Book Can’t Tarnish the Enduring Brand of “Sweetness”

As I learned of the details of Jeff Pearlman’s new biography on Walter Payton, “Sweetness: The Enigmatic Life of Walter Payton,” I admit my reaction was the way many Bears fans would react: I wanted to find Jeff Pearlman in a bar and ask him to step outside. But after I cooled down a little, I realized that, regardless of what Pearlman has written about Payton in the way of his painkiller use, extramarital affairs and depression, his book is as useless for touching the brand of Walter Payton as a New England Patriot in Super Bowl XX.

This is not the voice of a pure fan talking, believe it or not. It’s the voice of reason based on what I know about how iconic sports brands endure above those that shockingly fail us. Particularly those born and bred here in Chicago.

First, let’s play Devil’s Advocate and assume for the sake of argument that every word Pearlman has written about Walter Payton is true. In fact, many fans and friends who witnessed his behavior off the field after he retired wouldn’t disagree or be shocked by some of the allegations. Pearlman interviewed 678 people for the book and I’m sure there were consistencies. So I’m not even going to naively dispute any of that.

Just like I’m not going to dispute that there is a foundation in Payton’s name that has catapulted organ donation sign-ups in Illinois and elsewhere – the same foundation that donates toys to underprivileged children in the Chicagoland area. Or there is a High School named in his honor. Or there is a section of the UIC Medical Center called the Walter Payton Liver Center.

See, where Pearlman did get it wrong was when he said the book was “definitive.” Perhaps in the eyes of a Sports Illustrated columnist who followed the trail of interviews to build a story. I certainly don’t believe Jeff Pearlman is an inherently bad person or that he intends to demonize Walter Payton. But his book will not define the brand of Walter Payton in the eyes of Chicagoans. Not one word. Why?

It’s not like we didn’t know our most iconic sports brands have had their personal faults. We know it and we love them anyway.

Michael Jordan had a failed marriage, gambles huge sums of money and gave a Basketball Hall of Fame speech that was more “F*%$ You” than gracious. Some might even quibble with the fact he smokes cigars as he signs autographs for kids. But we love him anyway.

Mike Ditka has a medical chart like a train wreck, a DWI conviction, tossed a wad of gum at an opposing fan and flipped photographers the bird. Not to mention he is also ’til this day the worst 7th inning stretch singer of “Take Me Out To The Ballgame.” But we love him anyway.

Phil Jackson. Ryne Sandberg. Mark Grace. Bobby Hull. Mistakes off the court/playing field/ice? They’ve made a few. We love them anyway.

We have been lucky to watch the special talents of these icons, but they have been lucky to have a relationship with a town as forgiving as Chicago. I am not entirely sure other cities with bright lights always have such warm hearts. When you do well by us on the field, we tend to understand your humanity off of it. It doesn’t mean we agree with it or excuse it. It means we know great players and coaches can make human errors because they are human beings.

Let me take another angle away from the field of sport. As any iconic brand realizes, when you build up a long legacy of delivering a superior product or service that people appreciate year after year, decade after decade, it is easier to maintain loyalty through the eye of a storm. It’s the difference between a bump in the road and a full-on catastrophe. Why? Because many of those people who invest in your brand look at the “big picture” of what you’ve delivered on up to this point and understand that people in business can relate to. I’m also not talking about a scandal on the level of Enron, but minor things like a foreign object falling into a Big Mac that shouldn’t have.

To be sure, the allegations of the book on Payton are anything but minor. Yet the faults of him and other icons in this town have been the same demons many people grapple with at one time or another: Staying faithful to your spouse. Gambling. Drinking too much. Painkillers for old injuries. Failed business ventures. Depression.

Tell me you or someone you love hasn’t had to face at least one of these challenges. We all have. And thankfully, nobody is writing a tell-all book on us.

Even if they tried, we’d say that author of the tell-all didn’t define us. Because even if we aren’t performing in front of thousands of people any given Sunday, we are all striving for a personal brand that is defined so much more by our positives than our shortcomings.

