In hindsight, Lance Armstrong’s sponsors took way too long to terminate their relationships with the athlete, according to some advertising executives.
As of today, all of Armstrong’s sponsors have dropped him from their rosters after the USADA released evidence that the cyclist used performance enhancing drugs for years.
It sounds trite, at first. After all, Armstrong has done way more damage to himself and the sport of cycling than he has to advertising. But remember that advertising is the industry that has poured millions into Armstrong’s brands — his race team, his Livestrong charity, and himself. They invested serious cash in Armstrong in just the same way as if he were a stock or a bond. Armstrong has lost $30 million in the fiasco. Put another way, his endorsers have wasted $30 million on him.
And now, with Armstrong finally proven guilty, some execs are breaking ranks and venting their fury at what Armstrong has done to the branding and sponsorship business. It is extremely unusual for ad execs to talk frankly about their rivals and clients like this.
Amir Kassaei, the chief creative officer of DDB Worldwide told us, “In the case of Nike and Lance Armstrong, Nike was late in their decision to terminate that relationship considering the illegal drug accusations that were constantly in the news. These allegations against Lance are completely off base from what Nike’s brand platform is — authentic athletic performance.”
A number of sponsors expressed sadness and hopefulness for the future, but these advertisers are just mad.
“Dropping [Armstrong] was a no-brainer. He lied to the public. He lied to investigators. And he lied to his partners at Nike,” said Matt MacDonald, co-chief creative officer of JWT New York, “I feel like he even lied to me personally when I attended his rally in Austin after winning his first Tour de France. So maybe I’m a little bitter.”
This is because Armstrong was more than just a celebrity, he represented an entire community of professional cyclists and their fans.
“Contrary to the cases involving Tiger Woods and Michael Vick, Lance’s role went far beyond himself and affected the sport of cycling by influencing other athletes and undermining the cycling community,” explained Sharon Napier, CEO of Partners + Napier, A Project:WorldWide Agency. She added, “The simplest definition of a brand is ‘a promise made and a promise kept.’ As overwhelming evidence suggests, Lance didn’t keep his promise to the cycling community. He not only hurt the sport, he damaged the Livestrong Foundation and brand. I believe Nike’s decision to continue their support of the Livestrong Foundation and those affected by cancer is a great example of a brand really living their values.”
MacDonald does acknowledge that knowing when a brand ambassador has gone too far is not always obvious: “In general, we advise our clients to walk away from any endorser whose personal life and actions overwhelm the positive attributes they bring to the brand.”
- See How Lance Armstrong Humiliated Nike In These Old Ads About Doping
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