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Why Muhammad Ali Was the Greatest at Public Relations and Branding

Muhammad Ali once quipped that he said he was the greatest before even he knew he was. His chants about being “the greatest of all time”, “The Champ is Here” and being “A Bad Man” was it all just bravado? Not exactly.

Perception is Reality

What you tell people they shall believe is the essence of both branding and public relations. For Muhammad Ali, his confidence in his capability as a professional boxer led him to boast about his skills convincing the general public before there was proof of his talent. A lot of it was showboating of course, but man what a show! His press conferences before boxing matches are LEGENDARY. He was the biggest trash talker of his time in professional sports. What makes this even more interesting is that he was doing this during a time that most Blacks in America were still oppressed under Jim Crow racial segregation laws. So, why did this work for him? He owned his words, he lived up to the perception. He trained and improved his skill to be the World Champion many times over. He didn’t stop at perception, he worked hard to turn it into the world’s reality. He is the champ that is revered by many even today.

“To be a great champion you must believe you are the best. If you’re not, pretend you are.” - Muhammad Ali

Branding by definition is the marketing practice of creating a name, symbol or design that identifies and differentiates a product from other products. In Ali’s case his constant reminders to the public that he was the greatest was how he differentiated his brand of boxing from other boxers. There is one thing about small business owners can learn from Ali’s persistent perception twisting, if YOU don’t believe you are the greatest then no one else will.

A Perfect Brand Transition

Ali was born Cassius Clay in Louisville, Kentucky. At the height io his career he joined the Nation of Islam. He chose to change his name as part of his religious conversion to Muhammad Ali. This didn’t sit well with many, but he was the greatest so the media went along with it. His opponents on the other hand taunted him with referring to him as Cassius Clay. Ali punished them with tongue lashings during press conferences and beatings in the ring to earn the respect of his new name. Ali was a trendsetter in personal rebranding. Others followed him - NBA legend Lou Alcinder to Kareem Abdul Jabbar and in more recent years NBA player Ron Artest to Metta World Peace.

As Cassius Clay, Ali established his brand of greatness enough to be able to smoothly transition to what was then a controversial religious switch.

“The Greatest” Branding Got him Through a Dark Time

I am gonna say it - Muhammad Ali was a draft dodger. Many would say that it was reprehensible. Ali gave up his ability to box in the U.S. for three years to take a stance against fighting in a war that didn’t make sense to him. He refused to go to Vietnam and turned that into a platform for speaking engagements against the war and other racial injustice. When the smoke cleared his brand prevailed as states slowly reissued him licenses to box again. Although his abilities as a boxer were hurt by his three year self-inflicted hiatus- he was able to hold on to his “The Greatest of All Time” moniker for the remainder of his life.

Believe You are the Best - Then Own It

Small business owners are often afraid to self proclaim who they are. Why? They lack confidence that they can live up to their own standards. To anyone who believes this and owns a business I say don’t bother to keep your business afloat, layoff off your staff, put your customers and clients on notice and then close your doors for ever. On the the front page of my own website, I say I am“New Jersey's Best Public Relations Expert.” A former client actually introduced me to one of his colleagues with that same statement about 10 years ago when I ran into him at restaurant. He was someone that I admired and had great success of his own, he is a millionaire several times over. For him to actually feel comfortable introducing to me to one of his client’s - a total stranger to me - with that moniker he HAD to believe it was true. From that day forward - I have owned the moniker because his perception is definitely my reality.

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