"It wasn't possible to win clean." Thus spoke Lance Armstrong in his interview with Oprah Winfrey. The implication being that 'it is okay to cheat, providing you win, and do not get found out'. Look at that in relation to the line that has made one of his ex-sponsors, Nike, an iconic brand with its 'Just Do It' slogan.
Suddenly that line has a whole new meaning that Nike doesn't want. Armstrong's statement implies that he crossed the line between wanting to be better at his sport in order to win, and winning at any cost. That the winning became more important than the sport itself.
This type of attitude posses a difficult problem for sponsors. Do they want to be associated with what the sport represents, or just with winning? Of course in a perfect world you want both. But there can only be one winner, and in today's world of global brands and global media-saturated sport that values winning and winners above all else, then this logically says that everyone else is, to use the phrase, 'a loser', something whose meaning has a much wider cultural and social defining role that just the association with sport. It is part of the mythology of modern capitalist life, which relates to "this mythic, perfect story", as Armstrong put it.
The mystique of the modern sports star readily translates to the perfect story of family life, particularly if the star is a male, the modern version of the white knight warrior.
In this context one wonders what sports brands might have paid for Joe DiMaggio, both during his playing days and when he sought to help Marilyn Monroe at the end of her life. In this day and age would DiMaggio have been a better bet than Tiger Woods or other modern day sports stars?
Armstrong, DiMaggio, and Woods are all products of that mythology, one where 'when the legend becomes fact, print the legend.' So if the rising one time winner turns into a seven-times winner how much more are the sponsors and the fans pulled into 'printing the legend', without wanting to know how the legend came about?
Sponsors and fans want the same thing - that euphoric mix of success and stylistic power, encapsulated in that heady moment of bliss as their winner crosses the line, their team touches down or their hero puts the ball into the opponent's net.
Here is the place the sponsor should want to be, as the sponsorship brand promise and sporting endeavour merge into that moment of success, personified by the sports star that made it possible. This climatic moment is what differentiates sponsorship from advertising. The latter comes wrapped up, explicitly informing you of what it is, via the framework of how it appears, on the billboard, the press space or in the commercial break, and by the way the content is formulaically set out, with specific devices designed to engage the consumer. Brand sponsorship material in its static form is often a weakened static manifestation of this, a 'mini me' version of advertisements, but which is not as effective as advertising, not conveying what should be inherent in how to use sponsorship as a unique marketing communications device.
Sponsorship is only truly effective when the sponsored content it is attached to becomes dynamic and catalytic as the inherent values of the brand and sponsored content fuse together, in that climatic moment of sporting achievement. If this happens then the afterglow of this fusion creates a residue long tail that, if managed successfully by both sponsor and sponsored brands, can strengthen the consumers' association with both brands.
The problem is that sponsorship is often just seen by the sponsor brand as merely another way of gaining commoditised marketing exposure, whilst to the sports brand it is just another strand of a multifarious income dream. Used like this sees sponsorship as a marriage of convenience and not a merging of mutual brand emotions.
This is particularly so when the sports brand is an individual, and where that individual's toxic behaviour runs counter to what the sponsor brand wants to convey. Can this be avoided? Well, how much of a sports star's sponsorship income goes into making them a better sports performer, as against into their lifestyle? Perhaps this should be part of a contract.
Certainly if I was Armstrong's sponsors I would be asking how much of their money went on making him a better cyclist, and how much went on fueling the doping and drug test avoidance. Indeed in the aftermath of the Oprah interviews when it is being asked who else knew, it might be better if the sponsor brands were actively being seen to ask this, rather than just hoping in a perverse way that the bond between their brands and Armstrong was just poor commoditised marketing, and not a distinctive communication of jointly shared brand values.