Top Brand Failure of 2012: Lance Armstrong and a Legacy of Deception

Many high profile brands have suffered damage in 2012. This would certainly include American Airlines, the Chevy Volt, and Apple, Inc. in the business world, and the American Legislative Exchange Council and the National Rifle Association in the political arena.

While AdAge just identified Apple as the biggest brand loser of 2012 (see: The Most Damaged Big Brand of The Year Is...), citing its mishaps with their map app, Siri, and a 25% loss in their stock value, I would argue that there was a much more monumental destruction of a brand this year that is unparalleled in recent history: Lance Armstrong. Sure Apple may have lost billions in market cap, but Armstrong lost all of his tour championships, his charitable organization, his legacy, and perhaps his ability to generate any new revenue ever again.

As noted in Bloomberg recently:

In August, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, or USADA, stripped the American rider of his seven Tour de France titles and banned him for life for using prohibited substances after he opted not to contest doping charges in arbitration. USADA’s stand was upheld in October by the UCI.

Surely Armstrong’s devastating fall from grace will fill its own chapter in business school marketing books in the future, right after Tiger Woods. Yet what may be most noteworthy about Armstrong’s brand destruction was not the way the World Anti-Doping Agency issued its much-anticipated report against Armstrong that included testimony from numerous former teammates, or the less expected concurrent ruling from the International Cycling Union, or how quickly the endorsement bowling pins fell after that, with $50 million in sponsorship revenue over five years lost (see: Lance Armstrong Endorsements: Cyclist Loses Final Sponsor In Oakley, Had Previously Pledged Support For Him).

No, what was most noteworthy was how this end to a decade-long fight over Armstrong’s doping all started with a lie. Once that lie was officially uttered, it required another lie, and another, and another. It also required the obeisance of Armstrong’s teammates for many years.

This leaves an important question about this brand legend. Was his Livestrong Foundation another cover for Armstrong’s lies (after all, did his drug use have anything to do with his later bout with cancer?), and if so, what will be its legacy (see: Is The IRS Investigating Lance Armstrong's Livestrong Foundation?)?

Perhaps Livestrong was one of the more brilliant PR gambits in history: form a group to promote cancer awareness and solutions, build a global brand tied to its founder and his brand, and use it as an antidote to the doping claims that have followed the seven-time Tour de France  winner throughout his career.

It seems that ultimately Armstrong and the foundation, with which Armstrong will forever be identified, must have decided that the foundation could only survive if he left the organization entirely, after initially trying to keep him on the board of directors. Because of the global support that the group enjoys, it ironically will be Armstrong’s remaining legacy.

Despite Armstrong’s deceitful career, people are united by the crusade against cancer, and the yellow rubber wristbands will always have a place on peoples’ arms – a symbol of pop culture that will not quickly fade.

If he wishes to be cleansed of this legacy, and his record brand disaster, then it is time for Lance Armstrong to come clean. It is time for Armstrong to think of the burden his children will carry bearing his name through life. The book and movie deal will be huge sellers, his brand can start to be rehabilitated, and he will no longer be the only person on the face of the earth who thinks he did not do it.

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