I’m willing to bet you’re familiar with Deion Sanders, but where you know him from is a complete shot in the dark. After becoming a star of Florida State University’s football, baseball, even track team, Sanders began his equally impressive career in the NFL, MLB, and PBL.
PBL, of course, stands for “Personal Branding League” and I just made it up. Despite Sanders’ resounding success in professional sports, his greatest legacy may be how he elevated himself from “talented collegiate athlete” to a “multi-faceted entertainment personality with the on-the-field talent to back up any and all bravura.”
Deion Sanders is already in the NFL and College Football Hall of Fames, but he’d have an entire wing devoted to his exploits if a hall of fame existed for Personal Branding. While still enrolled at FSU, Sanders began thinking seriously about his future. He saw money, he saw success, and he began creating a vehicle that would allow him to reach the wealth and fame he felt he was destined for.
The vehicle? He turned himself into “Prime Time” or “Neon Deion,” and became what may be the most recognizable sports personality of all time.
Here’s some obvious context about brands: They inspire loyalty and provide designations amongst similar products. When dozens of brands are selling toothpaste, for instance, consumers need to have a way to decide between their options. Enter Brands, stage left, with their accompanying loyalty and trust in tow.
19 year old Deion Sanders looked around and saw a plethora of similarly priced, indistinguishable tubes of toothpaste all waiting for the Major Leagues to pluck them off the shelf. This didn’t work for the man destined to become Prime Time.
According to longstanding FSU Head Coach Bobby Bowden, Deion Sanders knew that “You could make a lot of money if you sell yourself.”
So he did. Deion Sanders effectively became Prime Time and donned gold chains, giant rings, and cruised around Florida State in his brand new convertible. In the inaugural episode of FOX Sports Net’s Beyond the Glory, Sanders’ mother smiles affectionately as she says that he “created a monster.” An extremely hungry one at that.
Your brand should be equally hungry and equally driven. You should have all the bravura and skills necessary to make a name for yourself and create a loyal, excited fan-base.
Thankfully, Neon Deion’s remarkable trajectory contains some valuable lessons:
1. Look to Your Idols
Deion Sanders curated his public persona carefully. Any brashness or perceived sloppiness was deliberate and helped build his Prime Time character. And this “monster” was solidified in no time, complete with high-stepping touchdowns and an ecstatic fan-base.
The Prime Time character worked so well because Deion Sanders was passionate about it. It was a persona he actually enjoyed, one that was honest to who he was. But if the only input was Sanders’ own personality it hardly counts as a character — instead, he pulled from four of his sports idols.
Prime Time learned his brashness from Muhammad Ali, but also his confidence. Muhammad Ali was cocky, but he had the skills and success to back it up. Hank Aaron provided the perseverance to endure any trials that Sanders would face. Sanders has found near universal success, but his autobiography Power, Money & Sex: How Success Almost Ruined My Life outlines some of the troubled waters he overcame.
O.J. Simpson’s legacy has been all but destroyed, but he was once respected for his prowess on the football field. Deion Sanders claims that he learned team loyalty and care from Simpson because he “always took care of his linemen and they took care of him.” I don’t think it’s a stretch to apply this mentality to Sanders’ later philanthropic ventures, including founding a Preparatory Academy to help High School students make it to college.
Prime Time’s fourth influence was Julius Irving’s “constant professionalism” and flair. Irving’s professional impact may seem counter-intuitive since Prime Time spent his early days driving his custom “PRIME TIME” license plates around town talking on a giant cell phone, but as cartoonish as that sounds, Sanders approached it all as a job, just like Julius Irving.
It’s worth noting that Neon Deion’s idols literally came from different fields. All four men are athletes, sure, but that’s just like your brand turning to other brands, even if they’re in different markets. If you love a particular campaign from Coca-Cola, give it a shot. An approach from DiGiorno pizza catches your eye? Done. Menchie’s frozen yogurt? Don’t be shy, make it yours.
As long as your influences are a natural fit to the brand you create, they can come from anywhere. It all comes down to the attitude you project and as long as it’s a cohesive brand you’re in the clear.
2. Be Recognizable
Prime Time became a success because he stood out and made a name for himself. Whether it be a bold marketing campaign, an exciting new product, or a fresh approach to social media, your brand needs to make sure it stands out as well. Deion Sanders understood this burden — For him, success meant “I gotta high step, I gotta throw my arms in the air…I gotta make sure the attention is on me!”
Sanders kept his brand close to his chest, wearing his Prime Time leather jacket to training camps and working hard to advertise his versatility. He was known for his prowess in both the NFL and the MLB and was able to use that arm of his brand to score commercial gigs like this one:
Your brand should strive to create an equally recognizable persona. As a company full of individual employees, make sure that everyone is aware of your voice, your character.
When Deion Sanders intercepted an end-zone pass on the last play of his final college football game (you can’t plan this sort of thing) the announcers screamed “Picked off by Prime Time! Neon Deion!” Prime Time hosted Saturday Night Live shortly after winning his first Super Bowl with the San Francisco 49ers and even his opening monologue, while not particularly funny, is fully aware of the Prime Time brand.
This is the complete acceptance you want for your brand. When people think of your target market or product, your brand should be the first thing out of their mouth.
3. Have the Quality to Back It Up
Simply standing out wouldn’t have been enough for Deion Sanders, and it’s not enough for your brand. You need to make sure you have the quality needed to be taken seriously — for Prime Time this meant being an extremely talented player on the field, for you it means putting out a product that never disappoints.
On a lesser athlete, the Prime Time persona would have been a crude, aggravating disaster. For Deion Sanders it was a whopping success. No one is going to challenge your personal behavior when thousands of fans are screaming your name and you’re setting all kinds of league records.
For example, Prime Time hit a Major League home run and scored an NFL touchdown in the same week. The touchdown happened the very first time he touched a football in the NFL, and after initially botching the catch. That’s a legacy you can’t contradict.
4. A Legacy that Lasts
Deion Sanders has since retired from sports, and while he’s no longer flaunting the Prime Time character he’s certainly worked hard to maintain Neon Deion’s relevance. He’s a frequent NFL Analyst, he coached a Women’s NBA Team and he’s always quick to apply sports related lessons to life in motivational speeches and interviews.
When speaking about his new reality TV show, Sanders said “I want you to know me as the best father that ever lived!” The man, regardless of what character he’s presenting, has an insatiable thirst to be the best.
Can the same be said about your brand?
For a great example of how the Deion Sanders brand has managed to stay relevant, look no further than his series of Leon Sandcastle videos he did in 2012 for the NFL Network. In the series, Deion Sanders reapplies to the NFL as Leon Sandcastle and takes the sport by storm.
And this might be the best lesson brands can learn from Prime Time…he never stops working hard to stay in the conversation, even if it means a sort of meta-commentary on his own brand / life or a complete reinvention.
What other lessons have you learned from professional athletes?