With or without performance enhancers, the repair of his badly damaged personal brand is one feat that is beyond even Lance Armstrong.
Banned for life last year from competing in sanctioned sporting events, stripped of his seven Tour de France titles as a result of his long-denied involvement with doping, and having lost most of his endorsement deals, Armstrong is back in the news this week in a tell-all (or tell-some) interview with Oprah, marking the start of a public campaign geared towards restoring his image. By confessing to the doping, according to all reports, he is hoping for a reduction in his lifetime ban so that he can compete in sanctioned triathlons and redeem himself.
Too bad the campaign is in his own mind, and redemption is not his to claim. This is one brand that is beyond repair – and I’m in the business of trying to find brand hope, often when hope is hard to find.
But there were too many lies, too much deceit, too many lives ruined, too great an amount of damage to a revered sport and too many missed opportunities to come clean offered by the USADA, the Sunday Times, Nike and even his own charitable foundation. By wrapping up his cycling triumphs into his own inspiring fight against cancer (the ultimate impetus for Livestrong), Armstrong committed the ultimate brand sin. He broke the trust of those who needed to trust him the most. We’ve been “lanced,” or “pierced with a sharp object.”
Bottom line, the emotional connection with a personal brand is so much deeper and so much stronger than that of any product or service, because it connects on a human level. Those who have built renowned personal brands are put on pedestals (ironically, think Oprah), and admired not just for their remarkable characteristics and the values they represent, but for their consistency in staying true to them. Armstrong destroyed the very values that defined him.
And that’s the difference between what Armstrong and, say Tiger Woods or Michael Vick did to harm to their brands (and sports) in the not-too distant past.
Tiger Woods’ marital transgressions were hugely embarrassing and certainly affected his image, yet the only place where his values and inspirational power count is on the golf course, where he is slowly but surely regaining his stroke and fan base.
Michael Vick has managed to repair the damage after serving 21 months in prison for his involvement in a dog-fighting ring. While his crime spoke to failings when it comes to personal values, they had no relevance to his performance on the football field. Small wonder he easily found a new home as starting quarterback with the Philadelphia Eagles and, importantly, has quietly become a spokesperson for the very cause that got him into trouble in the first place.
Marion Jones, Barry and Mark McGwire come closest to mirroring the cheating that went on in their respective sports. The Hall of Fame just told Bonds what they thought of him. He is the poster child of the baseball steroid era, and his brand is irreparably damaged, like Armstrong’s. Mark McGwire, who admitted to his mistake and showed remorse, has actually found an on-ramp back into baseball with the St. Louis Cardinals. Jones, to her credit, has dedicated her life to helping young people avoid the mistakes she made as a student and athlete, rebuilding her brand day by day.
Unfortunately, the McGwire and Jones options are no longer available to Lance. His is a brand that has broken too many important promises and has been caught in too many public lies — a surefire death sentence for even the most revered of brands. A little Oprah will not offset all the brand harm that has been done, capped by his ultimate lack of contrition and tied to this November tweet:
Back in Austin and just layin’ around… mob.li/_r4zAz
— Lance Armstrong (@lancearmstrong) November 10, 2012
To be clear, Armstrong has done a lot of good during his athletic career – his support of cancer research through Livestrong has won him many defenders throughout this ordeal and the lives he has helped change tied to the dollars raised cannot be marginalized.
There is a lot of good Lance can still do in this world. Of course, all of this will have to wait until a billion people get their fix of getting “lanced” during his interview with Oprah and the aftermath that will surely follow.
This post originally appeared on the Forbes CMO Network on Scott Davis’s blog, The Shift. To read related thinking from Scott on Forbes, follow his blog here.