What Will Become of the Lance Armstrong Brand?

steve olenski
Steve Olenski Sr Creative Content Strategist , Responsys

Posted on January 21st 2013

What Will Become of the Lance Armstrong Brand?

The sordid tale of Lance Armstrong is unfolding right before our eyes across the web, social media and of course TV in addition to pretty much every other channel known to man.

social media brandingBack in August of this year I wrote an article about Penn State and if their brand had received the death penalty. While obviously different on many fronts, there are some similarities between Penn State and Lance Armstrong when it comes to branding and there's a lesson for all marketers and advertisers.

The opening two paragraphs of the aforementioned Penn State article fit like a glove when overlaid onto the Lance Armstrong saga:

"There are no shortage of definitions for the term “brand equity.” You probably have your favorite. This is one of mine, especially in the context of the Penn State brand: “A brand’s power derived from the goodwill and name recognition that it has earned over time, which translates into higher sales volume and higher profit margins against competing brands.”

The reason I like this particular definition when it is applied to the brand of Penn State is because of words like “goodwill” and “name recognition” and 'earned over time.'”

Just replace "Lance Armstrong" for "Penn State" in the above sentences and there you go.

Mr. Armstrong has  most assuredly achieved name recognition earned over time and he obviously has made himself and his brand a lot of money. He of course has also done a lot of good via his Livestrong Foundation.

I happen to think Livestrong is a separate entity all to itself and will continue on in its fight against cancer. In an article on CNN.com a cancer survivor put it perfectly: "The effect he had on the foundation was huge, but they both should be able to stand on their own. The foundation should not be held accountable for his deception."

Separating The Person From The Foundation

But this is not about Livestrong, this is about Lance Armstrong, the personal brand.

Many have said that this whole incident is reminiscent of Tiger Woods' fall from grace of a few years back but according to branding expert David Brier, it's more along the lines of a certain former vice-president.

“Lance’s drop from grace is different than Tiger Woods’. It is much more similar to Al Gore’s recent hypocritical act of selling his viewer-starved Current TV cable network for $500 million to Al Jazeera," said Brier.

The reason being, according to Brier, is "Lance professed a certain integrity that was part and parcel to ‘his brand’ as much as Al Gore, patriotism and environmental accountability seemed to be inseparable, until he sold his soul to Al Jazeera."

For his part Brier has an idea where Armstrong and Gore could potentially benefit from a partnership “A possible solution might be for Mr. Armstrong and Mr. Gore to create a new PR consultancy named 'Strong, Arm and Gore' with the slogan of 'Lots of stamina, no matter how hot it gets' which I think sums it up very nicely."

Then there is the issue of "clawbacks" whereby Lance would have to repay some of the millions of dollars he earned via sponsors now that he has admitted to using performance enhancing drugs.

Jeff Kravitz, a partner in the law firm Fox Rothschild LLP, says essentially if it's not broken, don't fix it. "Why publicly open a wound unless the business is hurting? says Kravitz. "Let it lie, let it die."

Kravitz, who also blogs about sports law, thinks Armstrong can recover from a branding perspective "through charity and clarity." He also believes a mea culpa would certainly help "Weasel words do not work, and presenting himself to the public with more sincerity is necessary."

His advice to Armstrong, which would more than likely be contrary to what many lawyers would advise is to "keep  it simple, honest and direct" adding that "the legalities will play out better if you tell the truth."

As for brands who are considering establishing a partnership/sponsorship with a professional athlete, Kravitz suggests that it's best for brands to "know the person you are considering working with; check around before you sign someone and remember that long term relationships can work out when you stick with people."

The Future

Obviously this is all very fresh in our collective minds and the dust is far from settled. So trying to predict the future of the Lance Armstrong brand would be pointless.

As Americans we are a very forgiving society. As Kravitz said to me "If Michael Vick can have a second act, so can Mr. Armstrong."

And while I agree with him to a degree, there are extenuating circumstances regarding Lance Armstrong most notably the fact that he was/is an international star - not just in the US but across the world, people know Lance Armstrong. Will those living in other parts of the world be as forgiving as Americans are more apt to be?

