Experts share their thoughts on how the charity can recover from its founder's confession.
Once hailed as living testament to the power of the human spirit, Lance Armstrong’s reputation is now in tatters. Stripped of his Tour de France titles, and failing miserably to muster any public sympathy with his admission of drug taking in his interview with Oprah Winfrey, where he confessed to "one big lie", his personal brand is utterly destroyed.
The fall-out of his deception will impact the world of cycling, but most sadly it will also have implications for the cancer support charity he founded, Livestrong Foundation.
Armstrong, a survivor of testicular cancer, stepped down as a Livestrong board member in November, but while a statement from the Foundation in the wake of the Winfrey interview emphasised they were “disappointed” by the news that their founder had misled people, it praised his work for cancer sufferers.
"Even in the wake of our disappointment, we also express our gratitude to Lance as a survivor for the drive, devotion and spirit he brought to serving cancer patients and the entire cancer community," said Livestrong.
"Lance is no longer on the Foundation's board, but he is our founder and we will always be grateful to him for creating and helping to build a Foundation that has served millions struggling with cancer.”
Originally called the Lance Armstrong Foundation, the charity was formed in 1997, and provides free services to help people affected by cancer cope with the challenges they experience. Ahead of the interview, Armstrong visited the Foundation to personally apologise to its staff.
“We accepted his apology in order to move on and chart a strong, independent course,” Livestrong added in the statement. “We look forward to devoting our full energy to our mission of helping people not only fight and survive cancer, but also thrive in life after cancer.”
Although the Foundation is independently managed, recent exposure and the likely increase in attention in coming days will undoubtedly have an impact on the charity. And it has already publicly stated that its budget for 2013 is less than 2012’s - which may or may not be a result of decreased donations.
Can Livestrong emerge from its disgraced founder’s shadow? And if so, how?
“The Livestrong Foundation is one of the most recognisable charities in the world - its yellow bands are a stroke of genius. Thanks to the strength of its brand, many marketers believe it can ride out the storm, albeit without its founder,” says Simon Bassett, MD of EMR, which recently conducted a survey of over 100 marketers about how the charity should respond.
“For many marketers though, even the association with Armstrong – the name ‘Livestrong’ and the colour yellow, which he is alleged to never have worn legitimately, never having led the Tour de France ‘clean’ – are simply too damaging for the brand to survive. In their opinion, only a complete rebrand will allow it to continue to attract donations from a sceptical public.”
He continues: “Four in ten marketers think a complete rebrand is the best course of action for the charity now. Armstrong addressing the allegations is the first step. He now needs to completely sever ties with the Foundation, avoiding a repeat of his visit to their offices earlier this week on the way to his Oprah interview. Once this has happened, Livestrong should communicate its stance on the past and explain its future course. This will be tricky – particularly for a charity which must safeguard the funding and services they provide to so many. And with such a high-profile case as this, the Livestrong Foundation certainly has its work cut out.”
Jonathan Gabay, author of The Brand Messiah, believes that Lance Armstrong’s fall from grace has been “devastating” for the Foundation, but that it can survive.
“From a soap opera like Coronation Street to a drinks brand like Jack Daniels, every great brand takes on its own personality and character. More often than not, the managed brand name becomes more distinctive and globally admired in the shared consciousness of consumers than any actually name or names - with all their accompanying baggage - which may have founded the original organisation.”
He continues: “Human flaws - when corrected - make for great brand characters. Unless you are a child, from the Bible to the Boardroom, all the greatest characters are invariably flawed souls who struggle to conquer short-comings, guilt, regrets, vices, upbringings, environments and so on. The Armstrong Foundation brand is about to go into the phase of rebuilding itself - as a unified force - rather than single person. The time is perfect to consolidate its strengths, showing that rather like battling cancer, it is how the organisation responds to adversity, finds strength and so delivers a message of courage to others - which really matters.”
Gabay points to a number of brands that have survived similarly damaging connections to shamed public figures.
“During the cola wars of the 80s, Pepsi signed up Madonna for a $5 million year-long endorsement contract. Then she released controversial pop song Like a Prayer, in which she slept with Jesus. (Which offended just about every religious group in cola drinking America). Tiger Woods’ sexual imprudence lost him many brand sponsorships. However some brands believed he was worth the risk and stayed with him, including Nike (who know a thing or two about endorsements).
“Finally, there was Jimmy Saville and the BBC. The damage was catastrophic. Books, articles and so on, will circulate for some time to come. However, as with Armstrong, it is likely that the organisation will assume the role of a character coming to terms with its past, cleaning out the old, starting afresh with the new and making amends for the good of all.”
Marketing expert Mark Pearson, founder of www.MyVoucherCodes.co.uk, believes that there are several initial steps it can take to separate itself from Armstrong.
“The Foundation, known as the Lance Armstrong Foundation until last October, has already taken steps to separate itself. Changing the name was perhaps a pre-emptive move, and a good one at that,” he says. “Lance’s admission is likely, in part, to reduce the potential hit Livestrong may take, given the fact many people are dependent upon the foundation. Using a prominent new spokesperson and attempting to get that person as much time in front of the world’s media as soon as possible will help the brand step out from Lance’s shadow.
“They can’t change their name again so soon, but a new public face, as well as communicating just how many people benefit from the Foundation is vital. Ensuring public sympathy and understanding will undoubtedly help the foundation move forward.”
The collapse of the Livestrong Foundation would be the saddest of all of the casualties of Armstrong’s deception. Fortunately, the message from the branding and marketing community is that the damage done to the charity is by no means terminal.
“With Lance Armstrong breaking his silence, the rebrand of the Livestrong Foundation starts here,” says Bassett. “The shamed cyclist’s continued affiliation with the cancer charity has hindered it from disassociating itself and moving on from the scandal, but now is the time to take action.”
Gabay adds: “The Foundation had developed into an organisation about individuals finding strength, rather than the exclusive strength of one individual alone. Whilst the Foundation could not dismiss the remarkable contribution Mr Armstrong has given to the organisation, it is now free to refocus its attention on the unsung stories or extraordinary cancer survivors and patients.”