Just as positive product attributes, such as the NBA's Johnson, Bird, and Jordan, help strengthen brands, detrimental product attributes can play an equally important, although negative role, in shaping an organization's brand.
Every time an NBA player is cited for what otherwise would have been a private transgression, the NBA's brand is at stake. It's something that the league is growing accustomed to, having cut its teeth on Dennis Rodman, Allen Iverson, and a tumultuous 2002 offseason that included the murder of league veteran Bison Dele and former New Jersey Nets center Jayson Williams being named a prime murder suspect in a separate case.
To counterbalance brand bruisers such as the tattoo-laden Rodman, the NBA's entertainment arm produces its own "virgin" content. In the past, producers with the TV show Inside Stuff, an NBA Entertainment production, have been told that any player who has had trouble with the law in recent weeks cannot be featured on the show.
The NBA even created an education program designed to acquaint first-year players with the social and financial issues they will face once they enter the league. The Rookie Orientation Program acquaints players with issues ranging from sexual harassment, sexually transmitted diseases, and anger management, to personal financial issues including taxation, investing, and saving for the future. This program is in place to protect the brand from those rookies that don't yet know or appreciate the importance of it.
Throughout corporate training programs, a strong emphasis must similarly be placed on assessing the appropriate amount and degree of internal, as well as external brand management.
Attempting to control or otherwise micromanage the brand has sometimes landed the NBA in hot water. For instance, thanks to the fine art of airbrushing, rapper Allen Iverson appeared sans earrings, necklace, and tattoos, in the holiday edition of the 1999 2000 version of Hoop Magazine, an official league publication.
Perceived by many in mainstream America as a menace, Iverson's attitude and lifestyle was unlikely at the time to play in Peoria or on Madison Avenue for that matter. When advertisers see Iverson's tattoos and cornrows and learn of his ever-increasing police record, many organizations, including the NBA, feel as though he is simply too controversial or risky to prominently associate with their brands. Although one of the NBA's tasks is to manufacture stars, often by sanitizing their image and attempting to polish their reputations, it must be careful when doing so, so as not to alienate a portion of the fan base that relishes these players' incredible skill, regardless of the marketing baggage they possess.
For his part, Iverson responded by stating that he is who he is and that nobody can change that. He was also curious to know who gave the NBA the authority to attempt to remake his image. In essence, Iverson was concerned that others were inappropriately, and without his permission, repositioning his personal brand.
League officials said it shouldn't have happened and that the league would promote Iverson for who he is. A previous editor of the magazine spoke about the "Allen Iverson rule," which was a movement to keep him off the cover since 1996.
Because brand building is all about creating a positive and lasting impression with customers, occasionally, as was the case with Iverson, the NBA felt compelled to covertly manage its brand. Attempting to polish the image of a high-profile employee without his or her knowledge contributes to making the brand in part something that it's not, which ultimately harms the brand in the eyes of many potential and existing customers.
Reebok, which paid Iverson as an endorser, stayed with him despite the controversial lyrics on his rap album, because the company believed he was the perfect spokesman for rebellious, urban youth. Somewhat to the chagrin of the NBA, by 2001 Time magazine was hailing Iverson as "America's Greatest Athlete." This chagrin was front and center again in July 2002 when Iverson was once again arrested, this time on no fewer than 14 felony and misdemeanor charges stemming from an altercation in which he brandished a gun.
Although all of these charges were dropped two months later, Iverson had reinforced his rebellious nature.
The challenge for businesses, whether preserving or building their brand, is to encourage individualism among employees, while managing their employees to make sure that their individualism doesn't compromise the organization's bond with the customer.
Forget Joltin' Joe DiMaggio; that phrase you're hearing from corporate America is, "Where have you gone, Michael Jordan?"