Brand lessons from Brand Armstrong

Andrew Curry writes:

There’s still more to come, I suspect, in the Lance Armstrong story, but it reached an important staging post on Monday when cycling’s governing body, the UCI, announced that it would accept the findings of the US Anti-Doping Agency’s report on the cyclist and strip him of his seven Tour de France titles. In case you’ve been on another planet, on 10th October USADA published the findings of their investigation into Armstrong, in which they said, among reams of findings, that “The evidence shows beyond any doubt that the US Postal Service Pro Cycling Team ran the most sophisticated, professionalized and successful doping program that sport has ever seen.” Their “Reasoned Decision” runs to 200 pages, with another 800 pages of appendices.  What it means for cycling is another story, but given Armstrong’s web of sponsorship deals, it has been striking watching his sponsors try to respond.

Four lessons stand out:

  • Don’t over-commit until you’ve read the documents: When the USADA report was first published, Nike rushed out a statement of support for Armstrong. A week later they changed their mind, cancelling their sponsorship, describing the evidence against him as “insurmountable” and adding “Nike does not condone the use of illegal performance enhancing drugs in any manner.” But nothing new had emerged in the meantime; all the evidence they needed was in the USADA report.
  • Clarity matters: Oakley, the glasses company, was the last sponsor to terminate its relationship, and people asked questions. But their statement was very clear: “Our policy with our athletes is to support them until proven guilty by the highest governing body of sport or court of law.” As soon as the UCI had ratified the USADA report, Lance was dropped from the roster.
  • Understand the brand assets: Armstrong as a cycling brand is clearly toxic, with no Tour titles and a lifetime ban from the sport. But his cancer charity Livestrong still has salience, with a huge community of supporters, especially in the USA. By standing down as its chairman, Armstrong cleared the way for some of his former sponsors to continue their relationship with the charity. A number have, including Nike, which makes the Livestrong bracelets, and Oakley.
  • Have your own story to tell: The UCI may come out worse than any of Armstrong’s sponsors. The UCI was criticised in the USADA report and by others since. Indeed, the news conference this week by its President, Pat McQuaid, at which he announced that the UCI was removing Armstrong’s Tour titles (and other wins) is exactly how not to manage a crisis – corporate affairs students will be using it as a case study for years to come. He hedged, he made inaccurate claims, he looked defensive. The UCI has known since August that USADA believed it had enough evidence to disqualify Armstrong for drugs use. In that time it could – and should – have put together its own anti-doping initative, and taken some positive headlines out of the Armstrong affair.

The sneakers at the top of this post are from Nike’s Livestrong 2012 collection. The photograph, courtesy of Counterkicks, is used with thanks. 


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