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As Consumers, We Are All Witnesses.

July 14, 2010

The LeBron James Mural being taken down, courtesy of AP

In Hans Christian Andersen’s charming fairy tale, The Emperor’s New Clothes, the emperor’s subjects along the parade route were too afraid to speak up about their leader’s new suit, or lack thereof. It took a child to say what no one else would, “But he has nothing on!”

Oh, how times have changed.

Today, of course, we’re all witnesses to however leaders parade before us. But unlike the emperor’s subjects, we’re now technologically empowered, connected to each other, and more than willing to speak up.

In this reshuffled world, life is playing out as fairy tales of old…

King James, The Brand

Once upon a time, not too long ago, LeBron James of the NBA Cleveland Cavaliers was one of the most popular athletes in the world. He emerged as a star on the NBA stage straight out of high school. For basketball, he was a physical freak of nature. Nike hailed him as “King James,” and proclaimed, “we are all witnesses” to his greatness. We were in awe, and we believed.

But in the NBA, where one’s legacy is assessed constantly, it’s one thing to be a superstar, and quite another to be a king. True kings win NBA championships. Russell has 11. Jordan has six. Magic and Kobe have five. Duncan has four. Seven seasons in, James has none.

In the last two years, when James had championship-caliber teams and still lost in the playoffs, voices began saying, “LeBron can’t win.” “He quit in the playoffs.” “LeBron builds his brand while Kobe wins championships.”

It’s as though more and more people were looking at King James and saying, “But he has no rings!”

In the midst of these voices, LeBron the free agent, contemplated his future and where it will be. After months of build-up and anticipation, he chose Miami and new superstar teammates over his hometown. Cleveland fans instantly lamented, its owner retaliated, and LeBron jerseys were burned. Some outside Cleveland said that this decision confirmed that James simply cannot win as the leader of his team.

But it was the way in which he announced his decision–in a one-hour television special called “The Decision”– that has most people annoyed. Some believe that the TV show was the moment that James “jumped the shark,” a term used to describe a moment when something that was once great damages itself and loses popularity.

James is now the butt of spoofs. “King James” is not uttered much these days, replaced instead by torching critiques saying James reached “a new level of narcissism.”

The picture at the top of the post says it all about the state of James’ image. In a two-year turnaround, he’s gone from most popular to unpopular with many across the world. From nice guy to hated in his hometown, with his image being taken down, an idol no longer worthy of worship.

Because James has evidently taken his cues from Nike and its formula for brand development and management, he’s in no position strategically to lower himself to the masses and communicate with the media in a non-controlled setting. I guess that makes him just like the old Tiger, minus the other issues. It also means that he wasn’t heeding the lessons learned from Tiger’s train wreck.

What’s the moral of the story for mission-driven organizations, large and small?

1. You’re not above it all. You’re in the same environment as the major brands. We’re all witnesses to how you behave as an organization, how you serve your constituents, how you treat people, and how you handle money. And we’re talking to each other about it.

2. Your branding and PR must be consistent with reality. If reality isn’t good, then fix it. Now.

3. Develop a marketing plan that includes a social media strategy. Listen to your publics. Talk with them. When problems happen–and they will–you’ll be in a position to talk with your constituents about your problem, as well as your authentic approach to fixing it.

LeBron James’ approach to fixing his brand problems? He needs to win championships and live out a humble spirit, gleaned from the lesson that he’s not above the new rules of brands co-existing with consumers as vocal witnesses.

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