Return of the King: Lebron James Masters the Personal Brand Rebound

Lebron James has been such a fixture in the sports and marketing worlds for so long, it can be difficult to remember he’s only been in the NBA since 2003. Along the way, Lebron and LeBrand have been multimedia fixtures, exploited by and exploiting media channels.

Today, we are seeing the intersection of social media and sports, for better or (more often) for worse; witness the summer of Heisman winner Johnny Manziel and the current Twitter battle between the Knicks’ JR Smith and Bucks’ Brandon Jennings. Before that, however, there was the print, broadcast, cable and online video multimedia coronation that delivered us Lebron James.

Birth of the King

Lebron almost single-handedly ushered in the era of year-round high school sports coverage on national cable TV. During 2002-2003, in his final two years at St. Vincent-St. Mary in Cleveland, his team traveled across the country for several made-for-tv games, including one against perennial power Oak Hill Academy that was nationally televised on ESPN2.


Image Credit: Sports Illustrated

During his junior season, Sports Illustrated featured him on the cover as “The Chosen One” (see image above) and the local Time Warner Cable offered St. Vincent-St. Mary’s games to subscribers on a pay-per-view basis throughout the season. James, then only 17, of course reaped none of the financial benefit, but lots of other people did.

Down Goes the King

Given all the adulation and speculation when James pursued free agency in 2010, it was no surprise that when he completed his courtships, he decided to exploit the media to his advantage with ESPN’s “The Decision.” This event was literally unprecedented and while the telecast had noble, charitable intentions, it was an epic brand failure.

The charitable side worked; the live broadcast from the Boys & Girls Club of Greenwich, CT, raised $2.5 million and an additional $3.5 million in ad revenue that was donated to other charities. Still, it did irreparable damage to James’ reputation. With his live declaration of “taking my talents to South Beach,” James’ decision transformed from a basketball transaction to a brand meltdown. The broadcast was widely lampooned and met with anger and even burned jerseys in his scorned hometown of Cleveland.

A Re-Coronation (Of Sorts)

On the court, there can be little argument with James’ decision to join Chris Bosh and Dwayne Wade on the Miami Heat. They have appeared in the NBA Finals all three years together, winning the past two years and beginning to fulfill the promise of bringing multiple championships to Miami.

Following last year’s “Heat Repeat” as NBA Champion, Lebron’s standing as the elite player in the NBA is without question, but still his overall brand image beyond hoops lags behind Michael Jordan’s at the same point in his career. Despite Lebron’s continued development as a leader and his dominance on the hardwood, he has not created an image beyond the sport he dominates. He remains known in non-basketball circles more for “The Decision” than anything else… that is until now.

He Walks Among Us

With the start of the latest NBA season, Nike & Samsung, Lebron’s two largest sponsors, launched high-profile, heavy media rotation 60-second spots that humanize him. Whether by coincidence or careful brand planning, it is clear that the king now walks among us in Nike’s “Training Day” spot (below). The Heat forward exhibits his intense daily workout routine, while inspiring the children of Miami to follow along. As James told the Associated Press, “So much fun, man.”

He said, “The message is obvious. I want people to feel like they’re at one with me and I had a lot of fun, shooting it all over Miami and to have all those kids, it was great.”

Samsung’s “At Home” spot takes the viewer a level deeper, showing James at home and at play with his family. Again, he is training, but this time with his son riding on his back while he does pushups. He also hits a mid-court length shot into the swimming pool basket from the second-story balcony. But the real star is his humanity, his everyman engagement with his wife and son around the house and the hoop. Sure, his house is bigger than ours, but lots of fathers have played out the last second shot in the driveway. In other words, he is just like one of us.

The Ultimate Rebound

Basketball fans will continue to debate where King James ranks with the all-time greats, but amongst the broader, mainstream audience, his brand has rebounded into rarified air and these two spots clearly illustrate this comeback. While we may not literally be able to keep up with his training regime, Nike and Samsung have invited us to try… and to become a part of the King’s court and LeBrand’s team.

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