What do you do when you’re branded?

The most recent issue of Sports Illustrated spends over 30 pages on one of those “Where are they now?” features. Breaking away from last year’s “Athletes that own car washes” intrigue, this year’s model notes that Lawrence Taylor has foregone drugs and dames for golf and more golf. Also, Don Larsen grew a moustache. Exciting.

The most interesting feature is on Greg Norman. The Shark has built an empire around golf course design, real estate development, polo shirts and some mighty tasty shiraz. Norman is shrewd. In the article, he says that he learned an important lesson from Arnold Palmer: Don’t endorse everything. While Arnie was schilling life insurance and snow tires, Norman was watching. He learned not to dilute his brand and create a lifestyle around the shark. By following this principle, he’s built wealth $200 million and established himself as a legitimate business player in his respective markets.

Norman has done a superlative job, made all the more impressive by how difficult it has proven for other athletes to effectively brand themselves. Would you ever buy something endorsed by Clinton Portis or Gary Sheffield or Brett Myers? It shouldn’t be understood that a troubled past would prevent someone from being marketable. Take Kobe Bryant. At the very least, Kobe cheated on his wife with a young vanilla truffle and, at worst, it was not consentual. Factor in an 81 point game and he’s back to being a red carpet darling. Kobe jerseys are once again popular, assuming that they ever went out of style from the start.

But what about those athletes that never had to do image repair? If you are an endorsement-worthy athlete, it can’t be as hard as it seems to make solid endorsement choices. The ultimate example of this is Shaq. Shaq is an eloquent, charming, intelligent man who has a sense of style; he always appears somewhat above the norm. Now look at his marketing moves: multiple rap albums, Kazaam, the Burger King “Shaq Pack”, his busted K-Mart shoe deal. I can’t tell if he’s a money whore or has the worst agent ever. He could be dishing Bentleys and fine clothing, items we identify as satisfying Shaq’s tastes. Do you think he likes wearing his $40 kicks? Jordon looked great in his Jordans. Hell, even Kevin Johnson seemed to enjoy his L.A. Gear shoes. That’s because the best deserve the best and, well, KJ was an L.A. Gear kind of player. We don’t buy Shaq’s stuff because we don’t believe Shaq actually likes his merch. Plain and simple.

When I think about the importance of creating a brand, I think of Ted Williams. Ted Williams pitched some crap in his time but I always remember those Ted Williams fish hooks from Sears Roebuck. They were nothing special but they were soild, servicable hooks and you knew that Teddy actually used them. Same with Norman; deep down, you know that Greg Norman drinks Greg Norman wine. You think Shaq ate many Shaq Packs? Exactly

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