Not so mellow yellow

June 5, 2013

It’s one thing for a revered brand–be it a company, organization, or person–to have a fall from grace, and lose favorability and respect amongst its constituents. It’s quite another when that brand falls so low that it becomes the poster child or metaphor for failure itself.

Is that what’s happening to LIVESTRONG? Much has been written about what Lance Armstrong did, what it means and who and what it affected. I won’t begin to go into that here, but a recent direct mail piece given to me by my colleagues in our LA office used all the graphic trappings of Lance and the LIVESTRONG Foundation to frame the accusation of a Los Angeles city politician as a liar and cheater.


The bright yellow cover featured familiar bold, black sans serif typography saying “Some men will lie, cheat and steal to finish the race first.” Tasteless, sure, and the inside got downright laughable, featuring a montage of racers on bicycles, the Eiffel Tower (is that tarnished now, too?!) and the target politician’s head pasted on a maillot jaune-clad cyclist, arms upraised.

Yes, crass and base, like almost all political advertising can be. But what’s interesting to note is that the LIVESTRONG Foundation’s familiar brand strength can now, in the wrong hands, become a powerful badge of weakness. The Foundation did such a tremendous job of telling the world that black and yellow meant strength, determination and victory… but the actions of its founder have opened the door for a change of definition, meaning that the graphic power of those brand elements can now be used to tell a very different story.

Color and imagery can be powerful things, in that, when used effectively, they can become immediate and recognizable shorthand for entire movements or causes. Designers fill the blogosphere asking questions about colors or symbols that have been co-opted by successful organizations and wonder if they can ever be used for anything else again (think pink and breast cancer). So I wonder… will the transgressions of an iconic, branded individual shift the perception of yellow back to its early and darker references to cowardice, treachery and betrayal? What do you think?

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