Livestrong's Challenge: Surviving Lance Armstrong

Will Controversy Surrounding the Cycling Champ Tarnish Cancer Foundation's Ongoing Success?

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Lance Armstrong is hardly the first pro athlete to find himself in a sticky situation. But the difference between the cyclist and, say, Michael Phelps and his weed or Tiger Woods and his ladies is that none of those sports stars has an immensely successful cancer nonprofit whose brand is also at stake.

It's safe to say that the personal brand of Mr. Amstrong, now the subject of a federal probe into his alleged use of performance enhancing drugs during his record-setting Tour de France victories, will not go unscathed.

Already, Nielsen says Mr. Armstrong's brand reputation, which it measures by what it calls an N-Score, has plummeted from a career high of 775 in 2005 to 194 now. (Nielsen's N-Score is derived from a model that factors in audience awareness of an athlete, the overall appeal of the athlete and 46 specific personal attributes such as leadership and trustworthiness. The national survey is administered to more than 1,100 people in the U.S. and the sample is representative of the general population based on gender, income, age and education.)

But fresh allegations, outlined by Mr. Armstrong's former teammate Tyler Hamilton to "60 Minutes" this past weekend, have marketers and onlookers wondering if Livestrong, the athlete's cancer-research foundation, will be the real victim.

So the question is : Can Livestrong separate its mission and activities in the fight against cancer from the controversy surrounding its founder?

According to the foundation's top communications executive, yes -- and she insists that the vibe at the organization is business as usual.

Katherine McLane, senior director of communications at Livestrong, told Ad Age that Mr. Armstrong is a "champion in the fight against cancer," not simply a seven-time Tour de France champion.

"We empowered millions around the world to fight like hell and we remain completely proud of that ," she said. "Our chairman and founder is one of the world's most visible survivors. Our work is so vitally important, and not in an abstract way but in real life, to people all over America in the fight of their lives." She noted they are speaking to Mr. Armstrong, a Texas native, about participating in the Austin Marathon in January.

"Lance ran this year and God willing he'll do so again," she said, adding that as chairman and founder he has a hand in all the decisions the organization makes. Since its inception in 1997, Livestrong has raised $400 million to support those affected by cancer through equity tied to emotion, built on product development (those ubiquitous yellow bands), marketing initiatives and aggressive funding.

Observers are less optimistic. Kent Jarrell, exec VP at crisis communications firm APCO Worldwide, said the true damage from Sunday night's "60 Minutes" broadcast is that the "story line suggested that he has been organized in his deception." He added that , at the moment, Livestrong "can't take Lance out of the equation," a complication that sparks the foundation's caught-in-the-middle status and presents long-term challenge to its reputation. As a result, "[Mr. Armstrong] will have to say something to his supporters to separate out whatever legal and sport authority issues he has from the brand that 's connected to the foundation," Mr. Jarrell said.

Craig Bida, exec VP of Cause Branding at Cone, noted that Livestrong's tack in dealing with Mr. Armstrong's personal problems will be closely watched, as the nonprofit has served as a model for so many others. "It's been an entrepreneurial nonprofit that has led in terms of how to connect emotionally with folks," Mr. Bida said. "A lot of other nonprofits look to them for how they're engaging stakeholders."

Meanwhile, the foundation will have to prepare scenarios for a series of potential legal outcomes and continue to push its cause, which, on an emotional level, trumps Mr. Armstrong's athletic achievements.

So far, longtime marketing partners such as Nike are sticking with Livestrong. "No matter where this goes, the organization will continue to evolve, and we hope that [supportive] companies don't start jumping ship before the outcome is clear," Mr. Bida said.

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Contributing: Rupal Parekh

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