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One Bonus Idea: Ali the Icon

June 7, 2016

In this Bonus episode, Bill reflects on the life and legacy of the late Muhammad Ali through a brand and marketing lens. If you like our podcast, please subscribe and leave us a rating!

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Bill Gullan: Greetings one and all, Real-Word Branding. I’m Bill Gullan, President of Finch Brands, a premier boutique branding agency. This is One Bonus Idea. We do typically one specific topic in the branding world and the art of business building in every off week between the interviews that we do with brand and business builders. However, I think today and in general we want to get into the habit of opining on topics or referencing topics almost like a blog would, as they arise.

Of course, the world is talking about the passing of Muhammad Ali, the icon, the legendary heavyweight champion – this world figure, humanitarian figure, who passed this weekend. I think we wanted to do a couple minutes of recollection of how Ali may have crossed our path. Think a little bit about his legacy and maybe there’s a takeaway in there for marketers. I know there definitely is.

The most fundamental way in which Ali crossed Finch Brands’ path was when we were doing the rebranding process with Everlast. When we began our work with Everlast, it was not a ‘rebranding’ and these are the specific deliverables that we need to have. It was more a case of ‘what do we do now?’ There were various conditions in the business that made that an appropriate time to give some thought to it. One of the things that was a challenge that has so largely been surmounted, or at least was in the intervening years, was this transition from a brand that had 80% market share in boxing, but boxing was not growing fast. But 80% market share.

How do you transition into a fully articulated athletic lifestyle brand while at the same time maintaining that core strength and credibility in boxing? The brand had been around for over a century. It was called The Choice of Champions. The reason that Ali was so fundamental to that was I spent probably a day scouring his quotations and reading the various things that he’d written or had been written about him. We were thinking in some ways who could be best symbolic for Everlast of that transition from being a very narrow boxing brand to something that was larger and more significant beyond just that one application.

Ali is archetypical of that. He was somebody who was a champion, obviously, and has identified with his sport of boxing but became larger, deeper; he was more broadly defined and more broadly understood. As we were thinking about ways to express the ideas that we were building into the Everlast brand, we discovered that it isn’t just about the specific physicality of boxing but it’s more about the spirit.

The data that we were receiving from global research was that while most people weren’t ever going to do anything related to boxing specifically in their training or their athletic life. There had been some momentum around cardio kickboxing, there had been some momentum around principles of boxing, but this brand really needed to understand and stand for what consumers identified as the spirit – what we began to call the ‘Everlast ethos.’

What boxing was all about was not just about hitting somebody, but it was about individuality. It was about authenticity. It was about a set of attributes that Ali really embodied. When we rebuild the vision and mission to make it more broadly applicable to whether it was somebody who was interested in boxing, but also what about that person running their first 5K? In many ways, we sought to lay claim to the training space, long before Reebok ever did it, on behalf of the Everlast brand.

The emergent vision and mission was to unleash strength and determination in every individual. Again, about fighting perhaps, but fighting is not narrowly defined through a specific physicality. Then as we went to develop the tagline there was – I don’t believe this phrase was actually Ali’s, but obviously you’ll recognize the echoes of it in him – the tagline became ‘Greatness is Within.’ Obviously, Ali spoke a lot about being the greatest and a lot about what greatness meant. We were very inspired to connect that idea of greatness to an inward sense of self and developing level of energy and accomplishment and aggression.

Really reacquainting oneself with Ali, not only his major fights, but also what he meant during that process was fascinating and really rich for me. Ali’s legacy, however, is complicated in some ways. Obviously in the aftermath of a death, especially someone as beloved and well known as Ali, there are these tributes. It would be bad form to be negative, and I don’t certainly seek to be negative here at all, but he has a complicated legacy. Ali was a deeply polarizing figure all the way back to his refusal to be drafted into the Vietnam War, his strong association and outwards expression of black nationalism and the Nation of Islam, and everything else.

Ali had a very unstable family life in addition. And as a Philadelphian, a lot of us, I think, can’t get by, at least not fully by, the way that he treated Joe Frazier. Particularly in the run up to their first fight, but across the trilogy. Joe was not in any way up to the verbal sparring and consequently, Ali just rained down epithets on Frazier. He was an ‘Uncle Tom’; he was a ‘gorilla’; he was a ‘tool of white America.’

Ali was ever the hype man. It was positioning, probably largely positioning that fight as a match between Ali who was a reflection of the so-called ‘angry black man’ and was really rallied around by the counter culture at the time, both in the African American community and beyond. Naturally, the positioning of that fight had to make Frazier the ‘tool of the establishment.’ That led to a lot of adjectives that we wouldn’t tolerate today, frankly. I think it embittered, at least I’ve read, embittered Frazier for the rest of his life.

