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Brand Betrayal: Lance Armstrong

by Vizual

I used to be a big Lance Armstrong fan. I never met him, but I loved his story and greatly admired his tenacity, mental toughness, physical strength, and courage. His battle against cancer was inspiring and legendary. This article isn’t meant as an indictment on his accomplishments. Nor am I passing judgment on him. I don’t know if he’s done what many have claimed he has. I can only surmise that his decision to give up fighting the doping allegations leveled against him and the International Cycling Union’s decision to strip him of his seven Tour de France victories means there is some substance to the allegations.

So, what does this have to do with branding? A lot, actually.

In a previous article, I discussed what branding is and why it matters. Our firm’s definition of branding is “an individual’s experiential perception of every aspect of an entity, a product, a service, or a person, evoking an emotional response.” This is how Lance Armstrong’s fall from grace relates to branding. His brand started out as a personal one, but grew into so much more with his foundation, sponsors, etc.

What’s personal branding?

Personal branding is the process by which people and their careers are branded. Armstrong was obviously no different. Before the doping scandal, he was widely respected in the cycling community. Now he is a pariah. An article written by The Associated Press and appearing on ESPN.com claimed “Once the toast of the Champs-Elysees, Armstrong was formally stripped of his seven Tour titles Monday and banned for life for doping.” Pat McQuaid, president of the International Cycling Union, went on to say, “Lance Armstrong has no place in cycling, and he deserves to be forgotten in cycling. Make no mistake, it’s a catastrophe for him, and he has to face up to that.” No doubt harsh words for a seven-time champion to hear.

The fallout has been significant. He has stepped down from his Livestrong cancer-fighting charity. With the loss of Oakley, he’s now lost all of his sponsors. Another Associated Press article states:

Kelley O’Keefe, professor of brand strategy at Virginia Commonwealth University, said the charity already may be permanently damaged and that Armstrong may never be able to fully resume his public role. “From the brand perspective, Armstrong is done,” O’Keefe said. O’Keefe compared Armstrong to Tiger Woods and Michael Vick, who also were embroiled in controversy but were able to return to the playing fields to help redeem their image. “Armstrong doesn’t have that. He’s just a retired athlete with a tarnished image,” O’Keefe said.

And, because Armstrong’s personal brand had grown into an industry with sponsors, partners, etc., the negative effects could’ve been far-reaching to those connected to it. That’s why his sponsors separated themselves from Armstrong: to protect their brands. However, even companies like Nike did not separate themselves from the Livestrong Foundation, which had developed its own brand strength independent of Armstrong, and which the company believes is worthy of its support and brand synergy.

So let’s get back to Armstrong. When it comes to personal branding, how does one go about building and then protecting a personal brand such as the one he had? Following is a road map.

5 things to consider:

Build It – Most often, a personal brand is built from some accomplishment or event. Sometimes the accomplishment is something we plan and work hard for over a long period of time, as with an athlete, musician, or actor. Other times, the brand is a result of some unpredictable event that a person has received significant publicity for, as with a politician, an unlikely hero, or a newscaster. In Armstrong’s case, his cycling career (and most importantly, Tour de France victories) and successful battle with cancer propelled him into the spotlight.

Shape It – Once a brand is built, it must be used to help shape perceptions to achieve brand resonance (the top of the branding pyramid). In personal branding, this usually means appearances, speaking events, sponsorships, etc. How you shape your personal brand and the methods you use, of course, are a reflection of how you want to be perceived as a person. As we’ve all seen, the two are not always one in the same.

Communicate It – After shaping the direction of the brand to your satisfaction, the next step is communicating it consistently and relentlessly. If you don’t, others may help shape your personal brand for you and you may not like the results. Social media is an incredibly powerful medium for this because many sites such as Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter are tailor made for personal branding.

Live It – This is where Armstrong failed most. To many of us, he appeared to be living his personal brand, but that was obviously not the case. We believed he was an honest, courageous, and successful athlete. Obviously, wining seven Tour de France races is no small feat, regardless of whether he was doping. But if he did take performance enhancing drugs, he cheated and went against the spirit of competition, not to mention the rules of cycling. To make matters worse, he and many of his teammates represented the United States. So he not only betrayed our trust, but also our faith in the spirit of fair competition and self determination. Living your personal brand and always staying true to yourself and your stakeholders is crucial if you’re going to have a successful one.

Nurture It – Our personal brands touch many around us. This was particularly true with Armstrong. Once he built his brand and shaped it, he leveraged it by creating organizations to promote causes he believed strongly in. This is commendable and powerful. By betraying his personal brand and negatively impacting our perception of him, these organizations may now suffer moving forward. As mentioned earlier, however, organizations like Nike are continuing their relationship with the Livestrong Foundation because of its worthy cause and because it has its own brand separate and independent of Armstrong. Nurturing a brand takes constant effort and vigilance if it is to remain relevant and compelling.

You may notice from the above road map for personal branding that it’s not much different from building and protecting an organizational brand. That’s the point. While the tactics, strategies, and resources may be different, the process is similar. Most importantly, once you’ve worked hard to build, shape, and communicate your brand, living and nurturing it becomes paramount. If you don’t, your stakeholders will believe you’ve betrayed your brand, and the fallout could be devastating, as is the case for Armstrong.

Perhaps the only saving grace in this situation is that organizations Armstrong founded, Livestrong, and the Livestrong Foundation, do important work and will hopefully continue to do so. Even though Armstrong has stepped down as chairman from his foundation and sponsors have pulled their support of Armstrong himself, companies will continue to support Livestrong and its foundation. And that’s a good thing as long as they continue to stay true to their causes and don’t betray their brands as Armstrong did.

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M.B., Associated Builders and Contractors, Inc.

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