it’s safe to assume she will remain with Nike because of the power that her ‘softer’ positioning will lend towards marketing campaigns targeting women.

In conclusion, brand definition, positioning and identity should be considered fundamental during a player’s career. If they’re smart (or the people around them are smart), they will be proactive in defining their unique brand narrative as early as possible to the benefit of engaging relevant endorsements and opportunities during their career, while owning a value-added perception will undoubtedly facilitate their onward journey. If they leave it too late, the lack of relevance they so fear will undermine the value they offer to a society where standing out requires more than ‘just’ a nice logo and a pair of CR7s.

Welcome to the real world.

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