The last gladiator passes.

Posted on December 10, 2007

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evel ride onNovember 30, 2007 marked the passing of my childhood hero, Robert Craig “Evel” Knievel. Let’s pour a little out for my homie. OK now that I have that out of the way, why talk about my child hood obsession with the man? Well, he was really the first person I can remember who was a brand himself. Not unlike Martha Stewart or Lebron James today. He also draped himself and his stage with a considerable amount of branding. Another thing I was drawn to. Not too mention the fact he was one crazy bastard and would try to jump anything. Something as a I thought as a little kid was just as great then as it is today. So stick with me here I am gonna weave a childhood hero into a discussion about brand and branding.

Lets start with “Brand”. What is “Brand”? A brand is a promise. And Evel’s brand was danger, risk, attempt, disdain and balls. Yup he was all about balls. And undeniably American. The public would pack stadiums if his name was on the marquee. That name was even a brand decision, he was given the name “Evil Knievel” after a run in with the law, but decided “Evel” looked better. Audiences packed stadiums and events because they knew what he represented, what he promised. This resulted in crashes on epic proportions. Isn’t this why people watch NASCAR? It also was the occasional success, landing it and rolling away, which considering his equipment is really a feat worth honoring. What he lacked in technology and know how. He made up for in sheer will and determination. Sometimes his efforts paid off and some…well we’ve seen those jumps go wrong on videos a million times. If you haven’t seen “The Last of the Gladiators” a film depicting his life and feats, do. It has some beautifully awful slo-mo crash scenes. In fact his brand was confirmed in his many, many, many broken bones and injuries. Living up to and maintaining his own brand eventually led to the demise of his public career. The balls side of things, combined with a temper caused him to make some poor judgements, which caused the public at large to become disenchanted with the Evel brand. But why? His brand was that of a hell raiser. That’s what drew us in. A few of us hardcore fans still admire the stunt man part, those feats are undeniable. True to brand he’d tell us “I am not a stuntman, I am an explorer.” He even had a sub-brand, albeit less successful, his son Robbie Knievel who never really lived up to my hopes that the “parent” brand ever did.

Now to the branding. Branding is all that stuff that makes the promise familiar, recognizable and tangible. Branding is also the consistent use of visuals and elements that make the brand unique. Evel branding was white leathers, stars and stripes, a patriot to the core, with a hardly veiled reference to the rebel flag thrown in for reassurance that we weren’t dealing with the status quo. Then there was also the gilded frame of italicized text that not onlyspelled his name out, but said look how fast I am going…and it was on everything. Harley-Davidson even took a second seat to his famous Number #1 graphic…that has been bitten by the hot rod, skateboard and snowboard worlds millions of times over. Another attribute of success of this brand, was it’s extensibility. It had to translate from motorcycles to leathers. To rocket fuselages and toys and everything in between. And it believe me it was recognizable. I just had to have whatever that branding was on. I don’t think there was a Christmas in my house between 1975 and 1978 that there wasn’t a request for something “Evel”. I recall a friend down the street, when I was about 7, got a Evel Knievel Signature Huffy brand bike. Evel even made Huffy’s cool, how crazy is that. We all believed he could instantly jump farther on that bike. He also crashed a lot (we all did). Connection? It just goes to show how powerful good branding can be.

So Evel is gone…but my memories are still here. Thinking back about him there are no particular feats that stand out that he did…other than the failed jump across the snake river canyon (I had a toy version of his rocket that was water powered by a garden hose, it didnt work well either). But what stuck with me was that he was not afraid of danger or risk, he would attempt just about anything, and if he tried hard enough he was gonna make an impact. One way or another he did, at least he did in my heart, my mind and in eyes. So there, I weaved a fringey connection to a child hood hero loosely connecting it to brand and branding. Rest in peace Evel.

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