Armstrong brand has life beyond cycling, experts say

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On the heels of last week's finding by the United States Anti-Doping Agency that Tour de France winner and cancer survivor Lance Armstrong sullied his career by participating in one of the “most sophisticated, professionalized and successful doping program that the sport has ever seen,” the Union Cycliste Internationale levied another blow Monday when it pulled all seven of Armstrong's Tour de France titles.

This is only part of the immediate fallout of the investigation into the cycling team's practices, because Armstrong's imprint is linked to the cancer research and support network of the Lance Armstrong Foundation and the LiveStrong organization.

Ironically, the cancer-research foundation and charity have high scores for transparency on the site Charity Navigator, which tracks how charities allocate their funds. It has given Armstrong's foundation, which invests in cancer research, screening access and education, a higher overall score than peers such as the American Cancer Society.

The foundation is also a highly visible one, known by yellow bracelets one PR expert said amounted to a piece of Americana; wearing one conveyed support for cancer research and for Armstrong, who has survived testicular cancer which metastasized and spread to his lungs, abdomen and brain.

The doping scandal could be a crisis manager's dream or nightmare, depending on the framework, but the main takeaway from conversations with PR experts we spoke with was that the foundation and LiveStrong, with which they have no affiliation, have brand equity independent of Armstrong, and that the crisis has not put the foundation in a tailspin.

“There isn't any allegation of financial scandal, or any kind of stain of that kind. This is really a personal issue for Lance Armstrong the man, but it doesn't really affect the organization,” Mike Huckman, SVP, director of media strategy for the PR firm MSL group told MM&M.

Kim Fox, VP of the crisis management firm Jarrard Phillips Cate Hancock, agreed that the crisis surrounding Cyclist Lance is not a crisis for the foundation of Cancer Survivor Lance. “I don't think this is going to destroy the organization...I do think people respect him for his fight against cancer,” told MM&M.

At the same time, Fox said that although she thinks Armstrong, who resigned as chairman, will eventually have to walk away from the board entirely, that any sort of separation be measured. For example, she said cutting Armstrong out now could backfire, “I think it's almost like ‘don't kick the guy when he's down.' I think it would be seen a little as that,” she said.

Although many experts interviewed said the crisis made them think of golfer Tiger Woods, Fox said that while these two situations overlap in terms of personal ramifications, the impact on the foundation may not follow. Fox said the similarity is that both Woods and Armstrong “both had personally strong brands, and then, all of the sudden, this big firestorm.” Woods saw many endorsement deals evaporate following a sex scandal that was revealed in 2010. “Woods has not recovered, personally, as a personal brand,” Fox said, but noted that the LiveStrong the cause “can go on without [Armstrong]." 

Deborah Dick-Rath, president of consulting firm Epic Proportions, told MM&M in an email that the brand is a strong one, and that although it has standing, it needs to “polish the halo, and not hide it.” To this end, Dick-Rath said this means the foundation has to work both the front and back-of-the-house, by promoting “very positive stories in the news about what they've achieved,” as well as making sure links and key words bring up the foundation's good works as opposed to links related to Armstrong's personal scandal.

To gauge just how, and if, the scandal is having an impact on the charity, Fox said watchers could focus on the flow of donations—fundraising at Susan G. Komen Foundation walks is reported to have fallen off since the Planned Parenthood standoff—and by the yellow bracelets in terms of purchases and “whether people feel strongly enough to remove them from their wrists.”

Although Armstrong never tested positive for doping, USADA's documentation supporting its conclusion that he used illegal substances to enhance his performance was summed up in more than 200 pages that included information from sworn testimony submitted by members of his US Postal Service Team, which included observations of Armstrong receiving blood transfusions to increase his red blood cell count, use of erythropoietin (known as EPO) to boost his hematocrit levels, and coercion of others to do the same, among other allegations.

Huckman and Dick-Rath both told MM&M that it was far too early to consider overhauling the name. Huckman's advice—if a name change ends up being necessary, have it be subtle, along the lines of changing the name from the Lance Armstrong Foundation to LiveStrong Foundation, “and find somebody very high-profile and squeaky clean.”
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