Another thing to consider is the fact that Armstrong, in his defiant best, actually sued and won judgments against those who dared question the veracity of his claims. How will society in general look at such a what-we-now-know-to-be terrible act of power and greed?

Will the Lance Armstrong personal brand survive?

I don't know anymore than you do.

But I will be watching, that's for sure.

(Image credit: Getty Images via @daylife)

Named one of the Top 100 Influencers In Social Media (#41) by Social Technology Review and a Top 50 Social Media Blogger by Kred, Steve Olenski is a senior content strategist at Responsys, a leading global provider of on-demand email and cross-channel marketing solutions. 

steve olenski

Steve Olenski

Sr Creative Content Strategist , Responsys

Named one of the Top 100 Influencers In Social Media (#41) by Social Technology Review and a Top 50 Social Media Blogger by Kred, Steve Olenski is a senior creative content strategist at Responsys, a leading marketing cloud software and services company, and a member of the Editorial Board for the Journal of Digital & Social Media Marketing. He can be reached via TwitterLinkedIn or Email

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Comments

I'm a Brit and I feel quite strongly about this. Personally, I don't see how his "brand" can recover but I will forever boycott anything associated with him. 

I'm a forgiving person, but not only did he cheat, but he lied continually, he threatened those trying to speak the truth, he bullied them, and in many cases, destroyed their reputations and their lives. And then, to add to all that, he has managed to construct a reality where he personally believes that it was what everyone was doing and that he was still the best. I don't believe for one second that he is genuinely sorry for his actions - let's call that a life of cheating, shall we? The only thing he is sorry for is being found out. 

The sustained abuse of his power and money - all of which are ill-gotten gains since they were won or acquired through his drug traking - means I feel he is irredeemable. He thinks he should compete again - well, I don't. 

He deserves to be dragged through the courts by those still around whose reputations he destroyed and made to pay every penny in damages. Then he should be made to give all his prizemoney back and reimburse those sponsors whose main reason for offering him a contract was that he was a clean rider. 

Nothing I have ever seen from him makes me believe he is nothing other than self-serving. I therefore do not believe his brand can ever recover that. He's been exposed, like the Emperor's new clothes, and now the whole world can see what he's like. And it ain't pretty. 

Beyond the man, Livestrong means something to millions of people, or at least, it used to. Not so long ago, hundreds of thousands--even millions--of people were wearing yellow bracelets connoting our association with overcoming adversity and beating the odds as we believed Mr. Armstrong was.

So now that the allegations are true what happens to this brand? It’s more than employees and bracelets. What about those who believed in the strength to overcome in small part thanks to an extraordinary brand?

Before sitting down with Oprah to confess his sins, Armstrong met with his Livestrong people and apologized. Certainly that's not enough.

The brand is now synonymous with a cheater—albeit one who cheated cancer, too. Livestrong CEO Doug Ulman said on NPR that the latter is not something that they cannot take away from Mr. Armstrong. But Mr. Ulman, and everyone else at Livestrong for that matter, knows that this fact is far from enough to keep the brand and what it means alive.

Mr. Miller and Heather Wajer, Livestrong’s VP of Marketing, certainly have their hands full, and they would have to have been blind not to see this coming. When the dust settles soon, they should try to take a few steps in the right direction to rescue the Livestrong brand.

For starters, the color must change. Yellow does not only signify the color of the champion’s shirt for cycling's biggest event, but now it is the color of cowardice. A cheater cheats because they are scared of losing, and when they are caught, there is nowhere to hide.

More urgently, Livestrong must find another face, and quickly. Oh yeah, and this is no easy task in today’s sports environment. Few superstars haven't been touched by a doping epidemic, or other forms of cheating, stealing or lying in their respective arenas (see Manti T’eo for this). Yet plenty of extraordinary men and women have beaten the odds against terminal illness while achieving athletic dominance honestly. The question isn't so much how to find someone, but rather, how to find someone who will risk their reputation on Livestrong. 

 For this, they will have to bet the ranch. Much like a candidate for office, when they choose their man or woman, they only have one shot. And who knows what hidden baggage will come with the new face. But it will be better for the organization to fail fast than to die slowly.