When Branding Attacks

As a casual fan of basketball, it took me a while to notice that the NBA hadn’t started playing yet.  (Disclosure: I am a nominal Knicks fan, so I have trouble understanding the difference between NBA teams playing and not playing)

Sports columnists and talk radio have centered on the conflict between owners and players at the heart of the lockout, and with good reason.  The “millionaires versus billionaires” conflict makes great copy and/or discussion.  Certainly, money lies at the heart of the dispute.

However, I wonder if the dispute owes itself to less obvious but perhaps more systemic problem.  Let’s call this problem, in the argot of Animal Planet programming, “WHEN BRANDING ATTACKS!”

Sports marketers, as a rule, tend to laud NBA Commissioner David Stern as a master of branding.  The standard narrative goes that he took a second-rate league battered by the merger with the American Basketball Association and turned it into a marketing property with truly global scope in the 1980s and 1990s.  Stern achieved this feat by refocusing fan attention from the teams as a whole to their star players.

Put another way, the rise of guards Larry Bird of the Celtics and Earvin “Magic” Johnson of the Lakers encouraged fans to fixate on the players, their skills and their charisma.  A few years later, the all-time great Michael Jordan entered the league and, in concert with Nike, became a global superstar on a level seen more often in music (think Elvis, Madonna) than in sports.

Bird, Johnson and Jordan worked well for the NBA because, I think, maintained a sense of positivity about them.  Fans praised their work ethic, their charitable contributions (even before Johnson’s very public engagement with HIV/AIDS) and their sportsmanship in addition to their athletic abilities.  We wanted them, or men like them, on our teams.  We wouldn’t have minded if they had moved in next door.

With few exceptions, the NBA stars of the 80s and early 90s hewed to this model.  Sure, some players acted like thugs on and off the court.  In fact, the Detroit Pistons delighted in playing the black hat folks.  However, the majority of the era’s stars lived pretty cleanly.  Players such as Clyde Drexler, Patrick Ewing, Karl Malone, Hakeem Olajuwon, Lance Parrish and John Stockton rarely said dumb things or got arrested.

Twenty years later, the NBA seems rife with thugs and me-first types.  Sure, the NBA has some stand-up characters, but the headlines go to the likes of LeBron James and his “I’m taking my talents to South Beach” moment and Kobe Bryant’s legal troubles.  Of course the NBA still has positive role models, such as Tim Duncan or Steve Nash.  However, they seem less prominent these days.

I think that these ego-driven personalities have come to the fore because of David Stern’s focus on star power.  Treat athletes like opera divas and, guess what? they become opera divas.  Tell players that they, and not the team as a whole, fill the seats with fans and they will do everything they can to give fans a reason to watch them, even at the expense of the team.

Solving the NBA lockout lies far beyond the purview of this blog.  However, I think that the NBA’s experience serves as a case study in the unintended consequences of branding.

Certainly, many marketers have chosen celebrities to represent their brands and looked bad when those celebrities fell from grace (Accenture and Tiger Woods, for instance).  The larger lesson, however, lies in choosing the focus of branding wisely.

Let’s compare, as an example, IBM and HP.  Both companies developed successful computer systems in the 1960s and played major role in business data processing.  However, HP focused its brand on the computers themselves while IBM focused its brand on smarter business practices.  Decades later–and the NBA example, I think, emphasizes that we should think in decades–IBM has built enormous software and consulting businesses while HP has failed to do so.

On a more consumer-focused example, look at movie studios.  Does any studio have a brand like Disney’s?  Other than Disney-owned Pixar, no.  That’s because Disney built their brand around family entertainment rather than movies.

Getting back to the NBA, the current lockout will end sooner or later.  Perhaps the 2011-12 season will never happen.  However, sooner or later, both sides will come to an agreement and start shootarounds.  Moreover, the bitterness of the dispute will eventually fade into a background of squeaking sneakers and bouncing balls.

If I were David Stern, I’d think long and hard about how to heal the NBA’s brand by finding a new way to promote it.  Focus on the aesthetics of the game, the necessity of teamwork or the tempo.  But think long and hard about hitching the NBA’s wagon to its stars.

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