Build a Brand Strong Enough to Withstand Controversy
Doug Ulman was first diagnosed with cancer as a sophomore in college. Since, he’s kicked the disease three times and become a nationally recognized leader in the fight against cancer. In 2007 he became the president and CEO of the Lance Armstrong Foundation, better known as Livestrong, which was founded in 2001. Ulman has since played a key role in creating an international movement symbolized by the ubiquitous yellow Livestrong wristbands. Ulman spoke to Inc. reporter Jillian D’Onfro about what it takes to build a powerful, stand-alone brand able to weather a barrage of controversy surrounding its front man Lance Armstrong.
What is the main message of the Livestrong brand?
The main message is empowerment. Livestrong empowers people to do something in their life. That something may be overcoming cancer, but it also may be losing weight, quitting smoking, or being a better dad. It’s an inspirational brand. It forces people to aspire to something that either they didn’t think was possible or that they didn’t have on their radar.
What went into building such a recognizable brand?
We were so fortunate to have created and developed Livestrong through months and months of focus groups with cancer survivors. They were the ones that really came up with and developed the brand initially in 2002. The whole idea of had nothing to do with Lance’s name. It was literally survivors saying “That’s what I aspire to do. I want to live strong after my cancer.” At the time, none of us knew that it was going to be that great. But now we always have that base line to go back to: real people that told us that that’s what they were wanting, and thinking, and aspiring to.
With the steroids controversy surrounding Lance Armstrong, are you worried about the brand?
I’m not. These are issues that have been going on for years that we’ve had to deal with. The reality is, the brand, the foundation, and Lance’s leadership in the cancer and social entrepreneurship space is unparalleled. We’ve got so much to do, so many people to serve, that we just keep pushing forward and serving our mission.
What have you learned about dealing with controversy?
It’s easy to be distracted. But you have to stay mission-driven and mission-focused. And that’s what we do. We talk about the controversy all the time, internally and with our supporters. But--and it sounds sort of cliché maybe--there are people all over the world that are counting on us, and expecting us to help them. If we ever lose sight of that we’ll lose our way. Everything else will be taken care of by itself.
How has social media been important to Livestrong especially now?
We, as a social movement, want to communicate in real time, in a transparent way. Twitter has allowed us to do that. It’s been so powerful as a tool, and as a way to engage with people who want to be a part of this movement who we may never meet personally. We put as few restrictions and regulations on team members as possible when it comes to social media. Let people be who they are. Respect that, and they’ll interact in a more authentic way.
What advice can you offer other businesses working on brand development?
I would encourage people, when they’re developing their brands, to stay focused on developing them in an authenticate way, as opposed to just hiring someone to go out and create a brand for you.
What do you look for in potential Livestrong team members?
We talk a lot about wanting a team that is both naïve and audacious. We’re literally naïve enough to think that we can change the world, and audacious enough to try. Those are the type of people that I want to be around: People who start with yes, yes that’s possible. If we figure out that it’s not possible, well, then we figure it out. But we start by thinking: "This is possible."
Want to learn more branding secrets from Doug Ulman? Join him and other seasoned entrepreneurs on October 3 in Phoenix for our Inc. 500|5000 conference. Visit conference.inc.com for more details.
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