A class act right up to the very end. I’m not just talking about
Derek Jeter’s game-winning single in the bottom of the ninth inning
for a 6-5 walk-off win against the Orioles, the last home game of
his storied career. I’m also talking about the fact that Jeter, the
five-time World Series champion, made it a point to wish the
Orioles luck in the play-offs. “They deserve it,” he told the
on-field postgame interviewer.
A couple days later, I watched Jeter’s last game with my son,
just one of the many Yankees’ games we’ve watched together over the
years. As I did, it occurred to me that like many professional
athletes before him, Jeter has an incredible opportunity to
cultivate his brand-name status. However, by this I don’t mean
merely to use his name to cash in quickly with product
endorsements, talking-head gigs, or car dealerships. But rather to
transform his brand in such a way that 20 years from now, my son
will be able to talk to his own kids about the Jeter brand in a
whole new but equally substantial way.
As a brand professional, I’ve often been asked what to do if the
thing a brand has been famous for is no longer relevant to the
market. Jeter’s brand success has been based in good part on
walk-off singles at critical moments, and this has served him well.
But this chapter is over. He will no longer be able to deliver on
this aspect of his claim to brand fame. Or, said in a more
commercial way, he won’t be able to deliver on his once-relevant
offering. This is the unifying challenge for all brands faced with
the need to transform, whether it’s Radio Shack and the fact that
radios and electronic components are a thing of the past or
BlackBerry with a customer base no longer enthused by email-centric
keyboards, or Kodak, which sadly totally missed the boat on picture
taking in a digital world.
As Derek Jeter looks at his brand and starts to think about how
to reinvent it in a meaningful way, he shouldn’t think short term,
but long term. And in the off chance he wants my advice (not
likely, but nice to think about), I’ll give him the same advice I’d
give to any brand, in any category looking for a way to maintain
leadership even after its original key offering becomes history.
I’d tell him to look at his brand’s essential DNA to determine the
values that already exist that can be recast. Not a new spin on the
old story, but an entirely different way to use what’s there in a
meaningful way. For example, IBM used to be a brand leader in PCs,
punch cards, and printers until a bunch of PC clones came in and
beat it at this game. Looking at its DNA, what IBM was inherently
good at—information technology—evolved into a powerhouse of IT
expertise and overall computing services.
A similar story in a completely different category is the
National Geographic brand. First published in 1888, the magazine
continued to be filled with stunning photographs of exotic
locations, intriguing cultures, and glorious animals until the
early 1990s when it knew the traditional publishing model was
quickly eroding. The organization reinvented itself by drawing on
its DNA as an expert in showcasing far-flung, fascinating people
and places along with the magnificent flora and fauna of the world
and expanding across a multitude of media platforms.
Jeter, unlike many star athletes before him, has more to his
brand DNA than just baseball statistics. He was an outstanding team
captain with all the leadership qualities inherent in this title.
In my opinion, he has the opportunity to base the new Jeter brand
offering on these leadership credentials. This might be in the form
of a university curriculum or a summer camp, or even recreation
centers for inner-city kids. Whatever it is should be built with an
objective toward lasting value, a brand based on his expertise that
is also meaningful for its time and place in the market.
Real brand reinvention is hard. It’s not a matter of tweaking a
few product features, rearranging retail space, or developing a new
ad campaign. These are tactical initiatives. The list of brands
that have truly transformed themselves is pretty short. Sure IBM
and National Geographic did it, as did Apple, which would have been
dominated by Microsoft had it stuck with computing and not
developed the iPod. Jeter had a magical career and is riding high
with a magical brand image. The opportunity that lies ahead for him
is not to squander this image with a few product endorsements or
variations on this theme. As with any brand looking to transform
itself, Derek Jeter should look at what he brings to the field
beyond the thrilling bottom-of-the-ninth win. I want to hear my
grandkids talking about Derek Jeter, not relative to his past
glories, but his current ones. Given who he is, given his DNA, my
bet is that it will happen.
Originally published on Forbes.com.
Image of Derek Jeter courtesy of Flickr user Keith Allison.