Jay Cutler’s Brand – Not What You Think

My wife left an interesting magazine article on my desk earlier this week. The topic was Jay Cutler’s brand. You can read a version of the article here at ChicagoSideSports.

Quick disclaimer: If you don’t know who Jay Cutler is, he is the QB of the Chicago Bears. Disclaimer #2: I’m still – for better or for worse, and more often for worse – a huge NY Jets fan. But living in Chicago, it is inevitable that I’m surrounded by talk of the Bears and so I consider myself to be quite knowledgeable about the team and tune into the “Jay Cutler Show” most weeks.

The article referenced above talks about Jay Cutler’s brand problem. That it’s in crisis. That he has not properly managed his brand. That he’s still seen as some combination of pouty, whiny, arrogant, weak, selfish and divisive within the confines of a team. When I moved to Chicago and started seeing more Bears games, I thought he was the biggest jerk on the planet. The article also rightly points out the good work Jay does with local charities and with the media, but draws the conclusion in the end that all his good work is overshadowed by his image or by public perception that he’s a spoiled brat and a hothead and that he does nothing to refute this image.

Here’s my take on Jay Cutler’s brand: it is alive and well and he is doing just fine managing it.

The reason why there is a perception nationwide that Jay possesses certain negative personality traits is because he has not yet won at the highest levels. PR and brand “experts” compare him to Drew Brees or Aaron Rodgers, two highly-celebrated QB’s, as the gold standard of managing one’s brand. Brees because he is generally well-known and likeable with major national endorsement deals. Rodgers for the same reasons. The problem is that neither of these comparisons is at all valid because Brees and Rodgers have won the NFL’s ultimate prize: The Super Bowl. So let’s look at Brees, Rodgers and add two more into the mix: Eli Manning and Lebron James.

* Before winning the Super Bowl with the Saints, Drew Brees was run out of town in San Diego and his “brand” (or the public’s perception of his brand) was that Drew was an under-sized QB who was smart, was a game manager with not a great arm, and someone you couldn’t build a team around. He was seen as a middle of the pack, somewhat average QB that hadn’t won anything. After the Super Bowl win? An intensely likable guy with a great, strong, accurate arm. A franchise QB. Someone who has done amazing charitable work for New Orleans and a pillar of the community. A national endorsement figure. A winner. Amazing how that happens, right?

* Before winning the Super Bowl with the Packers, Aaron Rodgers was known mostly for being Brett Favre’s understudy, with decent talent, a strong but inaccurate arm, whose personality was virtually unknown to people outside Green Bay, WI. After winning the Super Bowl? He’s “Mr. Discount Double-Check.” One of the “elite” QB’s in the league. Someone who comes across as a generally good guy. That strong rifle of an arm is suddenly seen as an incredibly accurate one too. And, by the way, his charitable works have been well-talked about too. Green Bay adores him. Amazing how that happens, right?

Now onto the interesting brand case studies of Eli Manning and Lebron James:

* Before winning the first of two Super Bowl’s with the NY Giants, Eli Manning was known by his face. Specifically, “The Eli Manning Face” which I could best describe as the face one makes when their dog dies crossed with swallowing something unbelievably sour crossed with getting kicked in the crotch. The Eli Manning Face was a nationally-known phenomenon in the sports world, and he was viewed as meek and unable to come through in the clutch. Not to mention, boring. After? My how his brand magically changed. One of the most clutch QB’s in the history of the NFL. A really nice guy. A funny guy who has hosted Saturday Night Live. Winner. Charitable guy. No longer just the under-achieving younger brother of Peyton Manning.

* Two years ago, was there another Enemy #1 bigger than Lebron James? His brand, after his now-famous press conference announcing his talents were moving to South Beach, was one of villain. Huge ego. Talent through the roof, but a selfish jerk with zero humanitarian qualities. Couldn’t come through in the clutch. Seriously, the general sports public loved to hate the guy. Even I was rooting against him when they played, of all teams, the Dallas Mavericks. As was the rest of the world. Now? How many people even remember “The Decision”? Not many. How many people truly hate Lebron? Not many. How many people know how much money and time he donates to the community in Ohio he grew up in? A lot of people. His brand seemingly transformed overnight from a negative persona to a positive one (or at least not a negative one).

