Turning A Pink Ribbon Into a Black Mark

1 Feb

Image courtesy of Jezebel

Behold today’s lesson in how to maim a brand – a very, very valuable brand. In one fell swoop the gold-standard of non-profits trashed decades of hard work, and fund-raising efforts by millions of volunteers.

I’m not here to discuss the merits of the decision by the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation to pull funding from Planned Parenthood’s women’s health screening program. Instead let’s dissect how a decision on expenditure .2% of the foundation’s budget, that’s 2/10th of one percent, has inflicted so much damage.

First, be up front that I’ve had repeated business dealings with the foundation, going back to their first web sites. I also have a family connection, going back to when I did babysitting for Susan Komen, yes THAT Susan Komen.

So over the years it’s been a point of pride to watch the foundation Nancy Brinker worked so hard to build succeed beyond all wildest expectations. Millions of people did Race For The Cure, or the Three-Day Walk. Meanwhile the leaders of the foundation make the pink ribbon as American as baseball and apple pie. And they did with a savvy most CMOs will never approach.

If company X wanted a feel-good association with Komen, it cost real money. It wasn’t unusual for the foundation to seek $1 million or more for use of its logos. And why not? If brands wanted under the umbrella then they needed to do some good for the women Komen supported. And the foundation kept a laser-like focus on the victims of breast cancer.

In exchange, what partners and volunteers got was to share in the halo of fighting for women’s health. How could you find fault with that? Sure there were missteps, like hooking up with KFC. But the miscues were relatively minor, until now.

Like a love affair disrupted by infidelity, Komen’s bond with its base took a blow to the body with the Planned Parenthood decision. And like a lover spurned, a big chunk of the Komen base felt betrayed. But unlike a pissed off boyfriend or girlfriend, these people had a whole host of targets for their rage.

Komen tagged Energizer in this post. Energizer quickly killed the link, removing it from their wall.

Let’s take the cute Energizer bunny, a long-time supporter of the cause. The battery company had the misfortune of being at the top of the wall on Komen’s Facebook page when the crap hit the fan. So after venting at Komen, some of the more than 7,000 angry followers turned their wrath on Energizer.

“I will no longer donate or buy the pink products as I do so often just to be giving. I will give elsewhere and hope everyone joins in and gives directly to planned parenthood,” one woman wrote on Komen’s wall. Even on Komen’s message boards there are dozens of posts railing against the decision with subject lines like “Pink is the new yellow.”

Kivi, over on the Non-profit Marketing Guide blog summarized the situation quite well.

“Previously Komen stood out as a tremendous organizer and mobilizer of women across the political spectrum who would raise money like crazy for them. They kept it nice and simple, and non-controversial…”

“No more. They took a deep dive into the hot swirling waters head first (but apparently eyes shut). No matter what they do from here on out, they will be forced to pick sides, and that’s just awful for the Komen brand.”

I have no doubt the foundation will go into disaster mode quickly. Odds are they are meeting late into the night as I write this trying to figure a way out of this mess. But this is an election year, with abortion again becoming a hot button issue. No matter what Komen does it has been dragged into the political fray. That can’t be undone. Even massive staff changes won’t right the wrong for many supporters.

So put yourself in the shoes of a CMO at a consumer package goods company, or a car company, or even the NFL. How much less valuable is that affiliation with the Komen foundation today than it was last week? Think your CEO, or even the board of directors will feel good about redirecting marketing funds into a partnership now?

Last year Komen raised $270 million to fight breast cancer. By sparking a controversy over where .2% of that went the foundation will inevitably lose tens of millions of dollars. No one can feel good about that.