In the world of sports, it can be very challenging for an aspiring professional athlete, or even a well-seasoned one, to stand out from the crowd and have the opportunity to luxuriate from their success. As the movie Jerry McGuire successfully illustrates, the sports industry is cutthroat and remarkably competitive. Successful athletes are a dime a dozen – even amongst ones who have had an accomplished professional career.
However, there is a simple formula for success that every athlete who aspires to become more marketable should follow.
In order to become more successful in athlete branding, so that businesses and organizations that are willing to invest, the athlete must first develop a strong profile in a niche market. While it may sound complicated, it’s anything but. This concept basically implies that an athlete becomes an authority — a well-known and/or respected figure in a specific niche market.
Capitalize on Success by Developing Powerful Personal Athlete Branding
Once the athlete starts to develop a strong profile in a niche market, they must then capitalize on their success by developing a powerful personal brand. This is the time that the athlete should be creative, as originality will make them more memorable. Unfortunately, many athletes think the same way and choose the safe route when it comes to personal athlete branding as if they’re afraid of alienating themselves from prospective partners.
While there is always the chance of this happening, an athlete is more likely to constrain their opportunities by not exuding their individualism and personality. Often times, the most original athletes are also the most memorable. This can include athletes that display a more colorful, controversial, eccentric, inspirational, and/or unconventional personality. Athletes such as Dennis Rodman, Mike Tyson, Evel Knievel, and Nicole Gibbs are perfect examples of how distinctive traits of their character were utilized to create a bona fide brand.
Social media and athlete branding
Once a strong personal brand is established, an athlete can then build and expand their brand through several different verticals. One of the easiest and most useful methods to generate brand awareness is to leverage social media. With so many of social media outlets now available, an athlete’s overall reach is nearly unlimited. The athlete can target specific audiences – whether it’s their fans, supporters, or business opportunities.
The best way to capitalize off of social media is to have professional and streamlined channels that present the athlete in an utmost positive fashion. These social media outlets should include high-quality images from competition, training, personal life, and commercial engagements. The athlete should engage with their audience on a daily basis by posting updates, responding to comments, and providing fresh content.
The material posted should be relevant to the athlete’s brand and future goals. One of the greatest tools for an athlete to drastically grow their social media following is to constantly provide inspirational and original content. An athlete should always remember that their followers look up to them in one way or another. Many of the followers are living vicariously through the athlete, so the athlete should continuously post content that is stimulating.
A great example is tennis star Nicole Gibbs. Also known as Gibbsy, Gibbs is a two-time NCAA singles champion and graduate of Stanford University after only three years. She has stacked up prestigious international sponsors, such as New Balance, from her fiery passion on the court and her spunky personality off. Social media has helped launch her brand as she frequently tweets and posts insightful pictures.
Examples of rebuilding a tarnished brand
In addition to creating a successful brand, athlete branding can also be used to rebuild an image. There are few examples of rebuilding a tarnished brand like Michael Vick. At one time, Michael Vick was one of the most famous athletes on the planet. Since his release from prison in 2009, he has leveraged social media to help shape the public’s perception of him and, ultimately, get back into the NFL. Vick has been able to reconnect with fans and share his good deeds through social media – which has helped him turn his life around and open the door to a fresh start.
Another example would be Charlie Engle — one of the most accomplished ultrarunners in the world — who was a crack addict and saved himself through ultrarunning and becoming an adventure film star. Engle was convicted of mortgage fraud and sent to prison in 2010. However, he continued to leverage a very inspirational brand across the adventure and endurance sports industry. Since his release, Engle continues to inspire his passionate followers and has completely rebuilt his life on the world’s stage.
Become Something Bigger than the Brand
When an athlete can deliver something that’s unique to engage people, and make them want to be part of something bigger than themselves, the athlete will be in position to use their brand rather than their branding to crush their competition.
The purpose of becoming something bigger than the brand is to become distinctly memorable. Every athlete who successfully develops and maintains a strong brand has at least one career highlight that was something bigger than themselves. This specific career highlight is usually something that is extraordinary, extreme, and/or inspirational. It’s a remarkably impressive feat that vastly sets the athlete apart from the rest, and is a conversation starter between fans.
Some examples of athletes that became something bigger than their brand would include how Michael Phelps dominated the 2008 competition in Beijing and set himself apart from other Olympic greats. In 2006, acclaimed ultrarunner Dean Karnazes ran 50 marathons in 50 states in 50 days. This incredible accomplishment propelled his prolific career as an athlete, author, and motivational speaker.
Former NFL player, Pat Tillman, courageously left his lucrative professional career with the Arizona Cardinals and enlisted in the United States Army less than a year after the September 11 attacks. He was later killed in action, but his sacrifice and selflessness would inspire many. The Tillman Foundation was formed, which invests in military veterans and their spouses through educational scholarships.
A more recent example would be how Spanish adventurer, Kilian Jornet, launched the Summits of My Life project. The project will take four years, during which he’ll travel to the greatest mountain ranges in the world, attempting to climb some of the most breathtaking peaks and come back down again as fast as he can. Jornet’s adventure film documentary, Summits of My Life, has also paid homage to the people of Nepal following the tragic earthquake that occurred on April 25, 2015.
The Importance of Maintaining A Strong Brand
Once an athlete builds a strong brand that garners the attention of businesses and organizations willing to invest in them, the pressure to maintain those partnerships increases astronomically. Once partnerships and contractual agreements are in place, an athlete will constantly have to maintain certain standards or risk losing those opportunities.
This is why it is especially important for an athlete to constantly reinvent themselves and to not develop an insular mindset. An athlete that becomes static will quickly fade away. However, an athlete that is always looking for new and exciting opportunities to engage their fans and supporters will continue to be memorable and in demand.
A successful branding campaign is absolutely crucial for an athlete to maximize opportunities stemming from their accomplishments and background. However, the approach to athlete branding should be taken with an open mind. Be original and have fun – and the world will be yours.