In this edition of Badass Brand Breakdown, I’m talking about *the king* of personal branding: LeBron James. We’ll go through some of the key elements of his brand to help you get a better understanding of how sports branding actually works.
This is a LeBron James household!
So, let’s get this out of the way: LeBron James is my favorite basketball player. I’m not saying he’s the greatest of all time (not even going to get into that argument), but he’s my favorite. The man is a four-time champion, four-time MVP, 17-time all-star, a fucking badass, and to top it all off, he’s a master of personal branding. Truly one of the branding GOATs, LeBron has mastered his image more than probably any other NBA player. He’s built an incredible, VERY successful, profitable, and wealthy brand, and he’s done it differently than other mega-stars have in the past.
Obviously, Michael Jordan has the Jordan brand, which is fucking insane and worth soooooo much money. But, LeBron took a totally different approach to building his brand and his business. It really laid a foundation that the next generation of athletes, stars, and even businesses have learned tremendously from.
Here’s why LeBron’s approach to branding is SO special:
1. He embraces the image
LeBron really embraced branding and the media. He is extremely calculated about his image; he knows exactly what he’s doing. He learned how to speak to the media and make moves to strategically control his own narrative. Other athletes haven’t quite been so successful at that: they’ve either immediately gone at odds with the media or not recognized the power of their own brand. Something that LeBron understood at 17-years-old.
2. He builds partnerships
His strategy business-wise has also focused on building partnerships with other brands that allowed him to spread his influence out versus solely with just his own named brand and business.
3. He uses it for good
LeBron was a game-changer in this generation, this modern era, of using his platform for good. From a branding standpoint, This is the most prominent contrast you see with someone like Michael Jordan, who refused to get involved in politics or social justice issues. LeBron is an extremely vocal activist for the issues he’s passionate about. He set the tone for other athletes of this generation to not “shut up and dribble,” as he was told, and use their platform and influence to create change in the world.
Badass Brand Breakdown: Lebron James
Typically, when you’re building your personal brand, you might start out saying, “This is my strategy and this is the message I want to communicate.” We don’t know if LeBron did that. I would imagine he had those checkpoints over time. However, I think when he was that young kid, these things just came naturally. This is often the case with a personal brand.
Your personality, conditions, and interests develop and come out over time, and then you can shape them strategically into something that makes sense business-wise.
Over the past 17 or 18 years, he has become much more calculated where I imagine every move he makes is deliberate and in alignment with those values, message, and strategy.
Mission: Inspire Greatness
What is LeBron James’ why, or what is his mission? I would say it’s to inspire greatness. He uses the message “to empower greatness” for one of his media companies as their spelled-out mission, and I think that’s the through-line through his entire brand. It’s about showing you that anything is possible and making people believe they have greatness inside them.
Core Message: King James
Your core message is pretty much the most crucial part of your brand strategy, and often it’s the same as your tagline. It’s basically the single idea you want people to know about your brand and what you stand for.
LeBron’s core message would probably be “King James.” That has been his moniker, his nickname, and his identity since he first came on the scene as the self-proclaimed “King,” and he’s really embraced that. That moniker has carried through all of the things he’s done from both an achievement and success standpoint.
Tagline: Just a Kid from Akron
Your tagline is a short, sweet marketing message that encapsulates the main idea about your brand.
The tagline that he uses most often is “just a kid from Akron.” He comes from Akon, Ohio, the inner city, from really humble beginnings, and he uses this phrase and narrative repeatedly to demonstrate the trajectory, the hero’s journey, that’s gone on throughout his career. This idea helps us believe that we can accomplish our goals if we work hard enough and believe in ourselves.
“Just a kid from Akron” kind of counteracts the “King James” idea, which is very a royal, regal, and bravado type of moniker. It says, “Yes, I have reached the pinnacle of success, but I started way down here as just a kid from Akron.” That dichotomy is central to his brand.
Support messages are the pillars of your brand. They’re the proof points that demonstrate how you do things differently or bring that brand to life.
As LeBron’s brand has grown and evolved over the past decade or two, so have his support messages. If you look on his website, he organizes it into The Philanthropist, The Businessman, The Man, and The Athlete, aka the four roles that LeBron plays in his personal brand.
This is an awesome way to think about your personal brand in terms of the roles you play in your life or your business. Everything he does aligns with one of those core categories, and those are the things he’s trying to bring to life in all of his actions, both in real life and strategically with his marketing and branding.
Brand Personality: The Hero
Your brand personality is the set of human characteristics that bring your brand to life and make it unique.
LeBron is the quintessential hero brand archetype. He’s all about achievement, inspiring greatness, strength, perseverance, determination, hard work – all of the classic hero brand characteristics (check out this blog to learn more on the 12 brand archetypes).
