[This article originally appeared on IHaveAnIdea.org on March 7, 2012.]
Until this February, Jeremy Lin was having a tough time at work. His dream of playing in the NBA had come true, but after going undrafted out of college and eventually seeing only little playing time during his contracts with the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets, his future in basketball looked dim.
Still, millions of Americans have had a much tougher time. The economic recession of the past three years has meant salary freezes, budget cuts, layoffs, debt and a lower standard of living for people who thought they lived in the land of opportunity.
It only took one night and one opportunity to turn Jeremy Lin’s life around, and all of a sudden anything was possible. Linsane, right?
There is no doubt that Lin is an extremely talented basketball player and an impressive human being, but his performance alone can’t fully account for the Linsanity that has taken America by storm. I’d argue that Lin emerged at an ideal moment in time, when his success story was exactly what Americans (and New Yorkers in particular) were waiting for.
In branding, we talk a lot about the product and our audience. Much of the press surrounding Lin has focused on his personal “brand,” and his high-quality, unique “product.” But I’d like to look more closely at the consumers who have devoured Lin and propelled the Linsanity.
First of all, who are they? The fact that Lin has made headlines in virtually every major news outlet, and exploded across social media networks, suggests that his audience is more than pro-basketball fans. Nor is it limited to Asian-Americans, or Christians, or Ivy-Leaguers.
Jeremy Lin has a near-universal appeal. His is a true “feel-good” story. Call it Cinderella or the American Dream—it’s the classic underdog tale that Americans love. Lin’s early struggles, combined with his impressively humble behavior, make him deserving of success. And moreover, believing in him helps us believe in our own potential.
But we don’t just like Lin; we obsess over him. Why? Lin draws our collective attention because he represents a refreshing divergence from all the things we’re used to—and tired of—hearing about.
From basketball to politics, there hasn’t been much good news lately. By the time Lin took off, we were exhausted from months of internal strife in the NBA that ended in a lockout and the season’s delay. New Yorkers then had to wait for the battle between MSG Networks, the Knicks’ parent company, and Time Warner Cable to subside before pro sports returned to normal. The 2012 election didn’t offer much remedy or distraction, either—no candidate has been able to claim widespread allegiance, let alone maintain a consistent image.
Lin also sets himself apart from (maybe even above) the tabloid culture of Tiger Woods and Kim Kardashian (whom Lin was ironically and falsely rumored to be dating). Why watch reality TV when you can watch “The Jeremy Lin Show”—uncut? The appetite for scandal and debauchery has waned in recent years, especially as they’ve spread to politicians who might end up running our country. The same is true of the super-rich and extravagant displays of wealth. Every time Lin turns down a luxury endorsement, we love him more.
Lin makes up for his absence in the tabloids with his presence in social media and his willingness to take interviews in traditional media. By creating a dialogue with his fans on Twitter, or chatting patiently and openly with reporters, Lin gives his fans just the right amount of access and satisfies their expectations of interaction with celebrities in the digital age.
Paradoxically, though, Lin is in many ways an old-fashioned celebrity—the kind who doesn’t seek fame for its own sake, but who gets famous for achieving the extraordinary. The more Lin resists the spotlight and the temptations of wealth and celebrity, the more we respect him and wish him greater success.
It’s unlikely Linsanity will stay at fever pitch for the rest of Lin’s career. But if Lin’s performance continues to impress, and his story remains authentic, he’ll have a loyal audience for years to come. The Jeremy Lin brand could have considerable long-term value, and we can’t wait to see what he makes of it.