I am no fan of Lance Armstrong. I hate the fact that he instilled so much hope among cyclists and cancer patients, and then betrayed their trust by continually lying about doping charges.
I am, however, a fan of Nike—one of the smartest brands I know. The company has created a brand that is about so much more than selling sneakers and athletic apparel. It’s a brand synonymous with persevering to do one’s best—it is a brand that is about being at the top of the game and excelling.
So it was with a mixture of sadness and understanding that I read that Nike is pulling the plug on the Livestrong sportswear line. I understand that Nike wants to distance itself from the Lance debacle, but in doing so, they are dismissing the tens of thousands of cancer patients that were helped by the Livestrong Foundation.
The Livestrong Foundation has had a long and successful partnership with Nike. Since 1996 the Foundation has sold over 80 million yellow “Live Strong” wristbands, keeping 77 cents for each one sold. Successful? You do the math. Their theme of empowerment has positioned the duo, Livestrong and Nike, in a good light—yet the dissolution of the partnership seems punitive to an organization that has been distancing itself from Armstrong over the years. CEO Doug Ullman stated in an Inc. article: “We were so fortunate to have created and developed Livestrong through months and months of focus groups with cancer survivors. They were the ones that really came up with and developed the brand initially in 2002. The whole idea of [Livestrong] had nothing to do with Lance’s name. It was literally survivors saying, ‘That’s what I aspire to do. I want to live strong after my cancer.'” A CNN report quotes Stacy Palmer, the editor of The Chronicle of Philanthropy as saying, “The organization has done a lot to separate itself from Lance’s image over the years. As a result, many people identify it as a cancer organization, which is why it’s not already crumbling.”
Nike developed the yellow Livestrong wristband in 2004 to raise money and awareness for the Livestrong Foundation, which provides support for people affected by cancer.
As one of the best examples of cause-related marketing, the Livestrong brand has adopted classic branding strategies that have catapulted it over many disease-related organizations. Their naming convention, with the one exception of the Ride for the Roses, consistently places Livestrong into every event: Team Livestrong, Livestrong Care Plan, Livestrong Summit, and Livestrong Young Adult Alliance to name a few. Their signature yellow and black color palette is widely recognized, and from their very inception—with a little help from Nike—they were masters in attracting high visibility.
I can understand that Nike is making this decision based on numbers. Apparently the public is running away from the Livestrong brand and voting with their footsteps. But why throw the baby out with the bathwater? Distance your brand from Lance Armstrong, but keep your support for an organization that embodies all of the brand attributes that are accredited to Nike. Both organizations have taught that there are rewards for persevering against the odds. Now is not the time for Nike to run for cover. It’s the time to step up to the plate and stand your ground. After all, isn’t that what Nike is all about?