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Swoosh: Later Lance

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Once simply an image for an iconic sports brand, the "Swoosh" makes a return to its onomatopoeia roots.

Lance Armstrong heard the sound a few weeks back when Nike dropped him, ending a lucrative relationship for both parties.

There is no one template for managing a crisis or defending a brand. Cookie-cutter approaches don't work and studying individual cases can only provide insights. There is no preparation like experience.

Twenty years of managing high-profile crises and reputation challenges got me to where I am today; I suspect Nike learned from its experience as well.

On the surface, cutting ties to Armstrong might seem like an easy decision, but in fact it's anything but.

The irony is that the company's "Just Do It" marketing slogan is in no way applicable to Nike's approach to business; at the company's campus in Beaverton, Oregon nothing is "just done."

Nike built an empire by transcending its sector, competing more for cultural prominence than for sports equipment and apparel market share.

Herein lies the challenge: At Nike, business decisions are not always about business. Severing a relationship with Lance Armstrong, or choosing not to with Tiger Woods, is in part about the bottom line, but it is also about values.

The truth is that values, mission and purpose should play a role in any organization's response to a crisis or an attack on one of its leader's reputation. But at a company such as Nike, those values are even more of a factor.

Do like I did, ask friends, colleagues and family what single virtue defines Nike. The answer you will get more than any other is loyalty.

Interestingly, loyalty is not found anywhere on the company's website or in its materials, not even in the firm's mission statement. Intentional or not, loyalty might be the character trait by which Nike is now most closely associated -- making the decisions on how to handle situations like that of Armstrong all the more difficult.

Keep in mind that Nike is a pioneer in endorsements, going as far as developing brands within its brand (e.g. Air Jordan; Tiger Woods Golf). The payoff has been huge, but the risk is high when hundreds of millions of dollars are invested in the reputation of fallible individuals.

Kobe Bryant, Ben Roethlisberger, and Tiger Woods are examples of Nike standing by its athletes, through good times and bad.

Now Lance Armstrong joins Michael Vick as one of the only high-profile dismissals from the company.

In the case of Vick, the quarterback was going to jail and was out of football. From a business standpoint the relationship between the athlete and company was pretty straightforward. There was really no choice but to cut ties in this case.

The same cannot be said of Nike's partnership with Armstrong. Like Tiger and Jordan, he was in business with the company -- a partner. But in one important way, his relationship had an added complexity: cancer.

Dropping a guy who screws up is one thing, ending a relationship with a cancer survivor whose greatest successes are inarguably outside of his sport is another.

Two other factors likely contributed to Nike's delayed action in ending the relationship with Lance: denial and hope.

Lance Armstrong, like Nike, transcended sports. It started with the incredible story of winning a battle with cancer, but his societal prominence was propelled by the strength of his persona.

For those who thought they knew him, coming to terms with the allegations of cheating wasn't easy. The public is quick to turn on most any athlete at the first report or sign of malfeasance, but in the case of Armstrong, volumes of allegations accumulated yet failed to move the needle of public opinion on the revered figure.

Nike executives, similar to many of us, wanted to believe that the man they looked up to was wrongly accused by jealous competitors and former teammates turned enemy. But unlike the public, Nike had invested tens of millions of dollars in this relationship, making the process of coming to terms with reality all the more hard to swallow.

For all of the altruistic and non-business factors that went into the company's calculus, one huge reputation issue loomed: Nike's own complicity, if any, in the cheating scheme.

Some alleged that over the years the company was so close to Armstrong, and had so much at stake, that it was involved in efforts to keep doping under wraps.

Addressing the specific allegations would be unfair because there is no proof that the claims are true, and I personally do not believe the outrageous charges.

But the point is: Nike was so close to Armstrong that it had to worry about its own reputation in a way well beyond what most companies would worry about.

By some measures, Nike was slow to react, but when one considers all of the legal, business and reputational complexities of the situation: The response was well timed.

Nike is to be commended for its reasoned, thoughtful approach to the Armstrong situation, evidenced by its statement at the time the decision was announced. Rather than simply acknowledging the fact that it dropped Lance from its endorsement portfolio, the company also said just enough about why and went on to express its continued support for his Livestrong charity:

Due to the seemingly insurmountable evidence that Lance Armstrong participated in doping and misled Nike for more than a decade, it is with great sadness that we have terminated our contract with him. Nike does not condone the use of illegal performance enhancing drugs in any manner.

Nike plans to continue support of the Livestrong initiatives created to unite, inspire and empower people affected by cancer.

When you are as big as Nike, crises and reputational attacks are inevitable. The fact is, that most businesses, even small ones, face some form of crisis in their evolution. An organization's response to crisis can make or break it, regardless of size or stature.

The Nike example reminds us that our values are never more visible than when we respond to adversity. It is admirable to be known for loyalty, as long as that loyalty doesn't cross the line into accepting lapses in integrity and engaging in dishonest acts.

Nike had no choice but to drop Lance Armstrong. In the process we learned a few things about the character of the company.