A few months ago, when the feds’ investigation of Lance Armstrong appeared in a flurry of headlines, Livestrong CEO Doug Ulman brought in Kat Jones to tell his staff, many of them new to the organization, how the Livestrong brand came about. After all, this was the seminal moment that triggered explosive growth, led to its now ubiquitous yellow wrist bands, accelerated its evolution into a global force, and facilitated an identity shift beyond its famous founder (learn more in this month’s cover story). In the midst of the ongoing inquiry, that strategy is critical.
In 2004, the Lance Armstrong Foundation hired Jones and Austin-based Milkshake Media to redesign its online resources center for cancer survivors. “It was this tiny corner of the site,” she recalled last summer. While interviewing a number of survivors, her team learned that they wanted to share intensely personal stories and talk to people who’d had similar experiences. “We thought they wanted medical resources,” says Jones, Milkshake’s founder. “They wanted to talk about how cancer had changed their lives emotionally, physically, and practically.”
She suggested creating a distinct brand for this passionate community, and the foundation gave her the go-ahead. Initially, she proposed called it This Point Forward. “This is what you were about to be,” Jones told the Livestrong staff with a laugh. She wanted a more visceral name, something that reflected the survivors’ determination. So she returned to Armstrong’s memoir “It’s Not About the Bike,” where she found this line: “All I wanted to do was tell people to fight like hell.”
That attitude, pure Lance Armstrong, was what she was after. Fight like hell. Nobody in the cancer community was talking with such blunt, gritty, and defiant language. The foundation could give survivors a new voice, that of a combatant determined to maintain some control over his or her life, not a victim of the disease.
Jones and Milkshake kept brainstorming: Defy cancer. Living forward. A strong life. Finally, they arrived at Live Strong, which became Livestrong. It sounded organic, a natural extension of Armstrong. The only catch? As much as some survivors felt empowered by the name (to the point of getting Livestrong tattoos), others in the focus groups disliked it. “You cannot tell someone diagnosed with cancer to live strong,” one survivor insisted. “That’s obnoxious.”
“One thing I’ve learned,” Jones told Ulman and his staff, “is that when things are polarizing, it’s right.”
Armstrong had no problem with the risky name. “HE LOVED IT,” a foundation staffer emailed Jones’ team.
Nike agreed. The company didn’t ordinarily get involved with its athletes foundations, but when executives heard about Livestrong, they immediately thought of the rubber bracelets they were testing on athletes. Nike offered to make five million emblazoned with “Livestrong.” Nike’s only objection was the color. Instead of orange, it suggested, go with yellow, like the Tour leader’s jersey.
The timing couldn’t have been better. Armstrong wore the wrist band throughout his sixth straight Tour victory, and Nike athletes sported them at the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens. In the presidential campaign that fall, John Kerry, a prostate cancer survivor, followed suit. When Armstrong appeared on Oprah and promoted the wristbands, the spike in traffic shut down Yahoo’s servers. “You can’t design that kind of ride,” Jones said.
At its peak, the foundation, which hadn’t sold anything prior to the wrist bands (its site wasn’t even equipped for e-commerce), was selling 100,000 a day. In less than two years, annual revenue rocketed from $15 million to $40 million.
As much as Armstrong’s fame was an enormous benefit then, the foundation was looking ahead and assessing the risk of being largely associated with one person. What would happen to fundraising when Armstrong retired and was no longer in the public eye? The leaders studied nonprofits built around a celebrity and saw how they were limited by his or her career. They came across as pet projects.
Livestrong–the brand the foundation didn’t even set out to create–could help it avoid a similar fate. By 2009, the foundation adopted the name that its supporters had already been using for some time. Livestrong is the rare example, Jones said, of a parent brand being overtaken by an offshoot.
It’s easy to see why. The name works in a way that few do in business or the nonprofit sector. It not only conveys the voice and personality of the organization, but it also alludes to its founder. Ulman uses it to sign off in his correspondence to supporters. Whether you hear Livestrong as a direct order, a philosophy, or simple encouragement–it’s personal. And captivating.
Don’t miss Doug Ulman at Fast Company’s Innovation Uncensored 2011 event in April.