By Jeff Wilson, APR (@wilson0507)
Like many other news junkies and PR, marketing and branding professionals, I’ve watched with great fascination the unraveling of the Lance Armstrong brand over the past several months. His undoing culminated with his admission to Oprah Winfrey that he had, in fact, used banned EPO, testosterone, cortisone and human growth hormone and engaged in blood doping throughout his cycling career, helping him win a record seven Tour de France titles.
While commentators and pundits have speculated about the potential legal ramifications that may come with Lance finally coming “clean” about his transgressions and the millions of dollars in endorsements he’s lost, my thoughts are fixated on the organization that, until recently, bore his name – the Livestrong Foundation.
Formerly known as the Lance Armstrong Foundation, Livestrong is a nonprofit organization that provides support to people affected by cancer. Based in Austin, Texas, the Foundation was established in 1997 by Armstrong, a cancer survivor.
I, too, am a cancer survivor.
In 2009, just one month before my 39th birthday, I was given a prostate-specific antigen (PSA) test, which is used to screen for prostate cancer. A PSA test usually isn’t given to men until around the time they turn 50. My doctor – on a whim or perhaps through divine intervention – ordered the test during a routine visit for another ailment.
When she called to give me the results and asked if I was sitting down, I already knew the diagnosis. Cancer.
Luckily, the cancer was detected early, and after consultation with numerous doctors over several months, I elected to have a prostatectomy, to have my prostate removed. This made sense for me, because as one doctor put it, “your prostate has figured out how to make cancer.”
Three years later, I’m still cancer free.
This is why I’ve been so interested in the new direction Livestrong must take. For all his deception, Lance Armstrong has done some good by founding Livestrong, which has raised $500 million for cancer research and services and has given hope to many. The organization also has become synonymous with its signature yellow wristbands, with some 80 million sold.
“The $1 bracelets, which are sold at sporting goods and bike stores, have become a cool symbol of either supporting Lance, or a cure for cancer, or both. Businessmen wear them with their suits, cyclists with their spandex, moms with their jeans. Senators John Kerry and Harry Reid wear them, and Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, Lindsay Lohan and Tom Hanks have all sported them,” according to an article in the Boston Globe.
But now, what will become of those yellow wristbands? And what will become of Livestrong?
In October, Armstrong stepped down as chairman of the organization after the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency accused the cyclist of taking part in a lengthy, sophisticated doping scheme. In November, the Foundation dropped Armstrong’s name from its moniker.
But is that enough?
When I hear Livestrong, I immediately think Lance Armstrong. Removing his name from the Foundation’s official name doesn’t change that. The Foundation, the man and the name Livestrong are inexplicably linked. And these latest revelations about what “living strong” actually meant to Lance, don’t sit well with most of us.
My colleague, Kelly O’Keefe, who is CRT/tanaka’s chief creative officer and professor at the acclaimed Virginia Commonwealth University Brandcenter, says that a name change is definitely in order for Livestrong.
“The problem is that, now if you see someone in a coffee shop wearing a Livestrong t-shirt, you would assume they’re an Armstrong supporter. And if you’re disgusted by Armstrong’s sociopathic behavior, you just aren’t going to wear the bracelet. So I’d be advocating for a brand overhaul to save the organization and make a clean separation from Lance,” Kelly said.
All is not lost for Livestrong. Nike, which was one of Armstrong’s long-time sponsors, severed ties with the cyclist, but said it “plans to continue support of the Livestrong initiatives created to unite, inspire and empower people affected by cancer.” Anheuser-Busch, which used Armstrong as a spokesman for Michelob Ultra, also no longer supports Armstrong but continues to support Livestrong.
In the end, let’s hope that Livestrong can face the challenges ahead with the same grace and dignity as the people it supports. And do so without Lance Armstrong, his brand or his name.