Livestrong’s Doug Ulman concluded his talk at SXSW Interactive on Monday by asking everyone in the audience who has survived cancer to stand up. Then he asked everyone who had a family member affected by cancer to stand up, and finally, everyone who had lost a family member. I stood up and remembered my mom. When I looked around the room there were so many of us standing.
It wasn’t a stunt. Doug did it to get us past focusing on the brand crisis Livestrong is facing, and help us remember the real crisis they’re fighting every day—that the reason they do what they do is to help people facing cancer. Also, to illustrate that Livestrong’s survival plan for getting through the crisis is to remind audiences of just that.
Doug, himself a 15-year cancer survivor, had spoken at SXSW last year about social media’s potential to help cure cancer, and how the “Lance Armstrong” bracelet was truly the original social network. I was inspired…by the man and the mission of Livestrong and wrote about it on Adlibbing. This year he spoke about resiliency.
Doug and the staff at Livestrong were given only six days to prep for the Oprah interview after learning the truth about Lance. They decided the best approach was to focus on their cause and not the brand, reminding people about the mission of Livestrong by using some of the same tools of survivorship that they know all too well. Here’s what they did.
They were transparent and direct, over-communicating to the media, sponsors, constituents and consumers. They didn’t hide or run or deny. Livestrong put out a statement on the day Oprah’s interview aired, expressing both disappointment and gratitude. A Facebook post the next day talked about how “Livestrong isn’t about one person. It’s about the millions of people facing cancer who need support as they fight the toughest battles of their lives.”
Make it Personal
They started to change the dialogue and shift it to what was most important. Everything they did from a marketing and communications standpoint talked about the people they served and Livestrong’s positive impact on their lives. You can’t get more powerful than real-life third party stories. Survivors talked poignantly in video and written testimonials. In one video a woman named Sarah spoke about how she survived breast cancer twice and had to remove her ovaries, but still desperately wanted children. Livestrong helped her through her journey and she eventually had a child through IVF. She said, “Livestrong made what I thought impossible possible,” to which Doug added, “Nothing in the cycling world had anything to do with Sarah.”
The Livestrong staff also wanted an opportunity to speak out. A video camera was set up the day after Oprah’s interview to capture the staff passionately talking about why they work there. One woman stated, “We’re not about the disease, we’re about the people.”
In the coming weeks, Livestrong is launching a new campaign with Nike that, for the first time, will feature the faces of cancer survivors instead of celebrities, alongside the tagline: “Fight With Us.”
Increase Program Support
The organization doubled down on investments in their products and services so they could help more people. One example undertaken this week through their community action project allows people to vote on how Livestrong will award $1.2 million in grants to local programs.
Think about Branding
Without a doubt, the Livestrong brand has become bigger than the organization itself. They created a new logo, keeping the ubiquitous yellow that has become so readily associated with cancer, but adding the word “foundation” in black to highlight the entity.
Only in the Q&A did Doug address his personal relationship with Lance. He said Lance is a good friend who apologized and that he’s forgiven him. Doug is also grateful to him for being given the opportunity to lead Livestrong. Lance is still the founder and single biggest donor.
Doug’s biggest frustration surrounding the Armstrong fallout is how Livestrong’s credibility has been called into question by the media for something the staff had nothing to do with, and the attention it’s taken away from the real mission and motives behind the organization.
He acknowledged that Livestrong still has a long way to go to regain the trust of the public and the foundation’s supporters. It may take months, or even years. But while this has been an incredibly challenging time for Doug, both personally and professionally, it pales in comparison to the experience of being diagnosed with cancer. He reminded the audience that 1 in 2 men and 1 in 3 women will face cancer in their lifetime. And, Doug made sure to add, if you know someone who’s been diagnosed, you can go to livestrong.org/wecanhelp.