Retired pro cyclist Lance Armstrong isn't the typical professional athlete accused of using performance-enhancing drugs. He's an comeback cancer survivor and empowerment evangelist. He's a man who birthed a multi-million dollar foundation that benefits those battling disease. Leading the pack among cause-related charities, Lance's celebrity created a rubberized frenzy that turned simple yellow bracelets into a must-have, cause-related fashion accessory.
As a marketer, it's imperative that I minimize risk for my consumer products and services clients. No one wants to form a partnership with a celebrity who ends up in a line up or caught up in a host of other brand damning by association situations. Still, celebrities can make really public mistakes, and good marketers make corporate partners aware of the inherent dangers of borrowed equity (using the popularity of a person or entity to sell more of another product or service). We make the strongest, most calculated decisions we can and hope for the best outcome possible knowing that every relationship comes with risk.
So why is Lance Armstrong and Livestrong still a smart move for a plethora of potential partners? First, Lance has been retired from professional cycling for years. It wasn't as if he tested "dirty" between stages in the Tour de France. Second, cycling is a sport that, in America, only shows up on a small minority of radars during a few weeks in the summer. The gun that should be smoking isn't, and wouldn't have any real affect on the brand Livestrong if it were. Lance stopped being a mere professional cyclist while he was still on his bike, and the accusations against him have had their 15 minutes of fame. Most people who have an interest in whether or not he doped have made up their minds about it one way or another already, and Livestrong and Lance don't show any signs of deflation.
Unlike mere mortal performers, Lance lives in rarefied air that only a scant few professional athletes reach. He is substantially bigger than his sport. Another such Kevlar athletic star is that of Michael Jordan. He was more than a basketball player, which helped him to survive personal scandals (gambling, affairs) and professional missteps (playing minor league baseball). Like Lance, Michael was and is viewed as extremely personable to the average consumer. (Tiger Woods was in this elite company as well, but the sheer number, expanse and brazenness of his infidelities made it impossible for him to avoid implosion.)
Timing and content are everything to a celebrity. If Lance was still on his bike and a positive doping test was released, he would be radioactive. If Lance had been caught trying to push an unpopular political agenda with Livestrong (like Nancy Brinker did when Susan G. Komen engaged in a public war with Planned Parenthood), he would be toast. Time, a lack of iron-clad facts against him and the fact that Livestrong is so wildly popular makes him a strong investment for marketers.
Nike, Radio Shack and other sponsors realize the dynamic power of Livestrong the brand and Lance Armstrong the personality. Livestrong is what we in the industry term an "evergreen brand," one that (if properly maintained) will have strong consumer appeal for decades to come. The female shopper (the vast majority of retail purchase decisions are made by women) is willing to cross an emotional bridge to bond with a product. If her choices are relatively equal, she will choose based on positive borrowed equity. She might not know (or care much) about the accusations surrounding Lance, but she's aware he's trying to empower people and families suffering from cancer. In her book, that makes him worthy of her allegiance.
Yoplait was just another yogurt brand before they executed the blockbuster "Yoplait Lids" campaign with Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure. Women reacted to the brand and took action in a way that had not been seen before in packaged goods. At the time, most brand managers through affiliating with cancer would be a huge mistake. I had more than one brand lead say, "Why on Earth would I associate my brand with CANCER? Are you CRAZY?" (Mind you, the language was typically a bit more colorful than that.) Yoplait Lids found a way to deliver on the shopper's wants, needs and desires, making marketing history in the process.
Suzie Shopper (the affectionate and respect-filled term the industry uses to describe the vast majority of retail consumers) is typically empathic, and motivated by cause-related partnerships. Further, men who shop at Radio Shack, lace up their Nikes and buy Livestrong active apparel at Dick's Sporting Goods are proud of what the association says about them.
The Livestrong brand is in no danger because of the latest questions about Lance's use of performance enhancing drugs. If anything, more marketers might actually consider pursuing him and Livestrong now because they feel they'll have a better chance at securing an affordable partnership than before. Depending on why, when and how a brand might want to borrow equity, Livestrong and Lance could prove be a strong call for a myriad of corporations.
Rather than sitting the dance out with Lance and Livestrong, savvy marketers should let it ride.
Update: This post originally referred to Armstrong as a "cure evangelist" and has been updated to clarify the mission of the Lance Armstrong Foundation, which focuses on empowerment. According to the foundation: "While finding a 'cure' to the disease is obviously a monumental undertaking, the Foundation focuses on serving not only the 28 million people personally affected by cancer worldwide, but their family and friends, as well. We aim to empower them to take action. Our LIVESTRONG Cancer Navigation Center offers free resources to anyone affected by the disease in any way with emotional support, fertility risks and preservation options and insurance/employment/financial/treatment concerns."
Sarah O'Leary is the lead Creative of Methods & Madness, Inc., a boutique agency based in Los Angeles with clients around the world. Reach the agency on Facebook, or contact her directly: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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