Mark Ritson: Reputation can rise above controversy

When the end came, last Thursday, it came more from exhaustion than anything else. After a decade of rumours and accusations of drug use, Lance Armstrong finally reached his limit.

Mark_Ritson_contemplating

“I have been dealing with claims that I cheated and had an unfair advantage in winning my seven Tours since 1999,” said Armstrong. “The toll this has taken on my family, my work for our foundation and on me leads me to where I am today – finished with this nonsense.”

This was no confession of guilt, you’ll note, just an admission that Armstrong would no longer contest the accusations of the US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA). But despite the lack of any confession in last week’s statement, Armstrong was stripped of all seven of his Tour de France titles as well as receiving a lifetime ban from the sport of cycling.

Last Friday, as the USADA was announcing that the world’s most famous cyclist was banned for life and expunged from its history, Armstrong did the one thing that still comes naturally. He got on his bike and went for a ride.

Who knows what went through the 41-year-old’s mind on Friday afternoon as he pressed the pedals near his Texas home? Perhaps he thought about his reputation and the brands so closely associated with it. Armstrong has the traditional array of big-name brands that any celebrity of his standing might expect to attract after such a glittering and distinguished career – Michelob, Nike, FRS and Oakley all have long-term contracts with Armstrong.

And then there is Livestrong – the charity brand created by Armstrong in 2004 that has raised almost $500m (£316m) for cancer research and which encourages people to live life to the fullest. Following his statement, all of Armstrong’s brand endorsements were now vulnerable and Livestrong, potentially, terminally so.

Of all the tactics in the brand strategy playbook, nothing builds brand equity faster or imperils it more rapidly than the celebrity endorsement. Celebrities are mercurial cultural constructs. Or to be more prosaic, they tend to get into trouble on a very regular basis.

If Armstrong the man is more important than his reputation as a cyclist, his appeal might yet increase

Whatever thoughts occupied the cyclist last Friday, at some point they caused him to call Livestrong chief executive Doug Ulman. It’s at this point that armchair brand experts have to guess what happens next. What did Ulman tell Armstrong on Friday afternoon that the cyclist later described as “overwhelming news”?

The answer seems to be that Livestrong had been getting calls all day. More importantly, the foundation was also getting donations – a lot of them. By Friday’s end Livestrong had received $80,000 (£50,671) in donations – 30 times its average daily donation – and merchandising sales were also up.

“We’re just truly grateful for the generosity of so many people,” Ulman later told USA Today.

Armstrong had even more to be grateful for. Later that day, all of his key sponsors also announced that they would stay with him. A spokesman for Anheuser-Busch, which brews Michelob Ultra, said: “Our partnership with Lance remains unchanged. He has inspired millions with his athletic achievement and his commitment to helping cancer survivors and their families.”

How do we explain the apparent endurance of Armstrong’s endorsement appeal in the face of such controversial evidence? For many American crisis management experts, the conclusion is that Armstrong’s avoidance of a trial or any admission of defeat may have brought severe sanctions but it has also protected the star’s reputation from long-term damage.

But perhaps there is a more brand-centric explanation. When Tiger Woods was caught out in 2011 for having a series of illicit affairs around the world, he was caught doing something entirely antithetical to the image that fans had of him and which sponsors wanted to associate themselves with – class, focus, success, control. And furthermore he came across during the crisis and subsequently as a rather strange and remote chap.

In the case of Armstrong, the cyclist is fighting on. Not only has he not admitted to anything, he has also remained positive and doggedly determined in the face of his accusations. And perhaps this response is entirely in line with the image of the man himself.

And there is also the fact that Armstrong is, according to even his accusers, a very impressive man. Cheat or not, he has raised millions for cancer and people genuinely like him. Is the attraction of Armstrong the fact that he won a bunch of bike races or that he survived cancer and then inspired others to join the fight?

It’s a crucial question. Because if Armstrong the man is more important than his reputation as a cyclist, his appeal might yet increase rather than diminish in the face of this crisis.

The rapidly growing use of the hashtag #StillMyHero suggests that unlikely conclusion might not be so far fetched.

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