There is a curious thing about celebrity endorsements. They can be of tremendous worth for brands if the person they pick rides the waves of soaring success and limitless public admiration. Then there are those cases where all that falls apart within the blink of an eye – highlighting all the dangers associated with borrowed equity.
Think of Hertz and its 20 year long ties to O.J. Simpson. Think of Tiger Woods and Accenture. Paramount cut ties to Tom Cruise after he infamously “jumped the couch” during The Oprah Winfrey Show. Kmart’s partnership with Martha Steward received a somewhat undesirable level of publicity after she found herself serving jail time. In 2005, model Kate Moss was photographed allegedly snorting a substance presumed to be an illegal drug substance – and Chanel, H&M and Burberry quickly backed out of their contracts. Of course we all remember how the Aflac goose suddenly lost its voice after Gilbert Gottfried decided to tweet jokes about the Japanese Tsunami.
This poses the question: While there is big bucks to gain from positive image transfer and access to new audiences – is partnering with a figure of public interest a risk worth taking? Or does the potential damage to a brand’s value outweigh the potential gain?
The latest case of Lance Armstrong makes these questions more relevant than ever. A quick re-cap of events: a recently published, 202-page report of The United States Anti-Doping shed light on the ongoing investigation of Lance Armstrong, accusing the legendary Tour de France winner with having run “the most sophisticated doping program in recent sports history.” We all have learned over the years that this is a sport where doping is not necessarily an exception, but often part of the “recipe” for winning. Remember the quote of five-time Tour winner Jacques Anquetil: “You cannot win the Tour de France on just mineral water and baguettes.” So what’s all this buzz about?
In this case, it’s about the destruction of faith – and the almost aching disappointment that comes along with it. Armstrong was considered more than just a hero in sports. He was considered a hero in real life, too. What really inspired people about him is his personal story, overcoming all odds, beating a 20-30% chance of survival when suffering from stage three cancer and then returning to the world stage of cycling, winning the Tour de France for seven consecutive years. That’s the stuff legends are made of. And brands love to tag-team with heroes like that – because it can affect their own perception extremely positively.
The problem is that heroes like that are built and thrive upon three important and inevitable truths: credibility, authenticity and a story that people can believe in. The fact that Armstrong has repeatedly denied doping and stated, “there is zero physical evidence to support (these) outlandish and heinous claims” undermines all of those values in light of the latest reports.
This writer is one of the 84 million people on the planet who bought a “Livestrong” wristband in support of Lance Armstrong’s fight against cancer. But when I look at the shiny yellow band now after the recent “tour de farce” it leaves me wondering: How strong is his personal brand really? And: should I still proudly wear the wristband – or not?
The brands that affiliate with Armstrong are certainly asking themselves the exact same question. And they should, because their own credibility is on the line, as well.
Let’s take Nike, one of Armstrong’s current sponsors. The brand represents the athlete in all of us, the desire to outperform ourselves by giving our best, and the beauty of (fair) athletic competition. It seems unlikely for the brand to continue to credibly build on Armstrong’s performance in sports, when it turns out that it wasn’t all his athleticism alone that got him to the top of the podium…
If you think this case is already complicated enough to solve for by Nike and his other partners such as Oakley or Anheuser-Bush, just hang in there for a second – it gets more challenging.
There is Lance the sports man. But there is also Lance the humanitarian. And you might think whatever you want about his alleged involvement in doping, but all he has unquestionably done relentlessly for cancer research deserves nothing but deep admiration. “Livestrong” has raised more than $500M since its inception in 1997. So, the Armstrong brand stretches way beyond the sport of cycling.
In fact, Anheuser-Busch and others have already issued statements saying that they will continue their support of Armstrong and the Foundation. And Nike just launched a “Livestrong” collection, honoring the 15th anniversary of the foundation.
I personally have concluded that I don’t believe that there is anything hypocritical about separating Armstrong the cyclist from Armstrong the humanitarian. Actually, this might be one of the rare cases where his corporate partners can benefit from showing ongoing support for a man that might have made mistakes in his professional career – but certainly has done everything right from a human and social perspective.
This can be a moment where standing one's ground might bring about even more positive image transfer for the brands. Why? Because they’d make a statement about what really matters and give their brands a human touch – which in turn could win them more share of heart and mind than any Tour de France victory ever would.
Dominik Prinz is Associate Director of Strategy at Interbrand New York.