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Personal brand management for athletes


by Jennifer Bridges  @JenBridgesRD

Professional basketball player standing holding basketball on an indoor floodlit basketball court full of spectators.

You probably have a favorite athlete—perhaps someone who inspired you to become an athlete yourself? But have you ever wondered what makes a particular player seem so appealing? It might be that his or her personal brand resonates with you.

A personal brand is an indispensable marketing tool, both during and after your athletic career. However, before you can enjoy the benefits of your own personal brand, you need to know more about what a personal brand is and how real athletes use them.

What is a personal brand?

Your personal brand is the unique combination of personality, skills, and experience that you want to project to your target audience. It is a way of letting them know what you stand for and what sets you apart from others in your field. 

A strong personal brand can help you:

  • Stand out from your peers
  • Tell your story
  • Inspire recognition and trust
  • Build a personal connection with fans

“Fans want to feel like they can relate to a player. If a Chicago fan sees that their favorite player on the Bears loves the same restaurant that they like, all of a sudden this fan now feels like they have a connection to this player.”—Lauren Walsh, founder of LW Branding

Examples of athletes with strong personal brands

Americans have always had athletic heroes. Some well-known figures include Joe Namath, Jackie Robinson, and Muhammad Ali. While these individuals’ athletic abilities made them famous, their personalities and activities outside of their particular sport also drew people to them.

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Here are a few other examples of athletes who are using their personal brands to win over fans and increase their marketability:

Serena Williams

Tennis may be what made her famous, but Serena Williams has expanded her brand far beyond the sport. Today, she is also known for her contributions to fashion. She has her own collection of jewelry and handbags, and she works with other brands, like OPI, to create special, limited-edition products. She has also tried her hand as an actress, starring in several television shows, like “The Simpsons” and “Drop Dead Diva.” By marketing herself in these different areas, she has built a brand that will still be valuable years after she retires from tennis. In 2018, she won AdWeek’s Brand Genius award.

Stephen Curry

Basketball superstar Stephen Curry has built a reputable personal brand by distinguishing himself from edgier players like Kobe Bryant and Lebron James, who are known as much for the conflicts surrounding them as they are for their athletic achievements. In contrast, Curry uses his platform to promote a positive, family-oriented lifestyle.

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Curry has worked with many charities, including the Nothing But Nets foundation, which helps prevent malaria. He has also helped aspiring basketball players by investing in the startup business Coachup, which matches young athletes with private coaches who are former college or professional players. To connect with his fans, he hosts his own YouTube series, in which he invites guests to join him for a 5-minute ride and conversation through the streets of Oakland after home games. 

Tom Brady

The quarterback for the New England Patriots, Tom Brady has a reputation for being a health and fitness fanatic. In 2013, he leveraged his expertise in this area to build a sports therapy clinic called TB12. Today, Brady’s brand sells nutritional supplements, workout and recovery clothing, snacks, and performance and pliability equipment.

He also stars in a video documentary series about how he stays in such great shape despite being in his 40s. Called “Tom vs. Time,” the series gives Brady a forum to expound on his holistic nutrition and fitness theories.

Julian Edelman

Perhaps because he is constantly in the shadow of his teammate Tom Brady, Julian Edelman has earned a reputation for being a hardworking underdog. Deeply committed to helping others, he donates to a variety of children’s charities and has even written a series of children’s books, titled Flying High, to promote child literacy and teach young readers about the importance of dedication, hard work, and resilience.

His company, JE11, sells a variety of accessories and apparel emblazoned with his personal logo, including his own line of Cutters football gloves and Joe’s Jeans items. But, his brand goes way beyond just merchandising. He’s shown that he’s willing to do the unconventional to please his fans. 

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He once taught a social media class at Emerson College—just because his fans asked him to. He’s also demonstrated his comedic talents by creating a series of offbeat smoothie-making videos in 2014, followed by a series of hamburger videos and a YouTube series titled Julian Edelman’s Untitled YouTube Series with Julian Edelman. In 2019, Showtime Sports aired a documentary, 100% Julian Edelman, about the player’s life.

Kevin Durant

The 2014 NBA MVP and 10-time All-Star has aligned his brand with entrepreneurship and leverages his 40 million social media fans to promote his numerous activities. Durant has invested in over 30 startups, including Coinbase, Acorns, Postmates, and Overtime. In addition, his company, Thirty Five Ventures has developed several media projects, including a television series “SWAGGER” that is loosely based on the player’s early experiences with basketball and an ESPN talk show called “The Boardroom.” 

