Lance Armstrong and Livestrong: What it Means for Promotional Silicone Bracelets
LIVESTRONG: for nearly a decade, the word has symbolized the strength and solidarity of cancer survivors worldwide. Founded in 1997, Livestrong became a household name in 2004 with the launch of its namesake yellow silicone wristbands. Available for a dollar and with all proceeds going toward cancer survivor services, the Nike-designed bracelets turned into a global phenomenon, with more than 50 million of the promotional bracelets sold in the first year alone. The trend caught on and other organizations adopted the strategy, selling wristbands for causes like AIDS awareness and Hurricane Katrina relief. Celebrity sightings made the awareness bracelets fashionable. Nonprofits were seeing cash flow in like never before thanks to the sale of the promotional items, and it was all made possible by the founder of the Livestrong Foundation: Olympian, Tour de France winner and cancer survivor Lance Armstrong.
And in nine months, it all came crashing down.
In June 2012, the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) charged Armstrong with taking banned performance enhancing drugs and orchestrating "the most sophisticated, professionalized and successful doping program that sport has ever seen." The agency stripped Armstrong of all professional wins since August 1998, including seven consecutive Tour de France wins and a bronze medal from the 2000 Summers Olympics, and announced a lifetime ban from all USADA-regulated sports. Despite Armstrong's insistence of innocence, the Union Cycliste Internationale, cycling's ruling body, accepted the USADA recommendations in October of 2012. On January 13, 2013, in an interview with Oprah Winfrey, Armstrong admitted to using the banned substances throughout his career.
Public backlash was immediate. As early as October, critics were seen crossing out the "V" on their bracelets, transforming the message into "LIE STRONG." Days after Armstrong's admission, a Yahoo article asked "Are People Still Wearing Livestrong Bracelets?" Reactions have been mixed, with many feeling betrayed and cutting off their bracelets, while others maintain that the Livestrong Foundation's good works should be viewed separate from its founder.
The issue extends beyond Armstrong's personal turmoil. The consequences of his actions affect the Livestrong Foundation, as well as other organizations that adopted its tactics. Caught in the mix are promotional products suppliers and distributors, who now must ask whether the awareness bracelets, a strong seller for the last 10 years, have been stigmatized by the cyclist's ruined reputation. Does the association with a high-profile scandal diminish the effectiveness of a promotional item?
"Absolutely not," said Malia Anderson, marketing manager for CleggPromo, Gardena, Calif., citing the continued popularity of silicone bracelets with school promotions, street teams and awareness events. Every supplier interviewed for this piece agreed with Anderson, saying they saw no correlation between recent events and bracelet sales.
"The product has a life of its own separate from Livestrong," said Daniel Taylor, president of Woodbridge, Virginia-based BamBams, when discussing the popularity of silicone wristbands. "Hundreds of thousands of other organizations use the same product as part of their fundraising." Benn Chazan, sales manager at BamBams added, "people no longer associate silicone bracelets with Livestrong," saying the organization has is now known more for its charitable work.
Ad Bands, a supplier from Hot Springs, Ark., has sold promotional bracelets and wristbands for nearly 30 years. Formerly known as Alliance Rubber Company, the supplier launched the printed rubber bands in 1986 and has more experience than anyone with the product. Bonnie Swayze, company president of Ad Bands, told Promo Marketing that the company doesn't expect Armstrong's admission will impact sales in any way. "We don't think silicone bracelets will be affected by this controversy as they continue to be a recognized symbol of unity for numerous other foundations and fundraising causes," she said.
Even though the products saw a surge in popularity as a result of Armstrong's foundation, Swayze said people associate the item less with Livestrong and more with awareness campaigns in general. She also didn't see foresee trouble for the Foundation in the future. "The Livestrong Foundation has raised over $500 million to fight cancer," she said. "Most people are able to realize the positive results from the sale of the Livestrong wristband and separate it from the current controversy."
The Livestrong Foundation thinks the same and has taken steps to distance itself from its founder. Formerly known as the Lance Armstrong Foundation, the company dropped his name from the title in October 2012, which was followed by Armstrong's departure from the board in November of that year. "Our success has never been based on one person—it's based on the patients and survivors we serve every day, who approach a cancer diagnosis with hope, courage and perseverance," the company said in a statement. The awareness bracelets and other Livestrong-branded promotional products remain available for purchase on the site, which has been scrubbed of almost all references to Armstrong.
The USADA's report came out in June of last year, and rumors of Armstrong's behavior had circulated for years before that; if there was going to be a backlash against the product as well as the person, the industry would have felt it by now. Rather than seeing a hit, Anderson reported that CleggPromo's bracelets "were one of our best-sellers for 2012." Other suppliers interviewed said that their silicone wristband sales were unaffected by current events.
Despite reports of backlash against Livestrong and its bracelets, the media firestorm seems like little more than smoke, with most professionals agreeing that both the foundation and its signature fundraising tool will emerge from the situation unscathed.
"Livestrong is bigger than Lance Armstrong and has done a wonderful job raising money and awareness for fighting cancer," Taylor said. "Bracelets are now associated with many awareness and charity brands, thus, silicone bracelets will continue to be a visible reminder of the greater cause."