Employee brand behaviors: Rivera vs. Incognito

November 21, 2013

If sports teams are businesses with players as the employees, who defines the brand?

Let me start right off by saying, I am not a sports fan. Before you start throwing peanuts and beer bottles, I grew up in L.A. watching the transplanted Brooklyn Dodgers, knew the names Wally Moon, Duke Snider, Roy Campanella, and marveled at Maury Wills’ base stealing. And when I moved to New York, I only got excited when the Yankees made the news or the playoffs.

With that caveat, I can say that my perspective on sports is not biased by any team allegiance. In fact, I see sports teams as businesses with their own well-defined brands, merchandising, communications, and—another word for team members—employees.

As a result, I regard a player’s behavior in the same way that I would view any customer-facing employee, be it a bank manager, grocery cashier, hotel concierge or flight attendant. Granted, their skills are wildly different, more specialized and more popular. A baseball player like Mariano Rivera is an exemplary employee exhibiting the Yankee brand; on the other hand, Richie Incognito’s actions as an employee might have done damage to the Dolphins’ brand.

Before he retired this year, Rivera had long played the role of a team leader for the Yankees organization. He was a mentor and voice of experience to his younger teammates. He put the team and his teammates first before himself. Bud Selig, baseball Commissioner, said about Rivera, “throughout his illustrious career, he has represented his family, his country, the Yankees and all of Major League Baseball with the utmost class and dignity.”

In contrast, the vicious bullying of Richie Incognito towards fellow teammate Jonathan Martin—regardless of Incognito’s accomplishments as a powerful guard and player—have put a negative light on the legacy of the Miami Dolphins. According to Don Shula, the legendary former coach of the Dolphins, “the organization swung and missed on Incognito.” If Roger Goodell, Commissioner of the National Football League determines after investigating the incident that Incognito has damaged the image of the NFL, Incognito—like any employee of any company that committed an egregious Human Resources violation—could be suspended or fired. Ironically, the dictionary definition of his name, “incognito” means “in disguise.” His actions have done just the opposite and have put him in the negative spotlight and that impacts the entire team. Most telling that this is a brand issue is what Shula wants most for the Dolphins is not wins or Super Bowls, but “just to get back that credibility.” That’s branding in a word.

The best examples of employee brand behavior demonstrate what a company stands for, as personified and interpreted by each individual. When one individual’s behavior stands out—for better or worse—it has an impact on the entire brand.

Are there other examples of how the actions of a single employee have helped or hurt an entire brand? How can it be encouraged or managed?

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