For LeBron James, Four Years Made All the Difference

In 2010, NBA superstar LeBron James, having just completed his first professional contract, announced during a surreal television special that he would be leaving his “hometown” Cleveland Cavaliers (James actually hails from Akron, Ohio) and playing for the Miami Heat. “The Decision,” a 75-minute interview with Jim Gray in which LeBron waited nearly 30 minutes before actually declaring his intention, aired on ESPN and was a ratings boon for the network.

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For LeBron, the special was less successful. Feeling abandoned and insulted by the public rejection, Cavs fans took to the streets to burn jerseys bearing his name. He was lambasted in the media for making a spectacle of himself and for the now infamous proclamation that he would be taking “his talents to South Beach.”

The following season, LeBron, who was generally well-liked before the special, became Public Enemy No. 1 in the NBA. He was booed in arenas across the country and even after the memory of “The Decision” faded and he began winning MVPs and championships, many fans still looked at him as a villain.

Last week, that all changed.

A free agent again after the 2014 season, James announced through a first-person story told to highly-respected “Sports Illustrated” reporter Lee Jenkins on the company’s website that he would be returning to Cleveland to play the rest of his career with the Cavs.

But the announcement went far beyond merely identifying the jersey he’d wear next. In the three-page article LeBron explained his desire to raise his children in his hometown, connection to Northeast Ohio and regret about how he left four years earlier. He talked about the impact he hoped to have on the community and the example he intended to set for young people in the area. In short, this announcement was everything “The Decision” was not, and the overwhelmingly positive public reaction was proof that LeBron had gotten it right the second time.

Of course, among the many differences with his latest announcement was Jenkins’ involvement in telling LeBron’s story. Although Jenkins’ primary goal as a reporter was to land a major scoop, he also essentially acted as a brand and content strategist, taking the best material from interviews with the star and crafting a piece that painted him in the best possible light. Basketball fans all over the country—excepting Miami—seemed to share one sentiment after reading the story: they would be rooting for LeBron James from now on.

So, what is the moral of the story for marketers? Sometimes getting a little outside help from an expert content vendor provides a fresh perspective and new voice that can make all the difference in how your message is received. Fortunately for LeBron, he got a second chance to win back the public, but businesses aren’t always so lucky; a bad impression or inconsistent branding can cause a customer to leave and never come back.

So when it comes to your own content decision, do everything you can to get it right the first time.

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