Apparently, in some cases, even if you can conquer cancer and raise half a billion dollars for cancer research, never go up against the Goliath of corporate marketing.
The tragic fall of cyclist Lance Armstrong will serve as fodder for business and marketing case studies for years to come. How can a cancer-surviving, elite athlete who won what some consider the toughest athletic event on earth be so unceremoniously dumped into brand marketing's trash heap? How can sponsors like Nike and Anheuser-Busch seemingly throw millions of dollars at Lance and just as quickly turn a cold shoulder to him? What were brand marketers missing?
Reams of evidence are showing Lance to be a cheat. And it's clear that cheating at what brought you your fame and fortune in unacceptable to sponsors. That's why Tiger Woods, who faced a myriad of personal issues in a very public divorce, is still sponsored by Nike. Tiger didn't cheat at golf. Further, Tiger also apologized, and he did so quickly. Lance Armstrong hasn't and may never apologize.
Is Corporate Marketing At Fault?
How much actual vetting and research did Nike do before signing Lance Armstrong? How thoroughly did they look at Lance and the sport of cycling? Cycling for years has been viewed as a corrupt sport full of back room deals and finger pointing that was long overdue for an overhaul in governance. Should Nike have taken a deep dive into the cycling system to see how it really worked? Perhaps they would have nixed all cycling sponsorships if they had. It seems that some intense vetting would have shown alarming patterns of cheating and doping permeating the entire cycling system. So, did Lance Armstrong singlehandedly bring down cycling or was he simply trying to outwit an already corrupt and flawed system.
As brand marketers, we owe it to ourselves and to our clients to truly vet potential sponsorships. My sense is that a few weeks being embedded within the cycling community, even in the late 1990s, would have exposed some very unappealing truths that should have raised a red flag even for the most eager of sponsors. We need to be overly cognizant of the systems and the processes of the industries we look to for sponsorship. Just because a gangster is likeable and handsome and has a personal story that resonates across demographics - he's still part of the mafia.
Is Lance Armstrong at fault? Yes. Is the sport of cycling at fault? Most definitely. Is Nike Corporate Marketing to blame? Yes. Did they look past the seedy side of cycling to the potential revenue uptick that Lance could bring them? Most likely.
As marketers we need to vet not only the product, service, or person - we also need to consider the systems and processes that produce the product or service or person - if the systems are corrupt and flawed - their outcomes will likely be corrupt and flawed as well.