Anyway, incredibly complicated legacy. But today and this week, what you’re hearing appropriately is a tremendous amount of praise, both for Ali the man and the athlete, but also his historical and cultural significance. That led me to think a little bit about why, given how polarizing he was across his life, has he become almost universally revered at this point. It wasn’t just being positive from when someone’s passed away that has led to this out pouring. It’s deeply felt, and it is authentic.

In recent years, there was no backlash against Ali. Ali was an enduring, central, iconic, world-wide figure who was really, really beloved. Couple reasons that I think at least, just one guy talking, about why this went from polarity to near universal acclaim and love.

One is that in our culture, cool is king. By that, I mean that the experience of Ali, the way he dressed, the way he looked, the way he spoke, overwhelms whatever inconvenient truths may exist in terms of whether he was as nice as he always could be, whether he was a great family man, whatever. We didn’t care. We embraced him as historical and even a present day figure, because he was just a bad ass. He was awesome. He had an edge. He was so cool to listen to and to watch.

When We Were Kings, when you watch the documentary, you could just see the richness of Ali, the cultural meaningfulness of Ali. It’s like in some ways we watched Madmen because we love just the aesthetic of that time, even if the characters were horrible in terms of the things they did. I’m not comparing Ali to that in any way, but the Ali aesthetic was just so meaningful. In some ways, you see the bravado and the style, modern day hip hop is an expression of that, one mainstream through the culture. Ali was, I don’t know this much about a style of music, but Ali’s aesthetic was just so rich. That’s one thing.

Secondly, just practically speaking, so called subversives or counter culture folks are really now in charge of a lot of institutions in America, from academia to the media, etc. When people came of age during a time like that, and they were of a very similar mind to Ali at the time, these people are now almost dominant communicators in our culture.

The folly or tragedy of the Vietnam War is generally accepted in a way that it certainly wasn’t when Ali was refusing to be drafted. Ali’s views on race at the time were radical and threatening. They’ve been largely mainstreamed now. At least, many of them have been. We see his actions throughout his life, from the draft and well beyond, as acts of immense courage rather than subversion. They were clearly acts of courage at the time. They were deeply felt. He gave up a ton in his time for standing up for what he believed in.

But when we look at them in the rear view mirror and we look at them when what he was railing against or protesting against has fallen very, very deeply out of favor in the US, and has been, as Reagan said about the Soviets, ‘in the ash bin of history,’ what the domino theory and Robert McNamara and pro Vietnam perspectives. That is not to say there aren’t folks who still considered Ali to be very polarizing, but the balance of power has shifted. What seemed to be very subversive at the time is largely accepted to be true today. Ali was somebody who was respected for being early to many of those topics and fights.

I think lastly his illness and all that it sapped from him made him a sympathetic figure in recent years, being limited as he was, having borne a terrible physical price for what he did so well to entertain us and his boxing career, etc. His illness and his bearing as he did with great dignity, by the way, with his illness, sanded down some of his rough edges. It removed from his persona some of the anger that had been there. It invited sympathy, either visually or actually. Ali seemed mellower. You couldn’t help but be, when you’re as under the control of an illness in the way that Ali was.

But it was clear the spark was still in his eye. He interacted so touchingly with children and with others. I think there’s very little doubt that that was the real man, but at the same time the sight of this man, afflicted as he was, yet still finding the ability to frown his face and take that fighting stance with kids or with others, was just heartbreaking and affirming to watch.

There are a couple reasons why I think the reference for Ali has become almost universal. The best rule for branding here is that, like Ali, and I’m not speaking in a personal branding, endorsed products type of way, but taking inspiration from the texture that Ali was and expressed. The best brands are truly 3 dimensional, and they are deep, rich, and authentic. They have shape and form; they have emotion in addition to reason.

To truly become a brand versus just being a product or a collection of products, one needs to or can benefit from understanding how Ali became not just a boxer but an icon. He wore his values on his sleeve. There were all kinds of content about him that was beyond just, ‘Here’s how you throw a left hook,’ or, ‘Here’s how you rope a dope.’ He certainly had excellence, almost transcendent excellence in his core, which was that of being a warrior.

We find brands that succeed obviously need to be excellent in their core. They need to have content that surrounds them beyond just what they sell and the specifics of those products. They need to have their values outwared for all to see and understand, and they need to consistently live up to those values. Ali did all of those things.

Those are key lessons we’ve been talking about on this podcast for a year. They’re perhaps the most important Ali related takeaway for marketers, is how you transcend what you make into being known for what you are, which includes what you make but transcends what you make. Farewell, Muhammad Ali, pugilist, humanitarian, warrior in and out of the ring, larger than life personality. May he rest in peace. He will certainly always be remembered. We’ll sign off from the Cradle of Liberty.

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