Two things, and two things only, can be responsible for a transformation of one’s personal brand and they are in this order: Winning and Time. This country loves to celebrate winners. We love to celebrate the extraordinary. We love to learn more about superior skills, talents or brains. We’re transfixed by people who possess qualities that the majority of people don’t. And we have short memories.

Back to Jay Cutler’s brand. The public perception is, again, not all that positive. I believe people who follow football believe he is a top-10 talent at the QB position, but that his “intangibles” get in the way. He’s known to yell at teammates. Known to pout. Known to sit on the bench in disgust. Known to give terse answers in the interview room with the media. For these reasons, articles like the one referenced above are written proclaiming Jay needs a brand makeover and that he needs to be more media-friendly and more accessible.

(Ironically, these comments were written by members of the media who act as the very vehicles to carry one’s public brand.)

The not-so-well publicized truth about Jay is that he’s immensely accessible to the media. In fact, he does a weekly radio show that bears his name and he shows up every week the day after a game…win or lose. He answers the tough questions. Is he a tad bit arrogant? Maybe. But he’s certainly not unlikable. In fact, he comes across to me as someone I would want on my team. Not because he’s the nice guy you want around, but because I believe he’s a good teammate that holds himself and others to a high standard. He gets cranky, but lots of players talk about him in positive ways. And I get the feeling that if someone attacks or goes after one of “his boys”, he will be the first one there to have that person’s back.

I think members of the media – who incidentally are normally the ones who help shape and inform public perception – give Jay a bad rap because 1) he doesn’t give the time of day to ALL members of the media because he doesn’t have to; 2) they don’t really know much about football or sports in general and falsely compare his brand to QB’s who are national icons because they’ve won Super Bowl’s.

There is nothing wrong with Jay Cutler’s brand. I think he’s an intriguing figure, a mystery to some. But every public perception of him has been proven to be totally wrong. Not tough enough? Try again, his teammates and coaches talk about how tough he is. The guy spends more time on his back than Jenna Jameson. A jerk to teammates? Not from what I read. Not media-friendly? Seems pretty media-friendly to me every Monday on ESPN Radio. Whether or not he TELLS the whole world that he’s tough, not a whiner/jerk, and is media-friendly is not up to him. PR and brand experts claim he needs to be more proactive in shaping his brand, but frankly, it is just not up to him. What is up to him is what he does on the field. If he goes 10-23 with 125 yards and 3 INT’s, the Bears lose and Jay is yelling and cursing at teammates he will be viewed as petulant and a loser. If he has those same stats and the Bears win, he will be viewed as someone who succeeded despite a poor day and is trying to get the most out of his teammates.

When and if he wins the ultimate prize, the public will look fondly on him. The more time that goes on and the longer he plays and performs well, the more people will appreciate him and embrace him.

Taking it one step further: there is no non-winning, young QB in the NFL who has a “great” brand. Last year’s Rookie of the Year – Cam Newton – got killed early in the season in terms of his brand. Why? They weren’t winning. Mark Sanchez? I could write a novel of negativity about his brand. Why? He’s played historically poorly the last 2 years. Philip Rivers? Seen as Eli Manning before Eli Manning had success. On the flip side: Ben Roethlisberger? That guy has had more off the field transgressions than anyone in recent memory. But no one talks about it anymore because he’s a multiple Super Bowl winner and he’s cleaned up his act. Winners always, always get the benefit of the doubt in the court of public opinion.

See where I’m going? My advice to Jay Cutler: keep doing what you’re doing. Being a polarizing figure isn’t all that bad, and he happens to be one of them. Until he wins on the biggest stage and goes from polarizing to hero.