I know the brand of Walter Payton will enjoy that positive definition too.

Capturing The Elusive Online/Offline Balance

Over 700 posts have been written about the shocking suicide of social media expert Trey Pennington and I won’t attempt to compete with such beautiful tributes that have already been said by Jay Baer, Mark Schaefer and others (Pennington was a popular South Carolina-based expert on social media and spoke at a variety of conferences to great acclaim – tragically, he took his own life on Sunday in a church parking lot). I’ll just add this thought: As a result of Pennington’s influence, many are writing about the renewed need to reach out and form meaningful offline relationships with people in the business world. They are so absolutely 100% right. But I hope people won’t dismiss the relationships we have online as artificial and without meaning either. True, there will be people that we will connect to on Twitter or Facebook who we will never, ever meet in person. But the key is to strive for balance between the two worlds. It means little to compile 50,000 followers on Twitter without injecting personal interactions into the mix. By the same token, just networking alone has its limitations because it doesn’t make you what John Jantsch of Duct Tape Marketing describes as a “converged” business. You need a component of being a “wired” business or you will lose out to competitors who are. They will blog, they will post, they will upload videos and they will share. Assuming it all isn’t self-promotional puffery, this sharing of knowledge helps expand on a person’s credibility in ways a business card exchange never could. It means something to walk into a room and have someone recognize you by your blog. It means something to meet someone and have that person research you further and find your insights posted all over the online realm.

I think all of us are challenged in some way to find that online/offline balance. We may never get a perfect 50/50 balance, but it’s worth striving for. Make no mistake – if I have to choose, I’ll side with meeting someone in person and getting to know them over a beer or coffee. Every time. But I’d be cheating myself if the online side went undeveloped.

Of course, on both the offline and online levels, Trey Pennington was a terrific contributor who enriched many lives. He will be missed by people who never even had the opportunity to meet him – me being one of those people.

Besides the many people he impacted and the writings we’ll have to look back on from him, there’s one more positive Trey Pennington has left us. In the immediate aftermath, there is a high volume of discussion online about depression, which Pennington suffered from. I learned through client work earlier this year just how much woefully small federal funding there is on mental illness in the grand scheme of things. This isn’t a political issue but one that affects us all, directly or indirectly. It’s staggering how little there is of the human brain that we understand and need to. I hope part of Trey Pennington’s legacy is that online and offline, because of him we’ll make more of the effort to make mental health part of the ongoing discussion of investing in what matters.

6 ways your personal brand can inject a Darren Clarke-ness to it

I can recall viewing Darren Clarke on the cover of a now-defunct golf magazine a few years back, with a stogie in his mouth, smiling and speaking inside the interior of the mag of his love of Guinness. And when Clarke won the British Open today, it got me thinking about why this man is so beloved, certainly in Europe and really much further than those boundaries. We can learn a lot about personal branding in his triumph and journey to this point.

#1: He is relatable to the people who are his Fans, who see bits of themselves in him.
More than once, commentators over the last few days asked that very question to Clarke himself and his reply was essentially that he was the “Everyman.” Clarke drinks. He smokes. He drives fast cars. He loves his family and is intensely loyal to them.

So many of us who smack sticks at a tiny little white ball on the weekend aren’t going to join the Tour anytime soon. We’re doing the best we can but we’re not always in the perfect shape. We like to partake of a beer or two on the course or at least in the clubhouse. Some of us curse at the stupid ball. Some of us puff away at a cigar. We’re Darren Clarke but our scores are much worse.

Why are we afraid to show this side of our personal brands? Because it wouldn’t be “professional?” Give me a break. That’s fear talking. Fear of what other people will think of us. Fear that we can’t command respect.

One professional just went out into the world today with his personal brand on full display, against the best players in the world…and won. Don’t tell me you can’t do the same. I’m not telling you to wear t-shirts into a meeting – that’s silly. I’m telling you that authenticity and success are same page material, not polar opposites.

