Several weeks ago, before the USADA ruling, I believed that the business side of Livestrong and Lance Armstrong could weather the storm of scandal together. In the wake of the USADA ruling and today's announcements by the Foundation, Lance, Nike and other sponsors, however, it's obvious that Lance the man won't be able to avoid implosion. Yet because of arguably the most selfless act of Lance's career, Livestrong can survive. By stepping down as CEO, Lance has given the Foundation he created an opportunity to remain a powerful (albeit temporarily weakened) force among non-profits and within the cancer and wellness communities.
Did I just say Lance did something selfless? The alleged doper? I was taken to task by more irate cycling fans for my marketing piece about Livestrong and Lance, than I was by readers over a gun control piece after a massacre.
Certainly, I should be tarred and feathered for saying Lance is doing something right. But in truth, he did the one thing that Nancy Brinker, the former CEO of Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure, couldn't do for the life of her until it was too late. He removed himself in order to save the charity. In another previous post, I pleaded with founder Nancy Brinker to step down after the Planned Parenthood scandal, knowing that it would be the only hope Susan G. Komen had at realistic survival. But she waited far, far too long while the charity's prognosis went from treatable to life threatening to life support.
No matter how you slice it, Lance Armstrong isn't your typical villain. He is alleged to have been wildly dirty in a wildly dirty sport that's trying desperately to clean itself up. Dozens of fellow cyclists had to admit their doping to help corroborate the case against Lance. Others have been stripped of their titles and suspended and banned. So why is Lance different? Because after he beat cancer he founded the cancer charity that's raised over $400 million dollars to help others. Bad Lance allegedly doped and Good Lance empowers those with cancer, making him the undisputed anti-hero of the century.
So what does Livestrong do now? Certainly, that's the biggest question for the foundation and its corporate sponsors. If I were its agency, I might go the media blitz route with a "I LiveSTRONG" brand campaign. Consumers need an emotional bridge back to the foundation. Black and white close-ups of the known and unknown, athletes of all levels of success, survivors and supporters, saying how and why they live strong. Pepper in clips of their heroics, day-to-day and on the world's stage. Win back the hearts and minds of the people by establishing Livestrong as the world's charity, not Lance Armstrong's. Salute those who believe in the brand, and allow them to feel good about it again.
Using the power of former sponsor Nike (and knowing that it has a lot of "sweat equity" in Livestrong), the foundation should consider forming a high profile celebrity board of athletes (BOA) to give Livestrong a post-Lance elite athlete identity it needs. Much like The United Colors of Bennetton put together young people of a host of races and backgrounds in its 80s ad campaign with great success, Livestrong can use a host of personalities to build a brand that stands above any one person.
Working for an ad agency in New York in the 90s while in my mid-20s, I had a client who wanted to do radio spots with the New York Mets. He asked me to recommend a player who we could use that wouldn't end up in a scandal and damage his brand (an energy company). I asked my boss what player I should recommend. His reply was as priceless as it was offensive.
"Find him a chick or a cartoon. They're the only celebrities that don't end up in jail. Or, just get him one of the guys from the Mets and tell him to roll the dice."
No elite athlete, as we've learned from Tiger and Marion and Kobe and Magic and Sammy and Mark and Michael P and Michael J and countless others before them, is above controversy or scandal. We are, after all, human. All of us make mistakes and some of the famous among us get caught, which is why every celebrity tie-in is a calculated risk for corporate sponsors. We as marketers take the risks because of the power of such celebrities to help us form an emotional bridge between a product or service and the purchaser. And, more often than not, it can pay dividends for the brand's image.
Livestrong can survive the loss of Lance. It just needs to strike while the iron is hot and spread its identity well beyond one man. What they do in the next several weeks will determine the success of the foundation for years to come. Knowing how important Livestrong is to so many people around the globe, I for one am pulling for them 100%.
Sarah O'Leary is the owner of Methods & Madness, a boutique marketing agency based in Los Angeles. She's also the author of "Brandwashed: Why the Shopper Matters More Than What You're Selling." She can be reached via email, firstname.lastname@example.org.