Lance Armstrong's 'brand' might never recover: expert
Published Thursday, January 17, 2013 12:46PM EST
Last Updated Thursday, January 17, 2013 5:34PM EST
After years of denial, it appears Lance Armstrong is finally prepared to admit that he used performance-enhancing drugs during what was once an awe-inspiring cycling career, and that his rivals and teammates were not the liars he alleged for years they were.
Most agree this confession appears to be an attempt on Armstrong’s part to restore what’s left of his reputation and perhaps salvage his legacy as both an athlete, a celebrity and an inspirational survivor story.
But can one ever recover from this kind of scandal? Does Armstrong have any chance of restoring his “brand” the way that many other athletes and celebrities before him have done?
Manish Kacker, an associate professor of marketing at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont. says it’s difficult to say, because Armstrong’s case is so unique.
“If you look at other sports celebrities who’ve had scandals in the past, it was always related to personal conduct rather than the way they played their sport: I’m thinking of Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods. In all those cases, their achievements on the field were not tainted,” Kacker said in a phone interview.
“If you think of an athlete as a brand, the core elements of the brand are still his achievements in the sport. But Armstrong’s core elements have been tainted.”
For many who once admired Armstrong, there’s not just the anger and disappointment of realizing that he cheated by doping, they’re insulted that he lied to them for years, even as he vehemently denied the allegations against him.
“Those denials were directed directly to the public so it makes it harder for them to overlook,” Kacker says.
Why Armstrong chose to come clean now -- and to come clean with Oprah Winfrey rather than be interviewed by someone in sport -- is a bit of a mystery. But Kacker suspects Armstrong and his advisers chose to do a one-on-one interview because they knew they could have more control over what was said. The press conference format that athletes typically use would allow any manner of question to be thrown at him and Armstrong is keen to control his message.
It’s possible that Armstrong’s interview could backfire on him as well, especially if it appears he is not remorseful enough.
But it’s likely he won’t reveal as much as many are expecting or hoping for. Winfrey’s team first characterized the interview as a “tell-all.” But she told “CBS This Morning" on Tuesday that, while Armstrong was forthcoming in the interview, he "did not come clean in the manner that I expected.”
Kacker worries that all the build-up to the interview could fuel unreasonable expectations.
“People who are expecting an unreserved apology are going to be disappointed because he has to use words carefully, given the potential for his words to be used against him in any of the ongoing legal proceedings,” Kacker said.
“At some level, maybe people understand that it’s rare for a celebrity to make a blanket admission. They’ll understand that he has legal issues and that’s why he cannot come out and say everything.”
Armstrong is currently named as a defendant in at least two lawsuits, and could have his name added to a third as U.S. Justice Department officials may soon join a federal whistleblower lawsuit aimed at clawing back sponsorship money the U.S. Postal Service provided him and his team.
Armstrong likely agreed to the interview because he wants to restore his reputation enough to have the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency overturn his lifetime competition ban. And he may want to revive his work in cancer advocacy. For those reasons and more, he likely had to tread carefully with his admissions, says Kacker.
“His apology will need to be carefully crafted, rather than something that is honest,” he says.
The words that Armstrong chooses in his apology will also be important to watch. While visiting the offices of the Livestrong charity he founded in Austin, Tex., Armstrong expressed only “regret” for the “stress” the Livestrong team suffered. That’s a long way from saying sorry.
As The Guardian columnist John Crace wrote this week: “The word ‘sorry – even if said insincerely – carries a sense of personal responsibility. The word ‘apologize’ is much more ambivalent, as it suggests the possibility of some confusion over culpability. As for ‘regret’ ... well that's something even more arm's length.”
Livestrong, which Armstrong founded in 1997, has already moved into its own form of damage control by trying to distance itself from Armstrong as much as it can. In November, it removed all reference to him in its official name and it asked Armstrong to step down as chairman of the board of directors.
But the charity has its own problems. This week, The New York Times ran a piece alleging that Livestrong engaged in numerous deals over the last 15 years that appeared to have been struck in order to benefit Armstrong and his associates.
Kacker says given all its troubles, it’s difficult to know what will become of Livestrong, but he suggests they try to stick to the positive.
“Their best strategy at this point is to highlight Armstrong’s success in overcoming cancer. Second, they should highlight how his story helped inspire other cancer survivors. And third, they should highlight the work they’ve already done to promote cancer awareness and outreach,” he said.
Armstrong himself should also stress his achievements against cancer.
“That part of Lance Armstrong is not tainted. So the best strategy for him to repair his brand is to focus a lot more on that aspect of his brand over the long term,” says Kackers.
Kacker says there aren’t a lot of situations in the corporate world that are analogous to Armstrong’s predicament. He notes when companies find their good brand name scandalized, it can literally rebrand itself by changing its name, the way tobacco giant Philip Morris Companies became The Altria Group, for example. Or it can restructure, perhaps by merging with another company or by divesting its troublesome divisions. But of course, people can’t do that.
There there have been companies that committed fraud and then admitted they had lied to try to cover up the fraud; WorldCom, Enron and Nortel come to mind. But in most of those big cases, Kacker says, the companies went under and were never given a chance to bounce back.
“There was no second act for them,” says Kacker.
“In the world of personal brands, there can be second acts. The question is will there be a second act for Lance Armstrong?”