The rebranding of LeBron James

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Remember this embarrassing video? It wasn’t even four years ago when LeBron James graced us with his presence, drawing out “The Decision” via national television, elating Miamians, ripping out the hearts of Clevelanders, and nauseating the rest of America.

In the years that followed, James would reach lows unknown even to him, the hard-luck kid from Akron, Ohio, who would forgo college and go directly to the NBA.

Until that moment, James was seen as the carrier of the NBA superstar torch, handed to him by Kobe, and Michael Jordan before him. His jersey was a best-seller, sneaker sales were skyrocketing, and not one city loved its superstar quite the way Cleveland did.

A team filled with misfits and outcasts became perennial contenders, if only because they had No. 23 facilitating wide-open jumpers and throwing down monstrous dunks. They had fun on the court, won a lot of games, and gave the impression that their superstar 20-something-year-old was having a blast the whole time.

So, what happened next? How did the “next big thing” become a global sports pariah—only to re-launch his brand to the status it is right now?

As mentioned, “The Decision” will go down as possibly the worst sports PR gambit in history. Whoever was advising James at the time was clearly not on top of their game, the way James is on his. Fans burned his jerseys, booed him in nearly every court around the country, and rejoiced in every tumble and failure that befell the young man.

Now, here we are in 2014, and James has clearly turned the tide. Was it winning? Was it the new sponsorships? Did he grow up? Did he hire new PR people?

Let’s take a look at the four ways James rebranded:

1. He lost. In the early summer of 2011, much to everyone’s chagrin, the Miami Heat did what they were supposed to do. They went directly to the NBA Finals to play Dirk Nowitzki, a player beloved by all, and his Dallas Mavericks team, owned by billionaire Mark Cuban.

James and his Miami teammates crumbled and lost. James’s performance was disappointing for a player of his caliber, and he ended up shouldering much of the blame. Even the most outspoken James detractor had to feel somewhat bad for the guy. This brought a great sense of humility during the offseason, one where he re-dedicated himself to the game and used the loss as motivation.

2. Winning it all. As Tiger Woods famously offered, “Winning cures everything.” Well, James cured himself. In 2012, he led the Miami Heat back to the NBA Finals, and he nearly averaged a triple double en route to an easy five-game series win against the Oklahoma City Thunder, earning MVP honors.

The following year, James and the Heat locked horns with the San Antonio Spurs, a matchup of talent and great coaching. When all appeared lost in a crucial Game 6, James elevated his game, and with a little help from Ray Allen, forced a Game 7. In the series finale, James dominated on both ends of the floor, and hit possible the greatest shot of his career, a jumper to ice the game with less than a minute left. Once again, MVP honors.

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3. He went back to having fun. During his early days with the Cleveland Cavaliers, James was known for having a good time on the floor, hosting dunk contests, fake-taking photos, and other extracurricular stuff. Once he got away from that, his game suffered. Just take a look at this video of the Miami Heat doing the Harlem Shake. Does it look like he’s having fun now?

4. He crushed social media. James’s Twitter handle is followed by over 12 million people. On Instagram, James’s uploads are frequently featured on ESPN. James has established himself as one of the best athlete social media users of all time, if not the greatest.

When players retire, he often creates a collage of photos of himself and them in action. His tweets congratulating other athletes regularly get thousands of retweets apiece. His after-practice dunk contests are regularly featured on his own, as well as other players’ Facebook, Twitter, and Vine feeds.

James has made the PR comeback that other athletes such as Tiger Woods, Alex Rodriguez, and others might only imagine. In 2011, at a personal low point, James used all the tools at his—and a marketing pro’s—disposal to resurrect his image.

Ronn Torossian is the founder and CEO of 5W Public Relations, one of the top 25 largest privately held PR firms in the US.

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