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Volume 21 No. 2
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Building positive brand recognition takes time, effort, care

Athletes spend years working on their game: trying to lift more, run faster, throw harder and earn the most money they possibly can in the shortest amount of time. But the truly great athletes understand that their overall brand is just as important as what they do on the field or court.

Emmitt Smith is the NFL’s all-time leading rusher. Kids today know Smith more for his victory on “Dancing With the Stars” than they do the star he wore on his helmet with the Dallas Cowboys. But not many athletes have grasped the concept of personal brand quite like Smith has. The hall of famer spent years working on his brand, defining it in a time when social media didn’t exist. Today, he’s a powerful brand in sports — and he has been retired since 2004.

Smith’s NFL brand was appealing, believable, consistent and distinctive. But once he retired, the former Cowboy knew he had to work on evolving his brand off the field. So he took a chance, and put himself in a position where the risk of failure was high, but the reward was higher. And by winning “Dancing With the Stars,” not only did he endear himself to his already vast fan base, but he picked up thousands of new fans who loved his persona.

“There’s a lot of things that were said about me that were pretty good,” Smith told Donny Deutsch of CNBC. “People say I have fun, they talk about my personality, talk about my smile; just a lot of good things that they say about you that are tied to corporate brands; credibility, consistency, and durability.”

Smith has bought into the fact that he is the CEO of his own brand. Not all athletes are wired that way or have ever thought of themselves as a brand. The great ones know how to take advantage of their power and their ability to influence millions of people. Whom you allow in your inner circle are your board of directors, and you can vote them in or out at any time if they aren’t working to promote your brand.

That’s why many athletes choose to hire outside of their family to help promote their brand. Some, like

Former NFL running back Emmitt Smith built his brand on the football field, then took it to the dance floor and won the celebrity competition on “Dancing With the Stars.”
Photo by: AP IMAGES
LeBron James, have had success but also have been criticized for allowing friends and family to make business decisions. But if there is controversy, they have a tough decision to make. Do you stand by those who have been with you from the beginning, or do you fight to protect your brand? Your reputation is all you have, and athletes can’t afford to let someone tarnish what they’ve spent their entire life trying to build.

People buy positive brands; in fact, studies show that people pay at least 10 percent more for brands they trust. Why do we spend $4 for a pumpkin latte at Starbucks when you can make one at home for much less? It’s because you trust the Starbucks brand. Smith has prospered off the field because people buy into his brand; they trust it.

Brands do change over time. Sometimes it’s because it hasn’t been cultivated. Other times, brands change because fans and corporate America lose trust. The Tiger Woods brand is not what it used to be. A few years ago, he could do no wrong. He promoted everything and made more money in a weekend than most people will in a lifetime. Woods is still considered one of the greatest golfers of all time, but if he wins a tournament, finishes second or misses the cut, somewhere in the message is the underlying story of his fall from grace.

How to develop brand recognition

Appealing: A brand must be appealing to create buy-in. People don’t buy brands that aren’t appealing.

Believable: Volvo calls itself the safest car on the street — if consumers believe it, they will buy the car. If Volvo said its cars could fly, it would not be believable.

Consistent: Brands change, but if they change too much it raises the red flag. Brands must be consistent to maintain believability.

Distinctive: What makes a brand better than the competition? It’s hard to stand out in the crowd, and every business tries to distinguish itself as an industry leader — athletes can do the same.

Evolving: Where an athlete is as a rookie is different than where he or she is as a five- or 10-year veteran. An athlete must think ahead about how his or her brand evolves over time.

Social media is a great way to promote a brand; it’s also a great way to ruin it. Let’s face it, athletes have power. They have the power to influence and the power to persuade. The average Joe doesn’t have 2.5 million Twitter followers as many of the top athletes do. So why wouldn’t an athlete use that platform to promote something positive?

The question athletes need to ask themselves is how do they want to be perceived? Do they want to be known for what Emmitt Smith wanted to be known for? His brand is reliable, durable, and consistent — these are powerful words and most companies work years to earn that type of brand recognition. Athletes can create that brand for themselves in far less time.

“You have to ask yourself the question, What do you want to do in the game? What do you want to take away from the game, and what is it that you want to leave with the game?” Smith said. “How do you want to be perceived from the beginning to the end? It’s something I took serious. I wanted to leave a legacy within the game.”

But like the game, an athlete has to exercise his or her brand. Elite athletes don’t sit on the couch and expect greatness to come to them. An athlete can’t lower his 40-yard dash time by willing it to happen, he needs to make it happen.

The same can be said of great brands. Starbucks didn’t become what it is today because it rested on its laurels. In fact, Starbucks closed its stores one evening in 2008 to make sure its brand evolved and stayed strong. Apple didn’t become a fixture in society by taking it easy. The Apple brand continues to evolve, and people count down the days until the newest technology goes to market.

Lee Gordon (, who spent 15 years as a television anchor at CBS and served as a sideline reporter for the NFL on Fox, is the vice president of corporate communications at 180 Communications in Tallahassee, Fla.