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Livestrong, Batman and the Challenge with Figurehead Branding

Saturday, August 25, 2012 - 08:03

Associating an organization with an individual is a double-edged sword for any brand. Making a company’s founder its namesake or mascot can bestow it instant credibility and industry cache.  Yet, these affiliations can be devastating if its figurehead is discredited, or simply goes rogue.

Enter Lance Armstrong, the Bruce Wayne of professional cycling and the Batman of cancer philanthropy. For years he has used his Tour De France celebrity to promote Livestrong, his charitable effort to raise money for cancer research, education and advocacy.

But today Livestrong faces an identity crisis for having so closely wed its brand to Armstrong’s heroics on the bike.  The USADA has stripped him of his titles and his character is under siege by accusations of doping from his former teammates.

While it can be great to have a walking, talking spokesperson like Armstrong, his ordeal exemplifies the inherent risk.  It seems at times the best namesakes are the dead ones. People seem to forget that Henry Ford and perhaps even Walt Disney were known anti-semites.

But it is not the fact of their death that makes them ideal.  It’s the fact that they have become caricatures of sorts.  Such is the case with a living figurehead like Charles “Talk to Chuck” Schwabb.  Alternately, Michael Bloomberg has made the transition by allowing his narrative to be co-opted into something more abstract and aspirational.  As Henri Ducard said to Bruce Wayne in Batman Begins:

A vigilante is just a man lost in the scramble for his own gratification.  He can be destroyed. Locked up.  But if you make yourself more than just a man – If you devote yourself to an ideal, and if they can’t stop you – then you become something else entirely.

A legend.

While it’s too soon to say if Armstrong’s charitable alter ego is a compelling enough idea to endure on its own, it’s not premature to mark it as a cautionary example. 

Building your institution’s vision and voice around a real world figurehead is risky business if you don’t have a strategy to cut the cord or at least eventually cover it up.  Remember that Bruce Wayne can be destroyed, but as a symbol – like Batman – he can be incorruptible and everlasting.

John Gavula
Contributed By John Gavula

John is the creative director of Gavula Design. He has provided design and illustrator services for many of New York and the region's biggest brand consultancies. Leveraging this experience, and his multidisciplinary background he now works closely with Gavula Design’s clients as a trusted branding partner and steward.