America loves a comeback story. Overcoming obstacles. Triumphing over adversity. This is the American hero archetype.
Lance Armstrong was that hero.
But when a hero stumbles, or worse, is exposed as a complete fraud, the damage can be truly crushing. With Lance Armstrong, we don’t just lose a hero in the classic tradition. There are real, tangible and deeply emotional impacts to those who have invested in him and his pursuits — on and off the road.
Consider the LIVESTRONG Foundation. Since its inception, the foundation has raised over $470 million for the fight against cancer and 81 percent — over $380 million — has gone to programs for education and outreach, seeding and sustaining local community projects in the U.S. and around the world, as far as South Africa or as close as Mexico. That’s a direct benefit to more than 2.3 million cancer survivors, made even more significant in a time of economic struggle. The damage to the foundation, its staff and programs will depend greatly on public reaction to the scandal.
Of the nearly $32 million in cash or cash equivalents, almost half was a result of event revenue and product licensing, meaning the value of the LIVESTRONG brand, built nearly 100 percent on the heroic persona of Lance Armstrong. Most of the foundation’s remaining donations came from top tier and highly respected brands themselves, including American Century Investments, Giro, Johnson Health Tech, Nike, Oakley, RadioShack, Sporting Club, thinksport, Trek and Demand Media.
These companies built marketing and public relations strategies around LIVESTRONG and the alignment with a cause and a hero. These efforts and resources likely exceeded the million-dollar-plus donation each has given directly to the foundation. When these companies build on the reputation of a celebrity, the fallout is far beyond the direct contributions.
Just think Tiger Woods.
His fall from grace was best illustrated by a simple new app that allowed people to erase content after they texted it. The name? Tiger Text. Ouch!
Advertising, marketing, events, websites, apps, merchandise — all based on the character of the heroic figure — mean real job losses, real cancelled orders and real lost revenue.
The damage extends beyond the tangible. LIVESTRONG board members include Dr. Sanjay Gupta, widely touted as a candidate for U.S. Surgeon General, and George W. Bush presidential advisor and political operative, Mark McKinnon. Trust and judgment are the cornerstones of these men’s careers. Like the rest of that board of directors, and despite no real control over the situation, their judgment will now carry a black mark. They may even think twice before committing to the next cause, no matter how worthwhile it is and how trustworthy the participants.
This phenomenon is not new and, unfortunately, will be repeated. But when a hero falls, they take a chunk of our collective faith and trust with them. After the punch lines fade, the real world fallout — financial, relational and social — remains, along with a lingering aftertaste of cynicism.
Is the LIVESTRONG Foundation able to go on without Lance? I hope so. Their good works are too important.
Besides, America loves a comeback.
Follow Howard Bragman on Twitter: www.twitter.com/HowardBragman