The one unique thing about LeBron that differentiates him personality-wise from Jordan, Kobe, or any of the other NBA mega-stars is his playfulness. People say that he doesn’t have the killer instinct, and you can see that in his playstyle as it’s much more inclusive and not just “me, me, me.” LeBron has lots of fun while playing; you can tell he doesn’t want to do it if it’s not fun. We see this off the court, too. He just has a very playful and silly side. You could argue that this is just as important as his competitive nature. Playfulness is a fresh element that you don’t always see in the hero brand.
Your brand values are the core beliefs that guide everything you do. They’re what you stand for.
As I alluded to earlier, what’s most notable about LeBron’s legacy and brand is his activism. He has extremely clear brand values that he is living out in his actions, often at great risk to his livelihood or are just controversial. He comes under fire quite a bit. He proactively puts himself in those crosshairs to speak up about anti-racism, social justice, police violence, and other political issues.
Some of his brand values are:
- Anti-racism, equality, inclusivity
- Perseverance, and hard work
- Being yourself and doing things your own way
He sometimes talks about playing basketball the “right way” or references “The Man in the Arena,” a famous speech by Theodore Roosevelt that advocates this idea that you’re the one working hard, and while you’re going to endure criticism, you have to remain true to yourself.
One of the biggest examples of LeBron’s brand values in action is with the I Promise School in Cleveland. He partnered with the public school district to create a special school specifically for at-risk, disadvantaged kids, whether that was economically or socially, and really created a whole-ass school!
He wasn’t the first to do this; Jalen Rose has as well (so shoutout Jalen Rose!), but it was an incredible example of using his power, money, foundation, and all of these things to create real change. They’re giving scholarships to students through college, providing meals, and all these other things to reshape the lives of all the students at their school.
Iconography are the visuals that become associated with your brand. This could include your logo and other elements of your visual identity.
Ever since he first partnered with Nike, LeBron has had a super iconic logo: his initials, LJ with a crown. This logo is the central point of his visual branding. As he’s been on different teams (from the Cavs, to Miami, the Cavs again, and now the Lakers), some of his own visual identity has changed in terms of jerseys, colors, and other aspects. Outside of that, many of his brands hinge on using black and white and just that classic sleek, athletic aesthetic.
Every personal brand or iconic figure has a few things they’re known for. For example, Lebron has:
- His chalk toss and the beginning of games
- The celebration where he pumps his arms and legs and hits his chest
- He also kind of an iconic gait
- And he’s known for chase-down blogs
They’re just these specific things about his mannerisms and body language that have become known, imitated, and even celebrated in the world of sports.
All right, here’s the big piece. Let’s talk sub-brands, brand partnerships, brand activation – all of the ways you take the ideas behind your brand and actually bring them to life in the world.
LeBron has his hands in A LOT of pies.
Throughout his career, LeBron has had sponsorship deals or endorsements with huge brands like Coco-Cola, McDonald’s, Walmart, and GMC.
Investments & Partnerships
LeBron’s most notable brand partnership is with Nike. It’s reported that he has a LIFETIME deal with them for God knows how much money. With them, he’s got his signature shoe (a lot of them, actually), and it’s been incredibly lucrative for him.
He’s also one of the founding investors and biggest brand ambassadors for Blaze Pizza. He, along with several other celebrities, created the brand Ladder and he’s an investor in Beats by Dre.
LeBron takes it further than your traditional sponsorship/athlete-brand relationship by becoming an investor in many of these brands.
Furthermore, he’s started expanding his influence into media:
- He played himself in the film Trainwreck.
- He created the media platform Uninterrupted, which promotes athletes using their voice in social change, including the show The Shop on HBO
- He’s behind several movies that are in production, including the Space Jam sequel. (TBH, I have some mixed feelings about it as Space Jam was a huge part of my childhood, but without a doubt, it’s going to be a huge blockbuster).
- His production company SpringHill Company is behind the film Dreamland about the Tulsa Race Massacre–directed by my college friend Salima Koroma (shoutout to Salima – she’s fucking awesome).
Lebron’s production company is really out there lending their weight, resources, and voice to a lot of creators.
Take it from LeBron…
When it comes to your personal brand, you can lay out all the strategy you want, but it all comes down to your real-life actions.
You can see this in good ways like his activism and the I Promise School and in negative ways like his decision announcement to go to Miami, which was a real point of contention and crisis for his personal brand. His subsequent success in Miami, and then the decision to return to Cleveland and bring them their first championship in that iconic sports moment, cemented him as the Hometown Hero, counteracting all the all that bad from “the decision,” in most people’s eyes.
Your personal brand isn’t just about the content you put out or the endorsements and partnerships you have. It’s highly dependent on your real-life actions, as it should be.
Your personal brand is about your reputation, your character, and how you treat people. So, you need to be just as mindful and make sure that your real-life actions that bring your brand to life align with the message you want to put out there and the strategy you’re implementing to build your brand.
That’s it for my guy, LeBron James. I hope you learned a little something about how branding actually works in practice through the lens of my favorite basketball player.
Until next time, stay badass!
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