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The 10 Rules for Brand Building: Advice for NFL Prospects

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Congratulations, young athlete! The Underwear Olympics (translation: NFL Combine) is now in the rearview mirror and the NFL draft is less than a week away. But are you ready? And I don’t mean your daily workouts and protein shakes.

The NFL is a business. That means, young athlete, that you are about to become a businessman—whether you want to or not. As a businessman, your most valuable long-term asset is your brand identity. Remember: Teams, agents, sponsors, coaches, and “investment advisers” are primarily motivated by what you can produce for them over the short-term, because that’s their profit-model. But now that you’re a businessman, your obligation is to also think long-term.

The good news is that the best way to enhance the long-term value of your brand is by being a successful player on the field. Playing like an All Pro and avoiding stupid decisions is the surest path to prosperity. The appeal of professional sports is that it’s (largely) an outcome-based endeavor: Production is everything.

But to paraphrase Vince Lombardi, it’s not the only thing.

Efficiency matters on and off the field, and you have a harrowingly-narrow window of opportunity to maximize your brand value. Here are the 10 rules that an NFL prospect should follow to position their brand for long-term, sustainable growth:

1. Scrub your social media sites squeaky-clean. All those fun, goofy photos of you in college, chugging Natty Light? Posing at the frat house, imitating Van Wilder? Doing body-shots off a cute coed? Delete ’em. All of ’em. Remove every tweet, post, and photo that could potentially be misconstrued. It’s a simple risk/reward proposition: Most of the time, social media will harm more than it helps. So give it a rest. At least for a little while.

Speaking of the Internet and social media, now would also be a good time to cyber-squat on the URLs that will be of long-term value to you—especially those associated with your name. The more famous you become, the more probable it is that someone else will claim those URLs/accounts and then try to monetize them. Protect your brand and avoid brand-confusion by safeguarding your name, in the “real world” as well as cyberspace.

2. Surround yourself with reputable people. Now more than ever, you’re going to be judged by the company that you keep. For the next several weeks, you won’t be able to define yourself by what you do on the field. You’ll instead be defined by the actions you take off the field. Help yourself by staying mainstream: Choose an agent who has a reputation for holdout-free negotiations. Insist on trainers who rely on traditional football workouts. Hire financial advisers with a proven track record of stability.

Now’s not the time to reinvent the wheel.

And although you might think there’s nobility in staying steadfastly loyal to old friends and confidants—including those with shady backgrounds—remember: Before your can secure your friends’ futures, you must secure your own. To quote political pundit Morton Blackwell, “You can’t save the world if you can’t pay the rent.” Life is a long ballgame, and if your “friends” don’t understand, accept this. Perhaps you should reevaluate the nature of your friendships.

3. Define your own brand identity right now—or others will do it for you. What do you want people to think when they hear your name? What adjectives do you hope to be defined by? For commercial and business purposes, the adjectives that are most advantageous include: dedicated, intelligent, studious, trustworthy, hard-working, tough, honest, passionate, team-first, driven, brave, polite, caring, grateful, appreciative, focused, loyal, successful.

Now, look in the mirror.  Scrutinize your choice of clothes, your jewelry—even your (next) tattoo.  Consider your posture, your grooming and your speech: Are you reinforcing your desired brand identification? Or are you undermining it?

Everything you say and do will either strengthen the brand you’re building—or it will weaken it. everything!

4. Self-impose a curfew on yourself, and make it a point to be home by midnight. Never forget, everyone has the ability to upload a video of you and disseminate it worldwide in the blink of an eye. Whenever you’re out in public, you’re on stage. Be a good custodian of your brand, because it’s the only one you’ve got! (And rely on taxis, not your drinking buddies: Being a passenger in a DUI arrest might not be as damaging as being behind the wheel, but it’s not helpful either. A $40 cab fee is exponentially preferable to an arrest report that embarrasses you, your club, the NFL shield, and has an infinite cyber-shelf life.)

5. Discover a cause or charity that resonates with you. Soon, young athlete, you’ll have the celebrity platform and financial wherewithal to truly help people in need. It’s as close to being a real-life superhero as you’ll ever get! So plan ahead. Volunteer with a few organizations. Select at least one cause or charity that speaks to you. (And if this cause or charity reinforces your brand identity, so much the better.)

