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Why Brands Matter

A Powerful Lesson in Branding From My Childhood Hero, Michael Jordan

Growing up in the Chicago area during the Bulls six-time World Championship run, I idolized Michael Jordan and his teammates. 

I wanted nothing more than to “Be Like Mike”. I tuned in to every game that wasn’t past my bedtime and closely studied Jordan’s every move and his mannerisms. I obsessively worked on my best version of a fade-away jump shot on our garage hoop after school every day, rain or shine. 

I listened to Jordan’s interviews and press conferences. I hung on to his every word. I noticed and sought to emulate his approach to being a team leader.

As a quick aside, check out this recent piece by Jordan’s former teammate, Steve Kerr, who shines a light on what made Jordan at times hard to handle, but ultimately, so effective.

What can a pair of basketball shoes teach us about impactful branding?

Throughout this phase, of course, I wore pretty much only Nikes (except for those holidays where, after some futile protesting, I begrudgingly agreed to cram my feet into dress shoes–sorry, Mom!)

Without really understanding what a “brand” was, I essentially swore allegiance to the Nike brand and the sport of basketball. Given how enmeshed Michael Jordan, the Nike brand, and the sport of basketball were, it is not surprising how this strong brand affinity and loyalty developed.

So, other than giving me an excuse to write about my childhood hero, what can this example teach us about impactful branding?

When my basketball playing days came to an end after college, I went on to pursue a career in marketing based on the study and development of successful, world-class brands. After spending the last 15 years immersed in this field, I have learned and experienced what it takes to build a great brand.

As I look back on my “Nike experience”, it showcases three of the guiding principles of branding. 

1. Consumer experience is as important as perception

True, “perception is reality” –  but when it comes to branding, the basis of this “reality” must be met with a high-quality consumer experience if you want to succeed. If you do not meet and ultimately exceed the expectations of a consumer with your brand experience, you cannot build trust and credibility. Without trust and credibility, you cannot expect the consumer to take any action in terms of purchase, re-purchase, following the brand, or telling their friends about it.

If I look back to my relationship with Nike, I initially developed a positive perception of the brand due to the company’s affiliation with Michael Jordan. This positive perception piqued my interest in trying out the brand out for myself. My parents finally gave in to my relentless begging, and it was now time to put my perception to the test. 

I eagerly opened up that bright orange box, unwrapped the neatly folded tissue paper. The smell of the leather hit me even before the full visual. A fresh pair of Air Jordan Nike basketball shoes were now in my hands. I slipped them on my feet, pulled the laces snug, and literally fell in love with the quality. 

Despite my hopes, the shoes did not actually make my jump shot any better, but when I wore them to practice for the first time that week and put them to the test, the shoes not only felt great on my feet — they also made me feel great. Nike passed the “reality test”  for me with flying colors and I was hooked.

2. Brand Relevancy > Brand Awareness

Just being aware of a brand doesn’t mean anything. It has to be relevant to the consumer to really matter to them. As a former, brilliant marketing director of mine always so eloquently reminded me, “Awareness is sh*t, relevance is what matters.” 

Relevance, generally speaking, is about being appropriate for or meaningful in the moment. In marketing, we talk about achieving brand relevance in terms of reaching the right consumer, with the right product, with the right message, at the right moment/point in time, in the right place to compel them to choose your brand. Phew, that’s a lot of work! 

Brand and marketing guru, Byron Sharp, delves deeper into relevance in his dense but highly useful book, How Brands Grow. Sharp explains how brands must be contextually relevant in order to be noticed, recognized, or thought about (aka “mentally available”) in potential buying situations. 

As I reflect back on being a young teenager, wearing what I believed to be the best basketball shoes (worn by the best basketball player in the world!) was important–and highly contextually relevant–to me as I sought to become a better basketball player.

3. Great brands create an emotional connection

Beyond just the physical experience, the most powerful brands have the power to evoke and create meaningful emotions, feelings, and inspiration. Most of the time, the pathways to these meaningful connections are forged by stories.

Of course, I admired Jordan’s success as a professional athlete, but I was even more fascinated with–and more emotionally connected to–the stories of Jordan’s perseverance: getting cut from the basketball team as a teenager, competing against his older (and arguably more talented) brother to challenge himself, and his relentlessness to always get better in practice. 

These stories inspired me and literally motivated me to take action to work harder, to always give it my best, and to never give up. Or, simply put: to “Be Like Mike.” At the risk of sounding melodramatic, I believe that strong brands create emotional connections that can trigger action to positively impact the lives of others. 

Questions to consider while building your own personal brand

As you think about building a stronger personal brand and (hopefully!) making a positive impact on others, I’ll leave you with a few self-reflection questions:

  • What do you want others’ perceptions of you and your personal brand to be? Do you have the “social proof” and credibility to match and over-deliver relative to these perceptions?
  • Who is your ideal target audience and what type of content and what channels (i.e. what places, both on and offline) that are most relevant to this audience?
  • How can you tell your story in a way that connects emotionally to your target audience? 
  • What impact (thoughts, actions, feelings) do you want your personal brand to have on others?
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