The Greatest Brandbuilder
This week, the world will bid farewell to the greatest brandbuilder of our time. Arguably, the greatest brandbuilder of all time.
He was The Greatest.
Muhammad Ali died last weekend at the age of 74. For the last 20 years, he suffered from the degenerative effects of Parkinson's Disease. The man whose presence—both physical and psychological—was dominant beyond that produced by any other human being on earth in the 60s and 70s fell further and further victim to his disease. (If you want to know more about Parkinson's or make a donation in honor of someone you know who has suffered from this disease, visit The National Parkinson Foundation.)
Ali was, in a word, everything. He encompassed a set of skills that have never been, and likely will never be duplicated.
He was a dominant athlete. He did not retire undefeated like other fighters have. Even so, he dominated the sport and the ring. One look at the famous photo of Ali standing above Sonny Liston in the rematch of Ali's stripping Liston of the title shows a man in complete control. He changed the sport. He turned sedentary punching into pugilistic ballet, moving around the ring with the grace of a dancer.
He was a comedian. He loved showmanship, and never hesitated to demonstrate it. If his entire repertoire consisted only of his interactions with the late Howard Cosell, his place in the pantheon of entertainers would be secure. He was funny, verbose, articulate and boisterous. He loved a good joke, and new how to deliver it.
He was a worldwide celebrity. One could argue, and the argument could be supported, that Ali was in his day the most famous person on the face of the earth. It could be further argued (with ample support as well) that Ali was the most famous person in the history of the world. He was known and revered in every country in which he visited. He was an ambassador of humanity. His fame allowed him to interact with ease in situations where no other human could (or would). He had only the obligation to be himself and he was welcomed in. Testimony to this is that, when the Beatles toured the United States for the first time, they asked if they could meet Ali. They did, and the force of his presence on four of the most charismatic people of their time is evident.
He was a man of faith. Almost immediately after securing the World Heavyweight Championship, he declared his faith in Islam. Still a controversial topic 50 years later, in that day is was unheard of. Yet Ali proclaimed his faith and, by all accounts, lived it out until the end of his days.
He was a man of conviction. Apart from his faith, Ali stood for ideals throughout his life. He valued human life, and humanity. He had a gift for haloing his personality on causes as diverse as world hunger, human rights and apartheid.
Last, but certainly not least, he was a branding genius. Whether by design or by instinct, Ali created his brand—The Greatest—and he never wavered from it. He pumped it and pumped it into the world psyche. He hammered it in his victories (I'm a bad man!), in his interviews (I'm gonna fight Joe Frazier and I'm gonna beat Joe Frazier. Joe Frazier is ugly.), in his promises (Float like a butterfly, and sting like a bee), and even in his politics (I ain't got nothin' against those Viet Cong.). He knew his brand would be what would sustain him above all else. And he both milked and protected it.
As a child, I was in awe of Ali. Some of my earliest and most vivid memories were listening to the recaps of his fights on the radio with my dad and brother. I was too young to be sucked into a lot of the political and social drama he was at the center of. I just saw this bold, brash, charismatic force of nature who could box, joke, laugh and yes, write poetry. I recall a couple of lines from the ramp up to the first Ali/Frazier bout (the one of the three he actually did not win). I'll close with it as a tribute to the man:
And when the fight is all over and Frazier can't answer the bell,
I'm gonna jump over the ropes and fight Howard Cosell.
That's how you own a brand.