Race for the Komen Cure

February 23, 2012

Rebecca Devine

The Komen v. Planned Parenthood drama that played out earlier this month will be a marketing case study for the ages.  For 30 years, the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation has been the gold standard of corporate sponsorship, trademarks, swag, alliances and feel good visibility in the battle against cancer.  After announcing the decision […]

Nancy Brinker, founder and CEO of Susan G. Komen for the Cure (Haraz N. Ghanbari - AP)

The Komen v. Planned Parenthood drama that played out earlier this month will be a marketing case study for the ages.  For 30 years, the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation has been the gold standard of corporate sponsorship, trademarks, swag, alliances and feel good visibility in the battle against cancer.  After announcing the decision to withdraw funding from Planned Parenthood, the once untouchable pink ribbon had millions of consumers seeing red and embroiled the organization in a political morass from which it may never fully recover.

The about-face in public sentiment says a lot about how quickly social media chatter can subsume even the strongest of brands.  (Read Kate’s post on the McDonald’s #McStories campaign for an example).  But it also demonstrates how dangerous it can be for nonprofits with a macro mission (preventing cancer) to naively insert themselves into the political fray.  Komen, who must have weighed the pros and cons before making their decision, nevertheless appeared flatfooted, issuing a series of inconsistent, slow and seemingly sterile responses.  The backlash was immediate, bringing an association once known for its ubiquitous pink merchandize and walks into a lightning round debate around abortion, women’s rights and a highly politicized Presidential nomination process.  Komen quickly reversed their decision and reinstated Planned Parenthood. The Vice President who more or less led the effort resigned shortly thereafter.

The issue Komen faces now is not whether or not they responded poorly to a crisis, but how the issue impacts the cause and the brand moving forward.   Until now, Komen had succeeded in staying out of controversial women’s health care issues.  Everyone can get behind pink ribbons, well-publicized events, stories of survival, and fighting the Big C.  By withdrawing their financial support for Planned Parenthood, they seemed to be taking a stand, which is dangerous ground for them to be on. Instead of pink power and races for the cure, Komen will now be associated with a divisive political issue that is only going to detract from its core mission.

To be clear, Komen is in no danger of going away.  Their network, brand power alliances and fundraising capabilities continue to make them one of the most powerful nonprofits in the world.  However, their star now burns a little less brightly and casts a long shadow.  Whether that translates into sponsorship dollars remains to be seen, but you can be sure Komen’s moves will be closely watched both the left and right in the months and years ahead.