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Give Strong: Lance Armstrong Raises Cash and Consciousness With His Foundation’s Logoed Wristbands

By Lisa Bennett

What started as a grassroots movement by the six-time Tour de France winner and cancer survivor has not only raised mucho money and awareness with its inspiring message, the ubiquitous yellow wristbands have become the must-have accessory.

This past October, Leesa Drake finished her 63rd run in Washington, D.C., crossing the finish line of the Marine Corps Marathon. On her left wrist, her sports watch records her time; on her right wrist, her yellow LiveSTRONG™ wristband represents her commitment to helping people living with cancer.

Like many athletes, Drake, a 37-year-old consultant from Chicago, got her wristband at the launch of the Lance Armstrong Foundation’s fundraising program. Now, of course, the popular yellow bands are worn by athletes, couch potatoes, celebrities, musicians and kids alike. The yellow band that started out as a simple fund raising tool has taken on a life of its own.

“I wanted to get the wristband because of both what it represented – the battle against cancer, and also because of who it supported,” Drake says. “As a cancer survivor myself [Hodgkin's Disease - 7 years, 3 weeks and 4 days in remission, but who's counting?] I’ve been particularly interested in Lance’s battle and comeback to cycling. Being able to run marathons, even at my very amateur level, is what makes me most appreciative of my own recovery.”

Yellow Fever

As a tribute to Armstrong’s fight against cancer, the Lance Armstrong Foundation began selling yellow wristbands engraved with his mantra, “Live Strong” in an effort to raise $5 million to help people living with cancer. The fundraising effort began in May 2004 and has already surpassed the original goal, having sold over 25 million wristbands to date. The Foundation, partnering with Nike, currently has a four-week waiting list for the LiveSTRONG wristbands.

But the band has become as much a fashion statement or status symbol as it is an icon of the Lance Armstrong Foundation’s fundraising program.

The program has been such a success, according to Michelle Milford of the Lance Armstrong Foundation, that they’ve been inundated with calls from countless other charitable organizations asking where they could find the coveted yellow wristbands. “We don’t worry about other charity organizations using our idea,” says Milford. “We were lucky to have Nike’s creative genius on our side so we were the first ones to come out with a program like this. But we’re happy if the idea works for other organizations as well.”

To be sure, in recent months other causes have taken a page out of the Lance Armstrong Foundation’s book. Target and Amazon.com have partnered to offer a pink bracelet that supports the Breast Cancer Research Foundation. Styled after the Live-STRONG wristbands, its message is simple yet inspiring: “Share Beauty. Spread Hope.” And as with the yellow wristbands, demand has been overwhelming and there’s a waiting list to get the pink items.

Additionally, a U.S. soldier back from Iraq started a pen-pal program called “My Soldier” designed to get citizens from across the country to correspond regularly with troops overseas. Guess what participants in the program get? Red wristbands stamped with “MY SOLDIER.” As in the other examples, they sold out almost immediately and interest in the program is off the charts.

Pros & Cons

Armstrong himself is thrilled with the success of the program.

“I am only one of more than 10 million Americans living with and beyond cancer, so there are at least 10 million reasons why I wear my LiveSTRONG wristband everyday,” says Armstrong, the champion cyclist and founder of the foundation that bears his name. “I think the color yellow stands for hope and courage and inspiration and that’s why I’m never taking my wristband off.”

The promotion has been so successful the Foundation is partnering with Nike stores across the country to sell the bands at retail to help satisfy the overwhelming consumer demand rather than exclusively selling them on the foundation’s web site.

Collector’s sites, even e-Bay, offers the LiveSTRONG wristbands at greatly inflated prices. The proceeds from the resale don’t go to the Foundation, a testament to the fact that the wristbands are seen as much as a status symbol as they are a token of appreciation or awareness for a charitable cause.

Target and Amazon, in fact, have a disclaimer on their websites stating that they do not support or condone reselling their pink “Share Beauty. Spread Hope” breast cancer awareness bracelets because proceeds from the sales aren’t being passed along to the charity.

The Lance Armstrong Foundation acknowledges that the resale of their yellow LiveSTRONG wristbands is a problem, but admits there isn’t much they can do to stop it. Resale is a by-product of the promotion’s overwhelming success.

Giving away premium items for fundraising events is hardly a new idea. In fact, most associations give rewards to their donors with items ranging from leather portfolios or apparel to travel awards. The yellow wristband program is unique in that the donation is only one dollar.

But for a small donation, the wearer gets to identify himself with a world-class athlete who has reached global celebrity status.

Imitation Is The Best Form Of Flattery

Because the Lance Armstrong Foundation’s Livestrong fundraising program has set off a frenzy of copycat products, Christine Valento, a promotional products manufacturer, says her company started supplying wristbands in every color imaginable after one of their customers suggested that the yellow bands were not just a passing fad.

“Yes, we did come out with them as a reaction to the Lance Armstrong promotion,” says Valento. “And they have been a very successful item for us. We introduced them early on and have seen a lot of interest in these wristbands, but not just for fundraising.”

She points out that athletic teams, students and even corporations who want to promote a specific program or do team building have all used the idea of the wristband program. “And of course, the wristbands are very popular with the Generation Y (10-22 year olds) crowd who are clamoring for the next hot trend,” Valento says.

When asked why the wristband promotion has been so much more successful than other fundraising ideas, Valento acknowledges that unlike some of the other products often seen in the marketplace, the yellow wristbands are completely gender non-specific. “Besides,” she adds, “people want to identify with Lance Armstrong – he’s a famous athlete, and a survivor.”

Skeptics of the wristband program say that the sale of a trendy item can’t be counted on for sustainable growth. They point out that real fundraising takes endowment funds and long-term commitments from donors to ensure the life of the foundation.

Marnie Maxwell, a non-profit management consultant, says the Live STRONG yellow wristband program is one of the most successful she’s ever seen. “One of the most powerful features of this program is that it appeals to men as well as women,” she notes. “It’s a walking-around symbol that shows everyone you support the foundation.”

Maxwell also believes the success of the Livestrong program will most certainly inspire even more copycat promotions. “But I would be surprised if they have the traction of the yellow wristband program,” she concedes. “I’ve seen a lot of different items used for promotions in fundraising – but none as successful as this. Let’s be honest, it’s expensive to ship single coffee mugs out to donors, and people don’t walk around everywhere with them. Promotional items for fundraising events have to be small, easily mailed and useful. Besides, it’s not really about the wristband; it’s about what the wristband means. It’s about a hero who overcame incredible obstacles – that’s what you’re buying.”

The Lance Armstrong Foundation’s original goal in May 2004 was to raise a mere $5 million; today that total is over $25 million and counting. Whether it’s the yellow wristband itself, or the cool factor of the celebrity associated with the promotion, its phenomenal success is undeniable. Like its founder, the Live Strong campaign is a winner.

Reprinted with permission of Successful Promotions, copyright 2005

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