It’s not hard to point out what brands do right during the best of times. But what separates those brands that successfully make it through the worst of times?
I’ve been thinking lately about the recent falls from grace by two powerhouse athlete brands: Tiger Woods and Lance Armstrong. One cheated on his wife (a lot). The other cheated in sport. On its face, we should be much more offended by and ready to drop the athlete brand who cheated to win. After all, as an athlete brand, violating the most fundamental codes of fair play and sportsmanship seem to be much more problematic than infidelity (okay – LOTS of infidelity) off the field.
But in the case of Lance Armstrong, that doesn’t seem to be what’s happening. I am struck by how many yellow bands I still see, firmly secure, on the wrists of so many. Why?
One reason could be that most people really just don’t care that much about cycling as a sport. It’s simply not as popular and mainstream as golf (I mean, how many other cyclists can you name?). If you don’t care about the sport, then you don’t care if someone is cheating in it.
You could also argue that we’ve become so cynical and desensitized as a society to doping in professional sports that we assume everyone is doing it and therefore it’s just not that big of a deal. Fair enough.
But there’s also something fundamentally different in the way that the Tiger Woods and Lance Armstrong brands are built that I believe makes one much more vulnerable to personal failing than the other: One brand was built on a promise and the other was built on a purpose.
The Tiger Woods brand is built purely on the promise of his ability to win PGA majors and on the image of him as a well-grounded family. We’ve seen the obvious problem with this model when that promise is broken – we no longer believe in the brand the way we used to. Now winning is the only thing there is. And unless Tiger is doing that all the time, it’s hard to find a reason to stick with the brand. Since the scandal broke, six corporate sponsors (Tag Heuer, Gillette, Gatorade, Accenture and AT&T) have dropped him.
Lance Armstrong, on the other hand, built a brand that was larger than his talent, his trophies and even himself. Instead of a one-dimensional promise, LIVESTRONG is a brand built from a belief in life, energy, focus and the strength that comes with unity. It has a clearly defined purpose to inspire people to come together to fight cancer until there is no more cancer left to fight.
Lance’s story and athletic ability may have provided inspiration, but the brand was never just about him or his trophies. It was about a hero’s journey and fighting seemingly insurmountable obstacles in life. And it was an invitation for others who believe in that fight (whether directly affected by cancer or not) to join the brand.
So it’s no surprise the yellow bands are still on the wrists of so many people – even after the fallout from the doping scandal. For the supporters of Lance, there seems to be a new, more compelling fundamental rule – it’s not even about HOW you play the game that matters, but rather WHY you play.
LIVESTRONG enthusiasts didn’t just buy a promise. They joined a purpose bigger than themselves. As a result, they now represent the brand just as much, if not more, than Lance. And they don’t look like they’re giving up on themselves anytime soon.