And Then There s Michael

And Then There's Michael

The last of the four criteria considered when evaluating athletes as spokesman is differentiation. Differentiation addresses an athlete's ability to stand out among the public, and considers the extent to which an athlete has packaged his or her charisma and ability to convey a message with his or her athletic achievements. Michael Jordan is the personification of differentiation. He also leads all other athletes in the other three categories: familiarity, relevance, and esteem. He's the complete package.

Not only is Michael Jordan the best basketball player of all time, he might very well be one of the best communicators of all time.

With an assist from the NBA's global appeal, Jordan was afforded the opportunity to reach large, diverse audiences worldwide. He took full advantage of it and, in the process, built the most lucrative personal brand to date.

Placing an Arnold Palmer poster in the window of a fast food restaurant would never sell hamburgers, but Michael Jordan's presence in the window at McDonald's has certainly helped sell more than a few Big Macs.

When McDonald's aired Jordan's famous 1993 Showdown ("Nothin' But Net") commercial with Larry Bird, during which the two play a far-fetched game of H-O-R-S-E, people from New York to California found it funny. Both rich and poor laughed, as did parents and their children.

The other products he endorsed similarly transcended categories. His Air Jordans weren't just sneakers, they were fashion statements for older men and teenagers alike. When customers paid well over $100 and even $200 for Jordan XVIIs in 2002, they were not only buying the shoe, but they were also buying into Jordan's brand equity.

Through endorsements, the public believed they knew Jordan as a person and could somehow relate to his incredible accomplishments. Because he was authentic and extraordinarily talented, he made almost $50 million per year by leveraging his differentiation.

In 1997, Nike determined that Jordan's brand name was so strong, the company started its own Jordan division with that all too familiar Jumpman logo on all of the brand's shoes and apparel.

When you bought a particular product it might very well have been because you believed in Michael Jordan's brand—not necessarily the company's. For example, Bijan Cologne signed Jordan to produce his own signature cologne in 1996 and, in the process, featured his attributes more than the product's. When advertising the Jordan cologne, sales of which reached $130 million in the first two years, Bijan rarely mentioned anything related to the cologne's fragrance.

Even five years later the company's Web site made absolutely no mention of specific product attributes. Rather it stressed how the fragrance had captured the essence of Jordan's personality, character, and lifestyle off the court. The cologne, believed Bijan executives, was ideal for those men who could not only dream big, but also achieve.

From the very beginning it was Jordan's goal to develop a strong personal brand, one that would take time to perfectly shape. Jordan sought to establish a family image that would be enticing to companies like McDonald's. The personality he blended with his good looks and athletic achievements on global stages, such as the Olympics, appealed to companies like Chevrolet and Coca-Cola, which hoped to position their products as "all-American."

Is there any other person, let alone athlete, who could have been called "a family man" more than two years before he was married? Ironically, one has to wonder to what extent he will be perceived after his wife filed for divorce, and then subsequently rescinded the request in 2002. Or if details of an extramarital affair revealed in an extortion lawsuit later in the year damaged his personal brand.

How would your personal brand be affected if everyone was aware of such a personal matter in your life? Would they avoid you or welcome you at the water cooler?

The concept of differentiation applies to extraordinary executives just as much as it does to great athletes. After all, truly great executives garner tremendous positive public attention, partially due to the way they have packaged themselves and partially due to their performance in the boardroom.