Michael Jordan

Legendary basketball player Michael Jordan is known for doing things “differently,” just like he did when he garnered a $5,000-per-game penalty for wearing his multicolored Air Jordan shoes during NBA games. Since his retirement, Jordan’s name has become synonymous with business savvy. 

Despite not having played since 2003, Jordan’s personal brand remains as relevant—and as valuable—as ever. Outside of his long-time Nike endorsement, Jordan works with Hanes, Gatorade, Five Star Fragrances, and Upper Deck. He also owns a car dealership, seven restaurants, and 80% of the Charlotte Bobcats NBA team. In fact, with a net worth of nearly 2 billion, he is the top-earning athlete of all time, earning more money than any active player, including LeBron James, Kevin Durant, and Stephen Curry.

Derek Jeter

Baseball player Derek Jeter’s personal brand can be summed up in one word: consistency. He dedicated himself to giving 100% in whatever he did. Consequently, his New York Yankees teammates and his opponents alike viewed him as the ultimate professional. He even earned the nickname Captain Clutch, for his ability to remain centered in times of crisis. This consistency led Jeter to become one of baseball’s top players, earning him the title of most valuable player and the World Series championships. 

“I trusted him more than any other player I had managed. I trusted him to be prepared mentally and physically every day, and to prioritize winning above all else. I trusted him to say the right thing, when talking to a teammate or the media. I trusted his instincts and his calm under the greatest pressure.”—Former Yankees Manager, Joe Torre 

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Since his retirement in 2014, Jeter has translated his on-field consistency to off-field entrepreneurism, launching the Players’ Tribune, a digital media company that enables professional athletes to directly engage with their fans. He is also the co-owner and CEO of the Miami Marlins and serves as Captain for Jordan Baseball and Captain of Jordan Training for Michael Jordan’s brand.

How to build a personal brand

To create your own personal brand, you need to identify what you stand for, who you want to reach with your message, and how you will get that message across. Here are some tips to help you do so:

  • Decide what values you want to be known for—The more specific your image is, the easier it is to promote. As such, you should try to narrow it down to the three values you want people to associate with your name. Ask your friends and family what three words they think describe you and go from there.
  • Figure out who your target audience is—To successfully stand out from other athletes, you need to find out who your fans are. Whether you’re a college player or a professional athlete, you probably have significant influence with a specific group of fans. Understanding who these people are and how you can connect with them is crucial if you want to build a loyal fan base.
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  • Keep a consistent voice on social media platforms—The more you post, the more important it is to keep a consistent voice across all social media channels. Keeping your message and tone consistent helps you avoid brand confusion and more firmly cements your personal image in people’s minds.
  • Give back to the community—Doing good makes you more appealing to fans and sponsors alike. Just make sure to pick causes that are close to your heart. Otherwise, your efforts might come across as inauthentic.

Make sure your online reputation reflects your personal brand

Of course, these days, public opinion of famous individuals can change on a dime thanks to viral memes or online gossip. As such, you also need to make sure your online reputation reinforces the work you’ve done to build your brand. To influence the online conversation about your brand, you can:

  • Create your own content—Whether you start a blog, write articles for sports publications, or produce a video series, publishing your own content on the Internet will help ensure that people find content that accurately reflects your brand when they search for you online. This is because Google places a high value on content you create. Over time, your content will rank higher in the search results for your name, eventually pushing off negative content onto subsequent pages, where most people never look.
  • Monitor what people say about you online—To ensure that your brand remains strong, you need to be aware of what people are saying about it. This means you need to monitor the Internet for mentions of your name. A good way to start is to regularly google yourself. You can also automate this process with tools like Google Alerts, Mention, and Talkwalker.
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  • Clean up your digital footprint—Go through your social media posts and remove anything you’ve shared that presents you in a bad light. It’s also a good idea to turn off tagging in your social media accounts. This way, you’ll have more control over what pictures of you exist online.
  • Use your own website to promote your brand—An effective way to communicate your brand to your fans is to through your own website. Not only is this a great vehicle for interacting with your fans, but it will also make sponsors see you as a more attractive investment. 

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No matter what sport you play, you need to create a personal brand that fans and sponsors can relate to. If you need help identifying what makes you stand out or what you stand for, give ReputationDefender a call. We can help you promote your best qualities and ensure that your online persona inspires trust.