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Armstrong’s marketing brand more about fighting adversity than scandal

Astana rider Lance Armstrong of the U.S. awaits the start of the fifth stage of the 96th Tour de France cycling race between Le Cap d'Agde and Perpignan , July 8, 2009.


Part of the story of Lance Armstrong's tainted legacy is the marketing heft he built from a story of triumph over the adversity of a cancer diagnosis. He leveraged his massive public profile not only for endorsement deals but for fundraising efforts linked to his charitable foundation. Those included swings through Canada, which attracted big-name corporate sponsors from the Canadian business community, as well as executives willing to dig up large donations friends and their own pockets for the chance to ride with a legend.

They include former Research In Motion Ltd. co-CEO Jim Balsillie, who rode with Mr. Armstrong at a fundraiser in Lake Louise, Alta. in 2007, and then convinced him to go to Waterloo, Ont., hosting " The Ride With Lance " from 2008 until his last appearance in 2011 , benefitting Kitchener's Grand River Hospital (and Toronto's Sunnybrook Hospital in the first year). As "yellow jersey" sponsors, RIM, HSBC, and the Newton Glassman Charitable Foundation – the organization linked to the founder of private equity fund manager Catalyst Capital Group Inc. – each gave more than $50,000 last year.

Understandably, many of the Canadian companies connected to Mr. Armstrong through millions given to his fundraising efforts across the country feel their brands have sustained no damage through that connection – since the work he has done to fight cancer is held above the scandal.

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Dan Einwechter, CEO of Challenger Motor Freight in Kitchener, Ont., personally raised $67,205 to ride in the event alongside the cyclist. Challenger was also a local corporate sponsor. Mr. Einwechter said he was not concerned by the U.S. anti-doping agency's report released on Wednesday, which outlined testimony linking Mr. Armstrong to 'the most sophisticated, professionalized and successful doping program that sport has ever seen.' He said he did not feel the report should tarnish the work Mr. Armstrong has done in raising money to fight cancer.

"My reaction hasn't changed at all. I'm proud to have supported his causes, I'm proud to have ridden beside him. He's a world-class athlete," Mr. Einwechter said. "…I'd do it again."

The power of Mr. Armstrong's brand has been a massive draw for fundraisers across Canada. The "Tour de Lance" event at Mont Tremblant in 2010, millions came in from teams linked to HSBC, Stanton Asset Management, Labatt, and others. Mr. Armstrong's appearance at an event can bring a huge amount of value to charities – the question now will be whether some of those causes will be able to have such massively successful events without that star power.

Ian McAvity, a former competitive cyclist who participated in last year's LinkPink fundraiser in Calgary on Team CIBC, was not phased by the report. CIBC was a sponsor of the event.

"What happened in the sport has been going on for a long time in all different ways, shapes, and forms," he said. "At the end of the day, Lance has done a lot of good things for cancer research and awareness, and elevating the profile of sport in North America."

Mr. McAvity raised $4,490.00. He was attracted to the event to support the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation – the disease has touched one of his aunts and one of his uncles – as well as the chance to pedal alongside Mr. Armstrong during the 60-kilometre ride. "I thought he was an impressive guy."

At the corporate level, CIBC would not comment on the connection to Mr. Armstrong through the Calgary event. "We've been a long time sponsor of the CBCF," said senior vice-president of communications and public affairs Sharon Mather.

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"It is unfortunate that this has happened," said Steve Merker, VP of business development for Princess Margaret Hospital. "Lance has inspired millions of people to get out on the road and be healthy. He has raised the profile of the fight against cancer. You can't take that away from him."

That sentiment was echoed by some of the major U.S. brands that have attached their names to Mr. Armstrong's in rich endorsement deals in recent years as well. In August, when Mr. Armstrong announced that he would not fight the doping charges, the company that licenses his Livestrong brand to manufacture fitness equipment declared its support.

"We look forward to continuing our support of Armstrong and the Foundation as they work tirelessly to support people and families affected by cancer, especially those in underserved communities," Wisconsin-based Johnson Health Tech said in a statement at the time.

And on Wednesday, sponsor RadioShack Corp. also emphasized the charitable efforts of Mr. Armstrong.

"We recognize the serious nature of the situation and we are continuing to monitor these events closely as the process unfolds. RadioShack remains focused on our shared commitment with Livestrong and the fight against cancer," a statement read. "We don't intend to discuss this matter any further at this time."

With files from Carrie Tait in Calgary, Jacquie McNish in Toronto

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