If you haven’t worn one yourself, it’s highly likely you’ve at least seen a yellow Livestrong wristband. The ubiquitous bracelets are as much a fashion statement as they are a call for solidarity. But seven years ago, the Lance Armstrong Foundation thought the fund-raising wristband, a collaborative effort by Nike and Wieden+Kennedy, would be an absolute dud.
“First and foremost, we thought it was a terrible idea–a horrible idea,” said Doug Ulman, CEO of Livestrong, at Fast Company‘s Innovation Uncensored conference in San Francisco last week. “When Nike brought us this idea of making a yellow wristband, they said, ‘We’re going to make 5 million of them, you can sell them for $1, and you can keep the $5 million for your mission.’ We thought it wouldn’t succeed. In fact, Lance always would say, ‘What are we going to do with the 4.9 million that we don’t sell?'”
Originally, “Livestrong” was never the focus of the wristband. When Nike approached Ulman and Armstrong, who were once the subjects of Chuck Salter’s cover story on Livestrong, Nike wanted to put the company’s “Just Do It” slogan on the yellow bracelets, an attempt to relaunch Nike’s corporate marketing campaign. “We thought it sounded a little bit too co-opted by the company,” Ulman said. “About a week later the marketing team went back to Beaverton, Oregon, and they found that we had a program, a very small educational program for cancer survivors on our website that was called ‘Livestrong.’ They came back to us and said, we got it. Let’s put ‘Livestrong’ on the yellow wristbands. We thought it was better, but we still thought it was terrible.”
Only one foundation board member found the idea appealing. Shockingly, he was a venture capitalist. “Mike Sherwin [was the] one board member who said, ‘You better order more than 5 million,'” Ulman recalled. “Of course, we didn’t listen to him. But he was right.”
Since then, more than 88 million Livestrong wristbands have sold, sparking celebrity endorsements from the likes of Matt Damon and Oprah, as well as a parody knockoff from Stephen Colbert. “It’s done wonders for us. It brought a life to our cause–not our organization–but the cancer community,” Ulman said.
And despite some critics suggesting the Livestrong craze could be a fad, Livestrong is on track to sell 7 million more of the wristbands this year.
“It democratized philanthropy,” Ulman said. “Because philanthropy used to be something you did when you had money and time. And this was $1–and everybody could be a part of it.”