#2: He is not afraid to show emotion. 
When Clarke’s first wife passed away from breast cancer, he did what any human with a pulse would do. He grieved, he stepped away from the game for a little while, he allowed himself to mentally regroup and in time, he got back into playing with the support of others around him. But when he triumphed on the course upon his return, he broke down and let us in to show us he was not a robot but a human being with feelings.

When he was in the thick of competition on the last day of the most important tournament of his life, he allowed himself to smile a little more than everyone else around him. How many times do we say that branding is an “emotional connection?”

#3: You are not defined by what you “do.”
You are not your title.
You are not your department.
You are not your function or area of expertise.
You are not who you work for.

If you think this is your personal brand, you aren’t digging hard enough.

Because someday, someone else will have your title, your job and your function. That’s all replaceable stuff. What else have you got? Plenty, I assure you. What pieces of you come together to form an identifiable, admirable, talked-about personal brand?

It’s about beliefs and choices that stir emotions deep within you that you will proudly wear and go to battle for.
Do not mistake the “personal” aspects for being “private” aspects that aren’t worth expressing.

Richard Branson’s appeal is not that he is the CEO of Virgin. That’s boring. You know it and I know it. Richard Branson’s appeal is that he’s a risk-taker and adventurer who does certain things in business that cause people to watch with anticipation on what he’s doing now and what he will do next. He could fall on his face doing it, but so what? He can do it because that’s HIM. It comes naturally to him.

Among other things, you are defined by what you believe, how you treat others, how others view you and the relationships that matter in your life, both personally and professionally. We’re talking the things in life you don’t apologize for because, for better or worse, that’s YOU.

#4: Define your personal brand more by what you are and enjoy –  rather than what you aren’t and hate.
I just don’t think there’s a lot of appeal in being the “anti-” person because you’re only saying what you aren’t. Not what you stand for. It may clarify a bit but it doesn’t cause people to gravitate to you in itself. When you begin thinking about your personal brand development, it’s OK if you have thoughts of people, companies and ideas that don’t mesh with your belief system. But don’t stop there. Think about why that is. Why you think and feel that way.

#5: Embrace the “work in progress” of your personal brand.
Having it all figured out is dull. Life is about adding aspects of your development, figuring out the context of how they fit into your personal brand, deciding to accept them or not, then understanding how to express them. Your personal brand will evolve over time and that’s quite natural. In fact, it’s fun. Just make sure to keep it evolving.

#6: Never apologize.
If it feels like something that you’re going to be so passionate about that you’re going to wear it on your sleeve, consequences be damned, you’re on the right track. Winners never have to. Sharing what you love can be to the benefit of you personally if not professionally. It is not about the quantity of people who follow you on Twitter. It is about the quality of relationships and commanded respect as a result of that personal brand. Someone who is a “social media expert” who blathers on 100% about social media is boring. When that person injects a little personality in his or her communication, even if it’s 10% or less of his content, the spectrum of who you connect with expands. This can come from mixing it up with pictures shared on Flickr, funny videos on YouTube, sports opinions, you get the idea.

Again, it’s not merely about your job. It’s about putting your passions on display – some of that may involve what you do for a living, but it won’t be ALL of it.

Gary Vaynerchuck is a guy who, if he only talked about wine reviews, would be a boring guy. His personal brand would blend in. But this guy is someone who is an unabashed Jets fan who curses liberally as he gives reviews on Cabernet through online videos. He’s not your typical sommelier at a fancy restaurant or a food critic with your typical newspaper column. He swishes the liquid around and spits into a football helmet for all the world to see. And that’s what is great about him. He is qualified and credible to be sure, but he also injects personality into the message without apology. A guy you’d like to hang out with and listen to who also happens to know a lot about wine.

Just like Darren Clarke is a guy you’d like to hang out with who also happened to win one of the toughest tournaments in the world.