Ryan Stoner | Brand Strategist

As a company or a professional looking to rebrand an image, it can be difficult to find a road map. Who can you look to for a positive example? Here are eight lessons for how to rebuild brand reputation, taken from an unlikely source: LeBron James.

You don’t have to be a sports fan to know at least a little of the saga of King LeBron James. Six years ago, in 2010,  he went from hero to villain overnight. The hometown boy with superstar potential took a dramatic nose dive into fans burning LeBron Jerseys in the streets, the city tearing down a giant building-sized poster of him, and the majority-owner of the Cavaliers, Dan Gilbert, pricing LeBron merchandise with the birthdate of Benedict Arnold: $17.41.

He went back to play for the Cavaliers in 2014, and this summer, he won Cleveland its first major sports championship in five decades. The Cavs also became the first NBA team ever to come back from being down 3-1 in the Finals to win. But even more importantly: over the years he’s changed his entire image. Now LeBron James is a hometown hero, an NBA legacy, and entrepreneur.

Here are eight ways he repaired the damage and reframed his image that make for excellent lessons on how to reinvent your brand:

 

      1. Stay true to your core audience.

The perceived betrayal of his home state didn’t just turn off local fans, it rubbed basketball fans across the country wrong. It went against his brand. He had a core audience early, quickly becoming known as the hometown boy looking out for his town. He has been active in working with local Ohio children, including the Boys and Girls Clubs of America, and the high school he himself attended. He is awarding scholarships to the University of Akron to Ohio children. His management business, LRMR, started in 2006 is located in Akron, Ohio, and remained there the entire time he was playing for Miami. Even financially, he’s tied to his hometown: His tenure with the Cavs had a measurable impact on the local economy. For the four years, LeBron was in Miami, ticket sales at games were down by an average of 4,000 attendees per game. When LeBron went back, downtown bars generated between 30 and 200 percent more revenue on game nights than they did the previous season.

Customers aren’t loyal until they feel an emotional bond with your company. When your business pivots away from the original identity and core demographic, even if it’s for valid reasons, you’re severing that emotional tie. In order to rebuild your brand, begin with your audience first and spend time with them. Do research to see what they are missing. Get back to the basics. Who did you aim to start your company for? Why were they most passionate about what you were doing? What are they doing now that you can enable.

 

      2. Explore and master the value of hard work.

When he decided to leave the Miami Heat and return to Cleveland, he didn’t come alone. He actively recruited Kevin Love, and convinced Mike MIller, Shawn Marion, and James Jones, as well. Headhunting isn’t really in the contract for a player, but he was doing what it took to align the goals of his brand and the needs of the business to achieve those goals.

Warren Buffett said LeBron was more business savvy at 21 than he was at the same age. His business moves and wealth management, along with hustling record-breaking endorsements, and the desire to build a Hollywood empire are setting him up to be one of the most wealthy men in America. He works hard on the courts. He coaches his team. He improves consistently and tries not to repeat past mistakes.

Rebuilding a brand takes grit and hard work, too. It’s no easy task to delve into analytics, or to reconnect with your core audience, or to build a brand that suits them and also starts your company down the path you want to be on. It’s not easy to design or tweak a brand identity to innovate while you keep your original core as a touchstone. It’s even more difficult to do all of those things while maintaining a running business.

 

      3. Never stop improving on your weaknesses.

After all the hype of James leaving the Cavs, the new Miami super team went straight to the playoffs in 2011 and then crumbled in the Finals. LeBron shouldered a lot of the blame for the loss. Not only did this garner a little generosity from the public, but it gave James a real sense of humility. He committed himself to getting back in the game, and in the offseason worked very hard, using the loss as motivation.

Everyone stumbles, but it’s important not just to get back up, it’s also important to know why you stumbled to make sure you learn from it. As a company, a lack-of-success doesn’t need to mean failure. Make sure you own up to mistakes, that you redouble your efforts, and that you use any downturns as fuel for the fire.

 

      4. People thrive off of the energy of leaders.

Tiger Woods famously said, “Winning cures everything.” James came back to the game in the 2012 season and brought with him a five-game series win against the Thunder. Two Championship titles and four straight Finals with the heat, followed by this summer’s historic Championship, have left him in a legacy position. He fulfilled his promise to win one for Ohio, but has proved his mettle with the entire country as one of The Greats.

