July 10, 2014

The value of a cricketer's brand

Andrew Strauss will recover from the indiscreet remark he made about Kevin Pietersen, but his image won't be entirely as it was

Andrew Strauss: a salutary lesson to youngsters everywhere © Getty Images

As someone who spends a lot of time working with young athletes on developing a strong "personal brand" that endures through their sporting careers, I watch the evolution of sporting brands with close interest. Athletes typically go through a brand maturity process as their careers blossom, but generally the essence of their personality remains fairly consistent while the rough edges are smoothed: the finished product is a legacy that endures long after the boots have been hung up.

Ricky Ponting is a case in point. His brash and perky image never really changed, but as he matured into an elder statesman of the game, he grew into that expectation of maturity. Occasionally the Mowbray Mauler side to him escaped from the bottle, even after he was captain, but by then his genius was unquestioned, the media had grown to respect the man, and his brand value is likely to maintain its integrity as he joins the pantheon of greats.

Shane Warne likewise - throughout his playing career and beyond, he has remained consistent to his brand. Not all of it has been entirely wholesome but his consistency (even in a negative sense) has actually been his strength. Experts in the field of image management will probably tell you that consistency is the key to a strong brand that stands the test of time, even if staying true means committing the odd indiscretion.

There's no better living exemplar, of course, than Sachin Tendulkar. From the time he strode into the spotlight as a teenager, baby-faced, his reputation has been under constant scrutiny, the extent of which us mere mortals will struggle to comprehend. And it is unlikely to change in the near term.

Tendulkar's genius has extended beyond his feats with bat in hand - the sheer consistency of his personality, softly spoken, unfailingly polite and modest, avoiding significant controversy over a long career in the public eye (all two billion-plus of those eyes!) has been a marketing triumph for him and his image makers. One can only hope that he will not let his guard slip even in his dotage; if he does, he has probably earned the right to be forgiven after so many years of living in the bubble with so much class.

For many years, I have cautioned young athletes against having the c-word as part of their lexicon. It is the one word that is universally reviled in society

Others who have more recently claimed that positive brand space for themselves include Rahul Dravid and Mike Hussey. Kumar Sangakkara has carved his own niche, his combative nature softened by a sharp intellect and an awareness of what it takes to be a man of the people while still walking with kings. Adam Gilchrist will never regret his actions in the 2003 World Cup semi-final, his brand forever linked to integrity and character, resulting in lucrative commercial endorsements.

It doesn't all have to be squeaky clean for it to be successful. In some senses, David Warner has already established a brand identity that appears to be working for him. Andrew Symonds, even in retirement, has a strong "presence" and charisma, probably because of his excesses rather than in spite of them. Michael Kasprowicz, whose career overlapped Symonds', went for the polar opposite - he was seen as a genuine "nice guy". Having first met Kasper when he was 13 years old (he played in my school 1st XI when I was a senior and he was in year eight), I know there is nothing manufactured about his brand. Long before he even dreamed of fame, he was always that nice guy. He just grew into his shoes.

Which brings me to the nub of the story - Andrew Strauss. To describe his faux pas as "mortifying" is perhaps the most accurate way to imagine what he must be feeling after a long career that was so carefully manicured. By all accounts, Strauss is indeed a fine chap, worthy of all the noble compliments that came his way after a distinguished career. When he retired in 2012, I wrote this piece, ostensibly about his personal brand and the aura that he took away with him into the long shadows.

One line in particular mocks me now:

"I cannot recall him being disrespectful to umpires, opposition players or even team-mates. Even the latest brouhaha involving Kevin Pietersen was handled with diplomacy and dignity. It was just so Strauss and so olde-worlde English, from a distant generation almost."

Oh Andrew…

His immediate and unreserved apology went some way towards repairing the damage. The fact that it was said about KP might mitigate the fall out (in the eyes of some) but it will, no doubt, be something he regrets for a long time yet. I suspect the cricket world will move on from this incident and his reputation will remain relatively untarnished, but for a brief spot that simply won't be wiped clean, no matter how hard it is polished. This is the Radley College/Durham University man, the Middlesex/MCC chap, the former England captain, after all. It will take some polishing!

This is a real-life case study that I will use with young athletes. For many years I have cautioned them against having the c-word as part of their lexicon, even in jest. My point has always been that it is the one word that is universally reviled in society, and no good can come from it being used in any context. Remove it from your vocabulary, totally, utterly, permanently, and one day, when you least expect it, you may just look back and thank yourself.

Strauss' brand will probably outlive this mortification because he is by all accounts a decent chap, but in terms of a salutary lesson to young cricketers, the lessons are clear: the best way to be your brand is to live that brand. The best brands are grown organically.

Michael Jeh is an Oxford Blue who played first-class cricket, and is a Playing Member of the MCC. He lives in Brisbane