There’s often a branding benefit to establishing a foundation under your name. But if you decide to create your own foundation, follow three simple rules: One, hire a lawyer with category-experience to do all the paperwork, because it will be scrutinized—and the branding (and criminal) fallout of misusing a charitable foundation is extraordinary. Two, if the foundation bears your name, you have a moral obligation to know everything about it. If you don’t have the time or interest to stay abreast of every last detail, don’t do it. Three, spend less than 15 percent of donations on personnel/expenses, and don’t hire an inexperienced friend or relative to run it.

6. Understand that people will soon view you through a different prism. Complete strangers will be jealous of you. Fans of other teams will hate you. Fantasy football fanatics will approach you in crowded restaurants and announce aloud that they “own” you!

If you’re naturally shy and choose not to pose with strangers, understand that they will assume that you’re stuck-up and arrogant (and then loudly complain about it on social media). Even when the real motive is that you’re self-conscious because you have an ugly pimple on your nose! It’s not fair, but it’s reality. If you don’t want to deal with it, don’t go out in a public setting.

The best way to counteract over-eager football fans is by always being unfailingly polite and gracious. Especially when you don’t want to be! Commit these go-to phrases to memory: “Thank you so much,” “I’m grateful for the opportunity,” “I appreciate your kind words,” “I don’t know what the future holds, but I’m going to work hard, pray hard and hope for the best,” “Even if we disagree about this, God bless you and your family,” “Thank you for your feedback,” “It was wonderful meeting you, but please excuse me—I don’t want to be rude to my guests. Thanks again for your support.”

And when possible, pose for the picture (Even when you have a pimple.).

7. There’s virtue in walking away. The football world rewards aggression and physicality; the PR world does not. Don’t feed the trolls, haters, and idiots. Not even when they say (or post) something racist! Not even when they say (or post) something about your family! Not even when they say (or post) something that’s absolutely crazy!

They’re simply not worth the cost.

Think of it this way: When all is said and done, you’re still a young, talented athlete living the American dream… and they’re still emotionally-damaged jackasses.  Don’t give an emotionally-damaged jackass the satisfaction of damaging your brand.

Just walk away.

When your temper cools, you’ll be glad you did.

8. Find at least three mentors. The first mentor should be an older athlete—perhaps a veteran teammate, or an ex-coach, or an alumnus of your college. Use him as a sounding board. Learn from his life-experiences.

The second should be a PR expert who can help you safeguard your brand (and train you for media appearances). Remember: Your brand will be defined partly by those who know you, but mostly by those who only watch and read about you from afar—and there’s a brand-building benefit to following expert advice. PR is important for media relations, but it’s also critical for community relations, and the relationships you cultivate as a professional athlete can pay life-altering dividends after your NFL career ends.

The third mentor is, perhaps, the most important: He/she should represent the person you aspire to be.

Seek these people out. Ask for their guidance. Make them an active presence in your life. Stay in steady contact. And then, for goodness sake, listen to them!

9. Develop a keen ear for discerning bad advice. You’re going to need to develop a system for filtering the bad advice from the good, because it can be overwhelming. When you’re in your early 20s and someone 30-, 40-, 50- or 60-years-old is telling you what to do, it’s difficult to differentiate the helpful from the harmful. Even if you’re a 320-pound, muscle-bound behemoth who’s fearless on the field, it’s an awfully intimidating experience because they have so much more life-experience than you do.

Here’s a two-fold litmus test: First, note the other party’s self-interest (if any) in the outcome. Are they being enriched as well, and besides, what are their expert-credentials?

Second, if someone gives you marketing or financial (or relationship) advice before taking the time to learn what your goals are, then how could their advice be targeted to your needs?

Run away from “experts” who care more about what they want than what you want!

10. Become the brand you hope to be. You’re young; it’s impossible for you to be a fully-formed product yet. Like the great Muhammad Ali once said, “The man who views the world the same at 50 as he did at 20 has wasted 30 years of his life.” The best way to build a brand isn’t through fabrication, but through authenticity. Know your goals. Recognize what’s important. Be a responsible businessman. Embrace the opportunity.

Now’s the time to become the brand you hope to be… because more likely than not, you’ll be living with the consequences for the rest of your life.


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