Lance Armstrong: When a brand breaks its promise

January 17, 2013

Good brands are built on a promise that the brand will consistently live up to certain expectations. In the midst of a severe crisis, the Lance Armstrong brand must re-establish its emotional connection with supporters.

Good brands are built on a promise frequently rooted in trust, confidence and transparency, and on an assumption that the brand will consistently live up to certain expectations. Similar to our favorite type of car or airline, or our preferred brand of toothpaste, shampoo or coffee, sometimes people can become brands to which we form an emotional connection and have certain expectations. This is especially true when it comes to entertainers and professional athletes. Our emotional connection to these “people brands” is primarily aspirational. They provide us with an escape from the everyday; an opportunity to cheer on a team or to watch a performance that keeps us captivated for a period of time.

Lance Armstrong certainly is a people brand. And one can even argue that he is a master brand given his strong association with cycling, Livestrong, motivational speaking, and numerous licensing agreements and sponsorships. To many of us this brand was honest, genuine and believable (albeit sometimes unbelievable by defying all odds). It was the real thing being powerful, strong and resilient and representing hope. Professional cyclists and novices alike as well as the general population cheered for this brand hoping for it to break more records with each appearance.

In addition to our emotional support of the Lance Armstrong brand, the Livestrong Foundation has raised $80M+ to fund cancer research and has fueled even more enthusiasm for cycling through local community sponsored bike races. Livestrong’s inaugural yellow wristband not only increased cancer awareness and fundraising, but it also set off a copycat craze with many other foundations following suit. We have seen this brand grow and become a household name with Lance Armstrong reportedly having a net worth of $125M. This brand had momentum and was deemed indestructible and a force with which to be reckoned.

Over the past few years, the Lance Armstrong brand has managed to maintain a pretty solid reputation through its highs and lows by assuring its supporters that any accusations of its leader using performance-enhancing drugs were absolutely false and unwarranted. We were told that jealous competitors or lesser-known brands (cyclists) were lobbing these falsifications to unjustly take away his achievements. After all, it's the competitive brands that lie in order to steal share. Isn’t it? Numerous press events and court appearances by Lance Armstrong himself kept assuring us that his brand was the real thing (no fillers or byproducts).

2012 saw this brand’s image tarnished by the stripping of its medals and sponsorships with its leader still maintaining his innocence. As events continue to unfold via news reports and speculation about Lance Armstrong’s January 14, 2013 interview with Oprah (airing in two parts on January 17 and 18), it is clear that this brand is broken and is in the midst of a severe crisis. In fact, the International Olympic Committee is now calling for Lance to return his 2000 Olympic bronze medal. This brand is facing opposition every which way it turns.

So the big question to be answered is around whether or not the Lance Armstrong brand is being sincere in its desire to right the wrongs? Or is this current media tour self-serving to avoid the brand from suffering even stricter penalties, retributions and fines from the USADA and/or other organizations and individuals? If the Lance Armstrong brand is indeed being sincere, it must (not unlike the challenges that are faced by corporate or consumer brands in crisis) use this opportunity to re-establish its emotional connection. How?

There is no doubt that the Lance Armstrong brand has broken its promise and has let its fans down. One key lesson is that transparency is a primary foundation from which all brands should be established. It makes it that mush easier when facing a crisis. People find it easier to forgive when you have been honest and true the entire time. The Lance Armstrong brand has achieved a lot of good, it has given hope and inspiration to many and its contributions to cancer research have impacted millions. Lance Armstrong has the power to redefine this brand rather than letting it be defined for him. I certainly hope that he will seize this opportunity to restore this brand to its original promise.

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