Personal Branding for Athletes: Character-Based Content Beats Performance-Based Content

  Photo by Max Kukurudziak on Unsplash

Photo by Max Kukurudziak on Unsplash

“Whether you know it or not, whether you have a swanky logo or not, you do have a brand. The question is whether or not it’s the brand you really want.” – Dan Pallotta, founder of the agency Advertising for Humanity


Years ago, Angela Ahrendts was working at a big corporation, when a human resources manager told her that she needed to make changes — like talking less with her hands — in order to be considered “CEO material.” At the company’s recommendation, Ahrendts traveled to Minneapolis to be coached, videotaped and critiqued.

“By lunchtime the first day, I just looked at them and I said, ‘I gotta go,’” she recounts. “I don't care about a title or a position. You know, I have to wake up with me every morning, and I want to be the best version of myself. I don’t want to be this person you’re trying to make me, so I'm really sorry but I have to go.’”

One month later, Ahrendts was offered the position of CEO at Burberry, where she led an impressive turnaround and re-established the luxury fashion brand as one of the top dogs in the industry.

“I just think that, to thyself, be true,” Ahrendts says.

You won’t find a better story that personifies the definition of personal brandingthe practice of portraying the best version of your truest self. In other words, personal branding is less about painting the perfect picture of yourself, as it is about painting a picture in which your most marketable, authentic colors coincide.

“Authenticity doesn't mean sharing everything about yourself, to everyone, all of the time,” says Justin Bariso, author of the book EQ, Applied: The Real-World Guide to Emotional Intelligence. “It does mean saying what you mean, meaning what you say, and sticking to your values and principles above all else.”

In the digital age, personal branding involves the ongoing act of publishing content that transparently (and strategically) shares details of an individual’s everyday life, with the goal of creating a positive, memorable, empathetic effect which is amplified by a complete view of the individual’s authentic self. While some athletes are less comfortable sharing these details, the good news is: Personal branding is content you control.

Cristiano Ronaldo, for example, doesn’t shy away from sharing content of his family, whereas one of Andy Murray’s representatives was quick to tell me his client has no desire to show the tennis player’s family life. Whichever side of the spectrum an athlete resides, he or she should stay within a framework of self-disclosure that makes him or her feel the most comfortable. This is, after all, part of what authenticity entails.

A post shared by Cristiano Ronaldo (@cristiano) on

To create the most positive, memorable, empathetic effects of an athlete’s personal brand, athletes and their brand managers must understand and execute against the notion that their sport is one of many diamonds in an athlete brand’s championship ring.

“An athlete brand is one that doesn’t revolve around sports,” says Danielle Berman, a sports philanthropy consultant. “Sports may be an athlete’s job, but an athlete brand that stands out among the rest involves more of their passions, interests and life outside of sports.”

As a matter of fact, a study by Nicky Lewis and Andrew Weaver supports Berman’s sentiment. The professors found that sports fans responded more positively to character-focused stories about individual athletes, including personal attributes unrelated to on-field activity, than to performance-focused stories.

“When media producers create content specifically for a target audience of sports fans, emphasizing personal attributes in a character-framed narrative could maximize both enjoyment of the story and the intentions to support the athlete in the future,” according to Lewis and Weaver. “This in turn could lead to increased consumption of media content related to the athlete.”

Athletes and their brand managers must become bonafide media producers that strategically, authentically and consistently show fans an athlete’s 360-degree view, at the intersection of sports, culture and lifestyle. That is, if they want to build a personal brand that results in greater athlete brand equity and, ultimately, many more opportunities for additional, scalable income, influence and impact.

“People already know you’re an athlete, so it’s important to connect and engage with your fans and potential brand partners by sharing other elements of who you are in a very organic way,” says Tammie Scott, a former player marketing comrade at the NFL Players Association, who now serves as the Director of Marketing at Grutman Sports & Entertainment.

“This is what allows influence to grow, and essentially presents more opportunities to maximize earning potential off the field of play during and post career.”

StrategyJosh Hoffman