Building the Myth of the Lance Armstrong Brand

by Gregg on October 21, 2012

Lance Armstrong was back in the news this week, as a number of major brands ended their relationship with the seven-time Tour de France winner, due to allegations by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) that he used performance-enhancing drugs. Among the brands that broke from Lance were RadioShack, Anheuser-Busch InBev, Trek Bicylce and Nike.

Nike was particulalry interesting, in light of a brief but stinging two-paragraph statement on its website announcing the parting of ways:

"Due to the seemingly insurmountable evidence that Lance Armstrong participated in doping and misled Nike for more than a decade, it is with great sadness that we have terminated our contract with him. Nike does not condone the use of illegal performance enhancing drugs in any manner."

According to Wednesday’s Wall Street Journal, NIke started working with Lance in 1996, and had stood by him during previous doping allegations. The statement above struck me as sounding like Nike had no choice to act in the manner it did, and reassert its anti-doping corporate responsibility key message.

But I’m not sure Nike gets off that easy. I was having a discussion on social media this week with someone who is convinced Nike is complicit in Lance’s alleged wrongdoing and may have even covered it up. For that reason, she told me, she won’t support the Nike brand.

I don’t agree with that, because it wouldn’t be in Nike’s best interest to risk a cover up coming to light, and to my knowledge, that allegation hasn’t been made in the media. But it’s also a proof point of the power of perception, and how it directly relates to purchasing choices.

I will say this about Nike – it did play a major role in building Lance into the athlete-brand he is (or was), positioning him in its ads as not only free of PEDs but almost as a guy who had to overcome not only testicular cancer, but persecution as well. I remember those ads … the imagery reminded me of a hero in a movie, and it’s hard to not want to get behind that cause.

If Nike was part of building the myth and legend of Lance Armstrong, so was ESPN. As I mentioned in my last post on this topic, Armstrong hosted its ESPYs award show in 2006, and was featured in one of its many self-deprecating commercials. And then there was all that coverage of the Tour de France wins.

My point: Nike and ESPN and a lot of other brands paid (used?) Lance to sell their products, and in the process built him into something he apparently wasn’t to drive profit. He was gold. But when the truth came forth, some of them – like Nike – dropped him and backpedaled, pardon the pun.

True, Lance seems to have a fair amount of hubris and appeared to enjoy the ride, but wouldn’t it have been more prudent for those brands to continually validate the integrity of its spokespeople?

Would seem to me a better way to minimize risk and be true to not only its core values as a company, but the values of its customers.

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