When John McEnroe commentates, I want to listen.
That was true in September both for the US Open and my light-fare TV watching while riding my elliptical trainer, Mindy Kaling’s Netflix series Never Have I Ever.
Why would Mindy Kaling cast John McEnroe to narrate a drama about a lovesick teenage Indian American girl?
Because she sought a truth-teller who could plausibly act as the superego of a high-achieving girl with a hot temper.
If you have ever heard of John McEnroe, as soon as I say hot temper, you nod your head. You get the association.
Because that is something John McEnroe is known for.
The John McEnroe Brand
If you watched men’s tennis in the 1970s and 1980s, you witnessed McEnroe’s brilliant play at its peak.
In addition to excellent technical skills, McEnroe had the presence of mind and creativity to mix up his shots in a way that surprised opponents and made for thrilling viewing.
A perfectionist at heart, he was also unafraid of contesting umpire calls and publicly expressing his discontent before it was fashionable.
His repeated outbursts and epic arguments with chair umpires contrasted with the genteel nature of the game tennis authorities sought to preserve. They fined him, penalized him, and threatened to suspend him.
Love him or hate him, McEnroe’s temper differentiated him from the pack and became an indelible part of his personal brand.
Yet that’s not the only thing he’s known for.
I’m not listening to see if McEnroe’s temper shows up.
I listen because I know he’s going to call it like he sees it. He is as authentic as they come.
And while the authorities did not enjoy his fits, plenty of fans admired his fearless challenges. As Matthew Futterman reported in The New York Times (gift article):
“If they can get a word with him, they often tell him how they liked how he thumbed his nose at authority, in a way that perhaps they have never felt empowered to.” – Matthew Futterman, New York Times
Tennis excellence, high standards, authenticity, and empowerment are other brand attributes John McEnroe’s audience associate with him.
How Brands Form
John McEnroe wants to be known for tennis excellence. In this trailer for the documentary Showtime produced about him, he says he was the best in the world.
Maybe he’d like to be known for authenticity and empowerment, but I’ve never heard him say anything about that. Unlikely he’d choose to be thought of as having a hot temper.
Authenticity, empowerment, and hot temper are personal brand attributes McEnroe did not choose for himself, but earned through his actions and behavior.
His audience observed those traits over and over again and began to associate them with him.
That’s how brands form, in the eye – and brain – of the beholder, through repeated exposure.
This crucial insight is worth repeating: Brands form in the eye of the beholder through repeated exposure.
You can try to influence your brand by consistently delivering the same messages and hoping they stick.
But that only works when the messages jibe with the beholder’s experience. Messages need to resonate to influence your brand image.
This is true for company brands and personal brands.
Your audience gets to know you and builds an image of you in their mind based not only on what you say, but what they hear and observe about you.
And in brand-building, the maxim “actions speak louder than words” applies.
Celebrities have watched their brands take a sharp negative turn when their reported offenses eclipse their work. Bill Cosby, Charlie Sheen, and Paula Deen come to mind, along with James Corden and Kanye West.
But the maxim can bring positive brand associations too.
Dolly Parton’s $1 million donation to coronavirus research at Vanderbilt University helped speed Moderna’s vaccine development and woke many people to her decades-long philanthropy.
Dolly’s generosity is now a key part of her brand.
My personal brand has evolved this way too.
I love expressing gratitude and celebrating successes and birthdays with friends via handwritten cards.
When my friends Mathew Sweezey, Mark Schaefer, and Keith Reynold Jennings began publicly associating me with my habit of handwriting notes, my reputation evolved to include “queen of handwritten notes.”
3 Personal Brand Lessons from John McEnroe
Despite John McEnroe’s notoriety, his person brand has blossomed into a major draw.
ESPN has had him voicing the US Open since they began covering it in 2009. He covers the French Open for NBC and does double duty for the BBC and ESPN at Wimbledon.
Showtime just made a documentary about him.
When The United States Tennis Association decided to hold an exhibition to raise money for relief efforts in Ukraine, they contacted McEnroe early on and paired him in three doubles matches.
And then there’s the Never Have I Ever gig.
How has the guy the UK’s Daily Mirror dubbed “the Superbrat” in 1979 managed to grow in appeal and audience draw?
It isn’t because he holds the most Grand Slam titles.
He won 7. His competitors Jimmy Connors (8), Andre Agassi (8), Björn Borg (11), and Peter Sampras (14) all have more. Not to mention recent tennis standouts Raphael Nadal (22), Novak Djokovic (21), and Roger Federer (20).
The key to McEnroe’s personal brand endurance lies in his consistency and authenticity.
Here are 3 things we can learn from him:
1. Know your stuff. McEnroe’s excellence on the court helped him become known and gave him a platform. His commentating provides unique insights. His high standards and performance give him credibility.
2. Be yourself. Fighting your nature to conform to some ideal you imagine will drain your energy and put you at risk for accusations of disingenuous behavior.
Don’t do that.
Your personality is going to come through. That’s a good thing. Your life experience, your quirks, and your emotions make you relatable and help you stand out.
McEnroe’s challenges and outbursts earned him the empathy of fans who have faced situations they felt were unfair and who have wished they could challenge authority.
His perseverance garnered fans’ respect and affinity, both of which have contributed to his personal brand’s staying power.
3. Own it. It’s one thing to be yourself; it’s another to get called out for a gaffe, foible or fault. Or simply to be known by a trait you would not have chosen to emphasize.
Don’t backpedal. Take responsibility for your actions and your words. Own your weaknesses as well as your strengths. Embrace your natural traits.
McEnroe doesn’t deny things he has said. He has his own mind and decides whether to apologize or not to apologize by the merits of the situation, not from public pressure.
Agree or disagree with him, owning his personal brand is how he got the reputation for being authentic.
What This Means for Your Personal Brand
To own your personal brand, you need to know what it is.
Because brands form in the eye of the beholder, you cannot determine your personal brand on your own.
You don’t get a personal brand by having a brand guru declare one for you either.
The only way to know how your personal brand is perceived is to ask your audience.
This is the point where some people recoil in fear.
Fear not, this is easier than you think.
Start by asking colleagues, connections, friends, and family what are the first 3 words or phrases that come to mind when they think of you.
Ask at least 45-50 of them. Tally their responses. See what descriptors rise to the top of the list.
For many people, that exercise alone gives a great indication of how they are perceived and what their personal brand means to their audience.
Give it a try and let me know how it goes, please.
I’ll probably be writing a thank you note or a birthday card when you call. 😊
Just for Fun
Continuing with our McEnroe theme…
You can hear him tell a quick story about a visit he made in Ireland. (1 minute, 5 seconds)
If you’d like true insight into his success, you can listen to him talk about his marriage to Scandal singer Patty Smyth. (3 minutes, 34 seconds)
Or if you’d just prefer some laughs, check out this SNL Bachelor Auction skit – McEnroe’s cameo comes in the last minute. (4 minutes, 58 seconds)
Evelyn, this is a rich and very engaging piece to guide us in developing our own brand. There are so many good examples, but my favorite line is: Brands form in the eye of the beholder through repeated exposure. The more I think about this, the more I realize how “right” it is. Starbucks was a place I could relax and think in a very comfortable environment. Staples became an example of efficiency and organization. I am now going to turn my attention to myself and figure out how I evolve my brand. Thank you! Great thinking here.
Jill, I’m so glad you found this helpful. Your favorite line is mine too. I confess to a particular joy when I realized it rhymed! Love your examples, they illustrate the point beautifully. Can’t wait to see how you evolve your brand!