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The Decision…To Repair Your Brand

Posted On  July 24, 2014

In the fall of 2010 following “The Decision: Part I,” LeBron James paraded around NBA cities with a chip on his shoulder, playing the role of villain everywhere he went. Night in and night out, he relished hearing boos from the crowd . He sought to prove that, despite being reviled throughout the country, he could still successfully climb the mountain and sit atop the throne – the throne of King James, NBA champion.

As it turns out though, LeBron didn’t really relish hearing those boos. In fact, the “LeBron as villain” brand always felt out of character for him. He soon regretted the way he spurned his hometown of Cleveland with his summer 2010 public announcement. That misstep critically injured the high-and-mighty LeBron brand and reduced the player to just another self-involved athlete who, unaware of his surroundings, disappointed the myriad children in Ohio who looked up to him.

Now, 4-years later, LeBron returns to Cleveland. But long before this announcement was made, LeBron had begun to repair his blemished brand image. To do this, he drew attention to his determination, which he said was responsible for leading the Miami Heat to four consecutive NBA finals and two championships. He highlighted his infectious smile that he’d brandished throughout his career. He hopes his fans will forgive.

James’ story isn’t unique. Even the strongest of brands are susceptible to quick drops in their equity due to public relations disasters. (Just ask CEO Mary Barra, who is diligently working to repair GM’s image, following its ignition-switch debacle .) But, brands can climb their way back from mistakes through hard work, diligence and consistent messaging, eventually growing even stronger than before.

The LeBron brand journey still has a long way to go, and James has clearly learned from his blunder, recognizing that it will take time and consistency to revitalize his brand’s equity. In his “The Decision: Part II” announcement, LeBron closed with new-found self-awareness he’d lacked four years prior: “In Northeast Ohio, nothing is given. Everything is earned. You work for what you have. I’m ready to accept the challenge. I’m coming home.”


  1. Let’s not forget the classic Hollywood adage that everyone loves a comeback story. Both celebrities and brands alike have successfully written their “comeback stories” after periods of deep tragedy or simple missteps that marred their image. Fascinating when you think about it in the context of more traditional brands….

  2. As someone who truly despises LeBron, and wants him to fail miserably, I’m impressed by the PR he’s done in the past few weeks (a good SI article, no stupid ESPN show, and delivering cupcakes from his whole family to Akron neighbors who dealt with media frenzy in their homes) and I’m interested to see how his narrative changes over the next few years. There are many outstanding questions that will shape how LeBron is viewed 20 years from now: Will he be able to build a successful team in Cleveland? Will Cleveland fans forgive him immediately? Will they forgive him ever? The parallels between LeBron’s turnaround and traditional brands ability to turnaround are surprisingly many, and I expect the lessons we learn in the coming years from LeBron will be very helpful in the business world.

  3. I was a true detractor of the Lebron brand and never thought that I’d be converted. As a life long Bulls fan, I actually relished telling other people about allllll the ways Lebron was bad for society at large. Ok, so maybe I’m too into the Bulls… However, this single event has done what I thought was impossible: I’ve become captivated by the LeBron narrative and am now a fan (of the Lebron brand). Jody hit the nail on the head: this is a fascinating case study for traditional brands. Even brand detractors can change their perceptions , so long as they are bought into the brand’s new story.

  4. Yeah, to echo some of the other comments that have already been made, Lebron’s decision this time around truly boosted his image in the public’s eye. In fact, I believe this decision to go back to Cleveland enabled him to jump to the top of the most liked athletes list according to a recent poll. However, this seems more than just a repairing of his image. It’s more like he’s re-defining himself and creating a new public image; his acknowledgment of the unnecessary pomp of his decision four years ago and the rationale behind his choice this year demonstrated a lot of how much he’s matured. It seems to indicate that he’s taking the first step away from this former image of a major sports star who spurned the people who had supported him the most in order to pursue personal glory. Rather, he’s starting to build himself up to be a public icon dedicated to helping the Northeast Ohio community, the same community that he grew up in.

    It seems that sometimes, to repair an image or brand, it might take some re-defining or a bit of creating a new image, one that may be better and become more likable among the public’s eye.

  5. As someone who is not usually interested in basketball, unless Jay Z and Beyoncé are sitting in the front row, I actually find myself hoping LeBron receives the prodigal son return he is searching for…. He has rebranded himself in such a way that pulls on my heartstrings. This comeback story isn’t just about how LeBron’s decision impacts current fans, but also how it has the potential to attract new fans to the NBA and increase viewership. Maybe I’ll watch a game or two this year – just for the fans reactions to LeBron.

  6. It does make me wonder, though – can a brand really rebound as easily, or as quickly, as a person’s brand? As a human, LeBron can connect to others and, as Lindsay says, pull on their heartstrings to get them to forgive his behavior. Can a brand that is not animated with a human face achieve that same connection to get consumers to forgive its missteps? And if so, how does a brand rebuild that trust? Great post Jon, got me thinking…

  7. Great application Jonathan! My favorite lesson in LeBron’s brand repair is that it’s a process that includes all the events of the past and will include future events as well. He’s certainly had some tremendous achievements and some mistakes as well. His recent behavior and decisions has taken it up a notch. If he’s successful back in Cleveland (athletically and socially) his brand will grow increasingly solid. I wish him the best, but if he has more public blunders, or even athletic struggles, his brand will wear those too. I wish him the best but his brand always will be the sum of our perceptions, and leaving Cleveland the way he did in the first place is a part of it. In the long run, sustainable communication plans trump individual campaigns.

  8. It’s interesting about rebuilding brands, esp. in sports – nobody even talks about Kobe’s rape case anymore, or Ray Lewis’s murder case anymore. Those guys built their brands back up to top notch (like it or not). But Michael Vick never really could escape the stigma of dogfighting. Some things, it would seem, are forgivable, while other things aren’t… “The Decision” is probably on the forgivable side.

    Me – I like LeBron, and I’m rooting for him. 🙂

  9. Alene – I wholeheartedly believe so. Think about Coke after the “New Coke” misstep, Odwalla after the tainted juice incident, Netflix’s continued market leadership even after their pricing blunder, or brands that had a resurgence among a new generation and a true comeback story (like Old Spice or Apple).


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