You don’t have to be the underdog to have people root for your successes.  People thrive off of the energy of leaders.  It also takes leader dedicated to an idea to build a culture that can bring people together to produce amazing results. Elevate your game. Succeed graciously. Keep working. Bring your customers and your company in on the success, giving them part of the credit. Talk about emotionally bonding with a brand!

 

      5. Deliver bad news with authenticity.

Star athletes move all the time, it’s pretty common. A 25-year-old kid halfway through his career with no major wins, carrying a weak team? No one can fault him for looking for a better situation. But the way that LeBron made the news public was a disaster. The way he handled press was a disaster. The way he avoided the calls of his management team, leaving his bosses to find out he was leaving on national television? Also a disaster. His loud and public announcement and his actions afterward, broke the hearts of fans and came of narcissistic, braggy, and callous.

Closing a store location, discontinuing a product line or service that failed, laying off employees, or failing to meet projections are all likely occurrences in business. Maybe one of these “bad news” events is what  led you to the rebranding decision. Make sure to handle these tactfully. Don’t lie or hide, but try to keep negative developments quiet. If your company has to make a hard decision to benefit the company, in the long run, make sure that you focus on the reasoning behind it. Too much silver lining can seem like a celebration.

 

      6. Remember fun is contagious.

In his early days, James was known for antics on the floor during games. Pretending to take pictures with a mime camera, hosting dunk contents, dancing. Even when he missed a shot he would stomp and curse with the passion of someone who loves what they do. As his time went on with the Cavs and he felt the pressure of carrying a weak team, he lost a lot of that shine. By the time he went to Miami it wasn’t only the fun that was gone, his frustration and lack of caring affected his game play, too.

Whatever it is that started your business had fire in it. You can’t be successful with just a product, you have to have a product AND the solution to a problem, or have a product AND meet emotional needs, or have a product AND a fire in your belly.

If you lost that fire in the course of doing business every day, if your brand has gotten lost in the shuffle of bottom lines and payroll, it’s time to stop and think. A rebranding will only help you if you know what your company stands for. It won’t artificially give your company the values or purpose that got muddied or outdated. A rebranding helps you showcase that fire in your belly in a different light. If the fire is out, you have to rekindle it first. Deliver an outstanding customer experience, and you won’t have trouble bringing in new business.

 

      7. Know when you’re wrong.

When he was accused of handling The Decision poorly, LeBron bristled at the suggestion he did anything wrong. Press conference after press conference, interview after interview, LeBron ignored criticism and failed to listen to what the public was saying. Just after the special on TV that felt grandiose and self-serving, he participated in a huge, grandiose celebratory rally with his new teammates in Miami, which put a negative stigma on him that would stick around for years.

If people are telling you-you are wrong, don’t get defensive, and don’t argue. Listen. Is your message being heard in a way other than you intended? Maybe your core values aren’t being translated to your customers through your messaging. Does your brand match your product and does your product match your customer and does your customer match your brand?

If there is a disconnect, you have to determine where in the chain it’s coming from. If you made a mistake, own up to it, apologize, and set things right. If you made the right move but had the wrong execution, it’s better to fix things than to try to justify it being the right move. If you’re selling the same product but getting different feedback, you need to look at how you’re selling it. Integrity is important.

 

      8. Leading brands put people center. Use social media to build fan camaraderie.

One of the biggest keys to LeBron James’ hero redemption story is social media. From his personal branding low point, James used every tool at his disposal to being repairing his image, and social media worked miracles. He creates photo collages of players when they retire. He congratulates other athletes on victories, showing his kindness, respect, and camaraderie with others. He tweets about social activism, showing he cares about bigger issues. He Instagrams dentist visits and pedicures, showing a goofy, normal-guy side. His animated YouTube show has each character representing a facet of his personality, giving people a glimpse into his life. He livetweets games he’s watching, rooting for other players. His Instagram is often featured on ESPN. He has millions of followers.

From SportTechie.com: “For instance, many people see James’ signature “chalk toss” as a form of showboating (in which I emphatically disagree with those people). Now, he could have easily stuck with his ritualistic pre-game powder puff, but instead, he took the decision (no pun intended) to social media. By asking the fans whether or not he should continue his powder toss, LeBron could really do no wrong.”

Having a social media presence and a strong brand isn’t just a part of sales, it’s a way to let your audience into the inner sanctum. Be open. Be true to the voice of your company. Support other companies. Let people in. Interact with them. Listen to them. Joke with them, if it fits your voice. Not only will you strengthen your brand, and sell your product, you’ll get incredible -and instant- feedback on what is working and what isn’t working.