LeBron James: Rebuilding the Brand

Rewind just five years ago to the backyards and streets of Cleveland where hundreds of angered fans burned jersey #23 following the infamous “Decision”. Nearly ten million people tuned in that evening in July of 2010 to witness the PR nightmare created by LeBron James and his young marketing team. Many would share the sentiment in the months and years following that it wasn’t his decision to leave that had adoring fans so irate, but the callous manner in which he did it. I shared that sentiment, suggesting that the Cavalier’s front office and media’s portrayal of James as a mature-beyond-his-years leader was an absolute hoax. LeBron had been vocal about his passion for building the greatest brand on the planet, and “The Decision” seemed to ensure that was unlikely to happen.

Fast forward five years later to the Summer of 2015, just several months following an unprecedented performance in the NBA Finals by a clearly more mature and self-confident James. Yesterday, I had the privilege of attending my fourth event by The LeBron James Family Foundation, thanks to my wife and JP Morgan Chase. LeBron’s foundation is dedicated to empowering Akron’s underprivileged youth and their families to succeed. Among 1,100 students and their families, James announced that his foundation and the University of Akron will sponsor full college scholarships to those students who complete the I Promise programand meet their grade requirements.

From James via ESPN: “I think it’s probably one of the best things I’ve ever been apart of, this is very special to me. As a kid growing up in the inner city and as an African American kid, you don’t really think past high school because it’s not possible or your family can’t support you. For us to be able to do something like this … it means so much.”

So back to LeBron James — the brand. All great brands, like people, mature over time. And like us, they are subject to missteps and poor judgment. But as history has shown, a brand can recover from mistakes and regain loyalty given time and the right approach. Back in 2010, I despised LeBron for the ego that inspired his nationally televised debacle, and as a marketing professional, was absolutely perplexed that he and his brand leadership team could be so misguided and fail to predict the aftermath and fall from grace that would follow. After all, they were betraying what is arguably the most loyal fan base in all of sports and adding yet another chapter to Cleveland’s sports hall of shame.

Most would have never fathomed the possibility of his return to Cleveland. Just imagine the soul searching, conversations and strategy that led to this unlikely reunion. Think about the reconciliation between James and Cavs owner Dan Gilbert, which not only seemed unlikely but impossible given the public display of disgust they had once shown each other.

But camp James recognized that this was bigger than emotion or personal grudges. And as expressed in his “I’m Coming Home” letter, it’s “bigger than basketball.” It was about rebuilding a brand bigger than LeBron James. I witnessed it yesterday as a humbled James stood before 1,100 young people and their families to renew a commitment to help them attain a better quality of life. To this “extended family,” he never really left. Even while he was in Miami, LeBron’s foundation and their unwavering commitment to the underprivileged of Akron only grew stronger.

I’ve been to many foundation and charitable events over the years. I’ve never experienced such a strong sense of community and heartfelt allegiance as evident at a The LeBron James Family Foundation event. You can’t fake authenticity. Passion for positive family influence and fostering the children of Akron is genuine and clearly what drives the “kid from Akron” and the many who lead his foundation. While a $41 million investment in their future is of sizable generosity, the long term impact will be measurably greater.

As for the LBJ brand, it has been strengthened and refueled by an impressive sequence of events demonstrating leadership, high performance and passion. From a very personal letter announcing his return (to a city enjoying a major resurgence of its own), to an unforgettable run in the NBA Playoffs and Finals despite all odds against his battered team. And now, a strengthening of his foundation and unprecedented support for a community in need of hope from their hometown hero. This story has all of the makings a great brand, rebuilt.

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