LeBron’s Sad Mirror Photo Instructive for Businesses

First there was “the dress.” Then came the “llama drama.” Now we have sad LeBron. The ever-content-hungry Internet spares no one, but businesses would be wise to pay attention to the larger story arc of brands that play out on social media and how consumers, especially Millennials, are connecting with them. You need look no further than LeBron James, whose brand will grow following the lampooning he just endured.

On Sunday, LeBron James, two-time NBA champion, four-time Most Valuable Player and aspiring hero of Cleveland, missed seven of 11 free throws, including two critical misses with 4.2 seconds left in overtime, as Houston, with title hopes and an MVP candidate of its own, held on to win 105-103 in overtime.

After the game, James took responsibility. “I failed my teammates,” he said. But he went further to post a photo of himself on Instagram, sadly looking into a mirror with a raw, revealing message:

Lebron James

“Looking in the mirror tonight after a tough lost of my part like You’re your biggest challenge, competition, drive, obstacle, motivation, etc so it’s nothing u haven’t seen before! Back in the lab tomorrow to continue the drive to striving to be the Greatest I’ve ever seen! #StriveForGreatness”

Enter the Internet. Trolls had a field day, mocking LeBron’s mirror-selfie (here and here). Media ate it up, fanning comparisons to “Saturday Night Live” character Stuart Smalley and fueling the LeBron vs. Michael Jordan debate.

While James may not have anticipated how quickly and pervasively he’d be roasted on social, he can turn that frown upside down because his brand will grow as a result. Here are the top five reasons James’ sad mirror photo will not damage – and could actually boost – his brand.

1. LeBron spoke the truth.  

No one is questioning whether or not James was being genuine. Just look at the typos – any PR staffer would have caught those. If he had tried looking upset when he wasn’t or played off the letdown as if it wasn’t important to him, he’d be criticized for being phony or too self-absorbed. Trust is earned, in large part, by being truthful. James was clearly being truthful in a painful situation, which will bring him closer to his fans.

2. He was transparent.

The greatest athletes have larger-than-life brands that can lose a tremendous amount of value if they offend others. Many big-time athletes – and the brands they represent – closely guard their innermost thoughts and feelings. They tend to avoid controversial issues. Not James. He has been outspoken on civil rights and has weighed in many times on collective bargaining issues. After James’ bad day on the court, he opened up in a telling way, letting us into his thoughts and the mind of a champion. Sure, he was lampooned for a couple of days, but in the long run, James seemed to understand that transparency can differentiate him from other all-time greats.

3. LeBron knew his audience.

James was not trying to win over die-hard fans of rival teams (say hello, Boston) or convert basketball-haters. There will always be critics and people with conflicting interests. James was reaching out to his fans. By opening a window to his soul, he was also letting others who might root for him one day see his brand, unvarnished. Communicate with the people who will listen to you.

4. This is part of a bigger story.

James has 20 games left in the regular season and the playoffs to overcome this embarrassing moment. As Sports Illustrated’s “Chosen One,” he has been building his reputation and brand since he was a teenager. His fans will continue supporting him. Businesses should take note of the importance of reputation building. It will keep you afloat when – not if – you have a bad day.

5. He tapped into sympathy.

In the aftermath of “The Decision,” hardly anyone outside of Miami would view James as a sympathetic figure but, since his return to Cleveland, getting mocked for displaying his raw feelings evokes sympathy. He’s revealing pain and hurt, emotions everyone can identify with. The most compelling messages are often driven by emotion.

LeBron James’ bad day on the Internet will be a blip in the larger story of his career and legacy – one that millions in the U.S. and around the world continue to tune into. Ultimately, his brand gains trust. All brands should sit up and take notice. It’s the long game that counts.


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