Rebranding Lance Armstrong: Marketing Pros' 6-Step Recovery Plan

Through PR, all things are possible. Maybe.

banner_lance armstrong Marcio Jose Sanchez.jpg
AP / Marcio Jose Sanchez

Lance Armstrong's career as a public figure, it would seem, is over. After all, he did not one but several of the lowest things you can do in sports (and life, really): He cheated, he lied about cheating, he allegedly harassed and persecuted those who told the truth about his cheating—and worst of all, he became an international hero in the process. Now that the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency has found Armstrong on the wrong end of "conclusive and undeniable proof" of a decade's worth of performance-enhancing drugs, and he's been banned from cycling for life and stripped of his seven cherished Tour de France titles, the public's regard for Armstrong has tumbled from Superman status down to the depths of disappointment and scorn.

But if disgraced heroes like Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, Martha Stewart, and Tiger Woods taught us anything, it's that there's always a way to crawl back into the public's good graces—with the help of some powerful image-rehab magic conjured up by a trained professional, that is.

What, if anything, can be done to help rebuild Armstrong's image? Lance Armstrong, after all, isn't just a man. He's a marketable brand, too. Since it launched in 1997, his foundation Livestrong (formerly known as the Lance Armstrong Foundation) has raised more than $470 million for cancer awareness and research. So I asked four professionals in brand management, public relations, and consulting what advice they would give to Armstrong to help salvage what's left of Brand Lance: Karl Heiselman, CEO of international brand consultancy Wolff Olins; Erin Patton, a former Nike executive and brand management consultant who represented the Williams sisters and Stephon Marbury in partnership deals; Danielle Robinson, a Madison Avenue brand strategist; and David Simmons, a Los Angeles-based sports consultant who formerly worked with the Dodgers. And while their approaches didn't always match up, all four agreed on one thing: Even though Armstrong has a more complicated road back to credibility than many other fallen stars before him, he's nowhere close to a lost cause. From their responses emerged a simple plan outlining what Lance Armstrong (the man) can do to save Lance Armstrong (the franchise).

Responses have been edited for clarity and length.

Step 1: CONFESS YOUR SINS. TO OPRAH. (Check. His interview with the talk show host airs in two segments on Thursday night and Friday night.)

Danielle Robinson: An apology is necessary, a confession is necessary, and some form of answer to the question of why. Why the doping? Why lie about it? For a brand as strong as his, and for allegations as severe as his, why? Why do that? That brings the element of humanity.

I will say this: He did it right by going to Oprah. Or Oprah did it right by going to him. If I ever do anything wrong, I'm confessing to Oprah.

Oprah comes with a lot of credibility and trust. The public trusts her to get to the bottom of the story. ... It might be a painful interview, because she's going to ask the tough questions. She's going to ask why. But hopefully [his PR team] prepped him on how to interview with Oprah. It could work to his advantage if he allows her to get to the truth—because if the truth comes out, I'd say he literally does not have to do another interview if he doesn't want to. Talk to Oprah, she gets the truth, and his PR team can say, "We're done."


David Simmons: He needs to go on the PR tour. Take any interview and answer every question.

"I think he's going to have to go the charitable route. If he maybe opened some Lance Armstrong biking schools in inner cities or something of that nature, that could help."

Lance got caught after he [competed]—and that makes it much tougher. If you look at the people like Andy Pettitte, Michael Vick, or Roger Clemens, or Barry Bonds, they all got caught while they were playing. They could keep playing, whereas Lance has retired [from his sport]. That changes the game plan, from a PR standpoint, as to what he can and cannot do. He's not a competitive cyclist anymore—he lost what he'd accomplished, and he can't get [those accomplishments back] by riding the bike again. Now he's just a public figure, so what he does with that brand equity he built up is what he can still do. ... He's still a cancer survivor, he's still a reputable name.

Robinson: Don't create a story where there isn't one. Who did that well? Tiger Woods did it well. The scandal broke and he went silent. All things shut down. That's one of the quickest ways to not create a story. It allows the public to digest it, number one. And it allows some room for forgiveness. We have examples of that in our personal lives—the further you are from a situation, the more able someone is to see something in a fresh light and allow the forgiveness to take place.

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Ashley Fetters is a former associate editor at The Atlantic.

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