Saturday, June 2, 2012

Lessons for life

The Atlantic carries an article (“Moneyballer”) about the new star in American college basketball, Harrison Barnes. In high school he was an honor student, sax player, bible aficionado, etc. When he had to make that crucial decision, he opted to go to college instead of jumping right into the NBA. He also chose to stay in college, at least for the time being, though after his freshman year he would have certainly been a top-five draft pick. Why did he do it? As a business major in college, Barnes has picked some key insights from brand-management theory. On the basis of these, “he believes remaining in college for at least one more year will eventually increase his endorsement potential.” In his own words: “The longer you stay in college, the better a brand you build.”

Barnes has realized that the NBA is a business in which players are recruited and kept as long as they generate a sufficient profit stream. This may not sound very inspiring, but he understands the model has a brighter side, too – “you do gain a lot of capital, and you have a platform from which you have avenues to do just about anything you want to do.” And “if anybody has an opportunity to play professional basketball, to not transcend that into off-the-court endeavors is really a waste.”
What kind of “transcendence” does Barnes have in mind, you might ask – maybe campaigning tirelessly to convince budding basketball greats in inner cities to soldier on in school? This might come later, but for now he admires players who have shown acute business acumen and ability to think outside the box – like Kobe Bryant endorsing Turkish Airlines, or Steve Nash producing and shooting the commercials he does for a trendy drink. Of course, the biggest role model of them all is Michael Jordan who  has acquired not just athletic but also business immortality. He “was able to branch out and go into endeavors that have a more sustained effect. That’s why his product is still able to sell, like the Concords” – the latest Jordan-branded shoe to cause consumer riots during the 2011 Christmas shopping season.
With all this wisdom and a really sharp mind, Barnes is working hard to build a strong personal brand. He now has in his cross-hairs the NCAA championship. He knows that winning in New Orleans 30 years after another freshman, Michael Jordan, led the North Carolina team to the title in the same city might just cause the media to “explode.” But what is at the heart of that brand Barnes’s works so hard to establish? As he patiently explains, he wants to be known as “the business guy who plays basketball.” This is the reason he arrived for the Atlantic interview dressed “in a suit and tie – not the kind of flashy outfit commonly seen on NBA draft night, but a simple, conservative dark suit and gold tie.” So “he looked more like a college student interviewing for a job at an accounting firm than a soon-to-be-multimillionaire sports star.” And his whole demeanor was calibrated to reinforce this impression – :his manner was similarly restrained, one might even say businesslike. He sat bolt upright in his chair and paused carefully before each answer.”

As I was reading this, I was reminded of a another lesson on personal brand management – Rachel Greenwald’s 2004 book, “Find a Husband After 35 (Using What I Learned at Harvard Business School). It offered advice on how a woman who has passed that ominous threshold should rebrand herself, conduct focus groups with friends and exes, work on word-of-mouth self-advertising, etc. The book had phenomenal success, and Greenwald went on to build a small business empire around it. In a similar way, Barnes is trying to apply what he learned at the NC business school to his own career, and maybe set a valuable example for other players. Professors at any business school must be really proud of students like Barnes and Greenwald who are able to achieve such strong knowledge transfer.