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Voices Social innovation

The power of yellow


Doug Ulman is President and CEO of LIVESTRONG. After overcoming cancer while in college, he cofounded the Ulman Cancer Fund for Young Adults with his family. Ulman served as executive director of the fund until joining LIVESTRONG in 2001. He still serves on the executive board of his family’s foundation.

The TakeawayLIVESTRONG’s ubiquitous yellow wristbands have raised tens of millions of dollars to improve the lives of cancer survivors. But more significant, they democratized philanthropy and became an early example of social networking. People anywhere, of all ages and incomes, could participate in the cause and recognize one another instantly by the silicone bands.

Lance Armstrong, perhaps the most famous cancer survivor on earth, was training for his record sixth consecutive Tour de France victory. It was the early spring of 2004 and Armstrong wanted to use this triumph to raise funds to serve fellow cancer survivors. But how? Nike came up with a bold idea. The company would produce five million silicone wristbands emblazoned with the word “LIVESTRONG” and contribute another $1 million in cash. The bands would be yellow, the color of the leader’s jersey in the Tour de France, and anyone who wanted to support Lance’s cause could buy one for $1 on his foundation’s website, promoting cancer awareness on their wrists. If all the wristbands sold, Lance’s sixth victory would raise $6 million for our Austin-based Lance Armstrong Foundation, a nonprofit devoted to improving the lives of people with cancer.

It was a novel and generous idea. Yet it met with skepticism, particularly on the part of our eponymous founder. “What are we going to do,” Lance asked, “with the 4.9 million wristbands we don’t sell?” The Foundation’s president, Mitch Stoller, saw the potential and found support from board member, Mike Sherwin, who immediately grasped the power of the idea. “We’re going to need more than five million,” he predicted.

Mike was right, of course. To our astonishment and delight, the wristbands showed up everywhere. Gold-medal athletes wore them in Athens as did presidential candidates in the United States. Soon they were spotted on the wrists of actors, musicians, and politicians on every continent. Most important, cancer survivors and the people supporting them started brandishing the yellow bands. Facing a disease long defined by secrecy and fear, they chose instead to express pride and solidarity. Today, more than 80 million bands have been sold, which has helped our comparatively small nonprofit provide critical funding for our programs and advocacy efforts.

But those numbers, impressive as they are, understate the true impact and innovation of the program. Somehow, an almost weightless piece of yellow silicone managed to democratize philanthropy. Through the power of this elegant idea, anyone with a dollar could fully participate in a global movement. Across age and income groups, geographies and cultures, the bands accelerated the transformation of philanthropy from an activity dominated by relatively few people with excess money or time into a form of expression and participation available to anyone, anywhere.

Once we decided to launch the campaign, we had to figure out what the wristbands should say. The question elicited lots of debate. Some pushed for the Nike slogan, “Just Do It,” others for the Latin carpe diem (“seize the day”). The problem was, neither of those slogans had a connection to cancer. We needed something new and focused, and we eventually decided on LIVESTRONG, the new moniker of one of our survivorship programs. LIVESTRONG quickly became for us a mantra, a rallying cry, a way of thinking, and one of the world’s best-known brands.

The launch kicked off with a traditional advertising campaign. In television spots produced by Nike, a craftsman sketched, molded, and cured a silicone wristband while Lance’s voice extolled the meaning and motivating force of the color. “Yellow wakes me up in the morning,” he said. “Yellow gets me on the bike every day.”

The TV spots sparked awareness, but the real magic occurred when the yellow bands started appearing on people’s wrists. The wristband instantly connected people. It facilitated conversations between strangers about cancer survival and hope. It was an identifier. It strengthened awareness about cancer and weakened the stigma. As such, the yellow LIVESTRONG wristband became one of the earliest forms of social networking.

Today, whether on the wrist of an advocate in Chile, attached to the Twitter avatar of a cancer survivor in the Czech Republic, or featured on a Cambodian Facebook page, theLIVESTRONG wristband continues to gather and mobilize people against cancer. It connects people in Colorado concerned about U.S. investments in cancer research to people in Cameroon worried about the growing incidence of cancer in low-income countries and to the growing numbers in China concerned about tobacco and clean air. Lance uses Twitter to communicate with his three million followers about cancer issues and to round up riders, runners, and advocates. Our 1.5 million Facebook friends vote on which Community Impact Project they would like us to fund.

Yellow is the bond they all share. Or, to borrow Lance’s line from the end of that Nike ad, “Yellow is the reason I am here.” For the millions who have joined us in the fight against cancer—on Twitter, Facebook, Capitol Hill, or elsewhere—those words still hold true.

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