There are two kinds of people in the world: Those who hear “brand” and think marketing, and those who hear “brand” and think a hot poker stuck into a cow.
I admit to being one of the latter. I’m slow to the whole “brand” dialogue. I get it for soda, cars and computers. But when I hear “brand” referred to human beings, it gets weird. I keep thinking about what happens when those people die; will the name on their tombstones have one of those copyright signs next to it?
The issue arose last week when the best player in baseball, Mike Trout, was mildly criticized by his commissioner for not being enough of a brand player.
The commissioner, Rob Manfred, a Harvard law grad, was being asked by the media why baseball is seeing a decline in attendance. He got into the profile of the game’s biggest talent, Trout, the 26-year-old seven-time All-Star and two-time American League MVP.
“We are very interested in…helping our players develop their individual brand,” Manfred said. “But that involves the player being actively engaged. … Mike’s a great, great player and really nice person, but he has made certain decisions about what he wants to do and what he doesn’t want to do and how he wants to spend his free time…
“I think we could help him make his brand really, really big. But he has to make a decision that he’s prepared to engage.”
Engage. Brand. Develop.
It’s a long way from hit, catch, throw.
Branding for the wrong reasons
Let’s talk about brands for a moment. LaVar Ball has one. Just ask him. He’s the loony father who decided to brand his three sons before they were old enough to shave. He created the Big Baller Brand, had his own shoes made, wore his own T-shirts, and marketed his hoop-star kids by being a loud-mouthed embarrassment every opportunity he got.
He has a brand. He also has one kid who’s off to a shaky NBA start, one kid he pulled from college after the kid was suspended for shoplifting in China, and one kid he yanked out of high school in a dispute with the coach.
But he has a brand.
Alana “Honey Boo Boo” Thompson had a brand, too. Remember her? Then a 6-year-old with a potty mouth and a exploitative mother, she and her weird family dynamic were marketed into a TV show, which was wildly popular, until the mother was caught dating a convicted child molester. The show was cancelled. At last glance, Honey Boo Boo, now 12, was set to join a junior version of “Dancing With The Stars.”
But she has a brand.
Dennis Rodman has a brand. So do countless reality TV stars, former strippers who dated famous people, and famous-for-being-famous types like Paris Hilton. Kylie Jenner, a huge brand, has so many followers, when she complained on social media that she couldn’t get a certain $5,000 Cartier bracelet off her wrist, Cartier saw a huge jump in Internet interest.
What exactly is Trout doing wrong?
Now compare that to Trout, who has done everything a baseball team could want. He hits. He throws. He runs. He doesn’t get in off-field trouble.
He’s married to his high school girlfriend. He’s close with his family. According to his team, the Los Angeles Angels, he’s involved in community and charity and has great rapport with the fans.
So what exactly is he doing wrong? He doesn’t want to film some cutesy TV promotion? Doesn’t want to sit on a talk-show couch? Doesn’t want to tweet every second, video his every move, or be marketed as a force, a hurricane, or a thirst quencher?
He plays baseball. That’s his job. He does it amazingly well. And while it’s true, LeBron James, arguably the best in his sport, has more than 10 times the Twitter followers that Trout does, what Manfred is missing by criticizing Trout is that Trout is marketing the greatest lesson of all: that talent, hard work and accomplishments can speak for themselves.
Tell that to the branders who comprise TIME Magazine’s 2018 Most Influential People On The Internet, which include Vloggers, a game show host and a 6-year-old named Ryan who reviews toys on his own YouTube channel.
And remind them that the origin of branding, going back to ancient Egypt, was to burn a symbol in the hide of an animal, so for the rest of its life, the owner could claim it.
Maybe Mike Trout, a man who is doing all that should be asked of him, doesn’t want to be on the end of anyone’s hot poker. Look around at some of the most “popular” people in this world. Honestly. Can you blame him?
Contact Mitch Albom: email@example.com. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at MitchAlbom.com. Download “The Sports Reporters” podcast each Monday and Friday on-demand through Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify and more. Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom.