Villing & Company

Manti, Lance & Chip: Cautionary Tales About the Fragility of Trust

This isn't a story about Manti Te'o. I surely don't know enough about this breaking news to comment fairly about the specifics and I doubt that anyone other than the perpetrators do.

This isn't a sports story. After all, these commentaries are intended to speak about issues relevant to marketing. There are scores of other sources for sports news and opinions.

Rather this is a cautionary tale - ripped from the headlines as NBC's Law & Order used to claim. Today's headlines focused heavily on three stories: the Manti Te'o hoax, the confession of Lance Armstrong to Oprah Winfrey and the change of heart of Oregon's Chip Kelly. Each speaks to the fragility of public trust and the impact this can have on a brand - be it a personal brand or a corporate one.

The most valuable asset a brand has is the trust stakeholders have in it. When the actions of the people who control the brand do positive things, that value increases. When actions are taken that raise uncertainty about honesty, ethics or wisdom, brand value is diminished.

As the case of Manti Te'o unfolds, the only thing certain is the high degree of uncertainty about the specifics of this story. Te'o's popularity among football fans throughout the country had achieved almost mythical status. Not only had he helped wake up the echoes of Notre Dame's reputation as a football powerhouse, he was universally perceived as a great guy - with an uncommon level of human warmth and compassion and the inspirational leader of his team. Now there is uncertainty about the truth behind this bizarrely unfolding story. I, for one, pray that when the entire truth comes out, Te'o will only be guilty of incredible gullibility. In the meantime, the uncertainty is diminishing this young man's credibility in sad and unprecedented ways. Time will tell. While it seems a bit crass to reference an individual like Te'o as a brand, that is exactly what he is. And that brand, if not his NFL draft status, has been devalued.

I have less sympathy for Lance Armstrong. While no one can question the incredible good he did for the cause of fighting cancer, he repeatedly lied about using illegal means of gaining an unfair competitive advantage. Years of deceit will never be erased by a televised repentance. Although the American public is by and large prone to forgiveness, I believe Armstrong's penance will be a lifetime of distrust. To some degree, he devalued the Livestrong brand. He absolutely destroyed the Lance Armstrong brand.

Perhaps the Chip Kelly's on again, off again, on again romance with the NFL is the least significant in this trilogy of caution. Being a high profile coach is, after all, a business. And everyone in business presumably has the right to look at ways to improve their stature or financial quality of life. But to repeatedly mislead his recruits and players, the University of Oregon administration and fans and the public at large about his intentions speaks to his lack of character.  Still another example of a personal brand that has been seriously devalued.

Organizational brands seldom get the kind of coverage that sports celebrities do. But the lessons are the same. Brand trust is hard to achieve. Once it has been devalued, it is even harder to rebuild.

Filed Under: branding

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