How Susan G. Komen For The Cure Torpedoed Its Brand

What a difference a week makes.

On Tuesday, January 31, Susan G. Komen For The Cure announced that it would not renew its grants to Planned Parenthood for breast cancer exams, claiming that it doesn't permit funding to organizations under investigation by Congress. This is equal to more than half a million dollars for low-income women who otherwise would have no options for breast cancer screening and other services.

This announcement was not made publicly, but instead communicated to Komen’s 100-plus U.S. affiliates. Quietly. A done deal. Not up for discussion. Cecile Richards, president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, got the news by phone in December, and was unsuccessful in setting up a meeting to clarify the issue with the Komen board.

Critics pointed out that the Planned Parenthood was the only organization affected by the new rule, and that the real reason was that Karen Handel, the new senior vice-president for public policy, is a self-described evangelical Christian who has stated that "I do not support the mission of Planned Parenthood." It’s hard not to see women’s health getting politicized.

And at this point you might be saying: What? Did they think people wouldn’t find out about this? Does the board of Komen not know about social media? Did they learn nothing from SOPA?

What happened next was that social media exploded. On Twitter, on Facebook, in online petitions and letters and blogs and message boards. Public figures like Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) withdrew their support for Komen. Three top officials at Komen resigned their positions. Individual Komen affiliates said they would not abide by the new rule. And 26 U.S. senators signed a letter asking Komen to reconsider its position on Planned Parenthood.

The term "backlash" is an understatement. Yet Komen’s CEO Nancy Brinker (pictured, top) insisted that the public response had been "very, very favorable."

Then the spin started. On Wednesday, Komen claimed the decision was made "in the best interests of women" (by denying poor women breast cancer screening?). And on Thursday, Brinker said that "You have to be sure you are granting to the right people."

The "right" people?" Hey, dig yourself a little deeper!

Finally, on Friday, Komen did the obvious and reversed their decision. Brinker apologized in a statement and said that the new rule would only apply to investigations that were "criminal and conclusive in nature." They didn’t promise to renew the grants, only to ensure that Planned Parenthood is eligible for them in the future. They said "sorry," but it was a not-pology.

It’s incredible that the folks who run Komen were so clueless about the effect their actions would have on a brand that’s been built over three decades. They completely ignored both the mainstream press coverage, as well as social media outcry; they chose not to communicate with their supporters, either through Facebook or Twitter, and made transparently disingenuous statements to the press, in light of information coming from former Komen employees and documentation

Will the Komen brand ever recover? Unfortunately for them, they were already getting some negative publicity for their tendency to sue anyone using the phrase "For The Cure" and the color pink for other charities. While they certainly have the right to protect their intellectual property, Komen comes off as a big bully when they start sending cease-and-desist letters to tiny charities run by individuals.

They are going to have to work long and hard to win back the masses of people who now view them as an organization driven more by politics and the personal beliefs of its executives than its concern for women’s health, in whatever form that may take. One wonders if Handel or Brinker will have to step down to effect the change. Or perhaps they’ll decide that they want to hitch their wagon to a particular ideology, and stop pretending that they aren’t pushing an agenda.

The good news out of this debacle is that Planned Parenthood has raised an enormous amount of money—nearly a million dollars, donated directly to them. You can, too, if you're so inclined.

And while you’re at it, write a letter to Nancy Brinker to let her know what you think. Perhaps someone can explain that "very, very favorable" does not mean what she thinks it means. 

Related: Planned Parenthood's Unplanned Branding Bonanza

Laurel Sutton is a partner and cofounder at Catchword, a full-service naming firm.

[Image: Flickr user Elaine]

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  • gerri hodson

     I've gone from disappointed to outraged with the tacking of the Susan G. Komen board.  They have not only wounded the brand, but nearly decimated it. This could be a textbook case for a PR class.

  • BK Phil

    Lots of angry us vs them in the comments below.

    SGK used to embody breast cancer advocacy in the minds of most people.  Without much thought, they were the go-to organization, with no perceived political identification or bias. 

    After this controversy, the curtain has been pulled back.  At a minimum, it is now known that they have a socially conservative bent, and advocate from the Right.

    That's OK on the Right - continued support and even some new support is to be expected. 

    But on the Left, and possibly in the Middle, this identification could be a barrier to continued support.  Those on the left will either seek out a new neutral player or even decide to add their weight to an organization advocating the breast cancer fight from the Left.  Those in the middle might also decide to look for a new neutral player.

    Regardless how you feel about the issues, that is probably a statistical net loss of supporters and dollars for SGK.

    In addition, all the attention will have alerted people to the inner workings of the group.  Any group - left right middle - will have internal politics and have positions that enjoy less than unanimous support.

    Now many potential supporter will have this additional complex information in their heads as they reach for the checkbook - percentage of donations that goes to overhead, membership of their board, where they stand on the alleged causes of cancer, where they stand on other social and political issues, etc. 

    This additional information may encourage some, and discourage others.  But regardless, the reflexive support they used to enjoy will be gone, replaced with a much more complex picture that will incite activist supporters and opponents, but also complicate their image among those who have no dog in the fight over Planned Parenthood. 

  • Laurel Sutton

    Well said! A big part of their brand was built on simplicity - an easy choice to support cancer research. Last week's actions have broken that part of their brand, as you say - the "reflexive support" (love that term) is gone.

  • chris wright

    Oh.. one more thing. Protecting the SGK brand. They have every right to do that. I don't care HOW small the business is. You do not license a business using any other national brands tagline. why should SGK be any different? learn business then blog. 

  • Laurel Sutton

    Did I say otherwise? Of course they need to protect their intellectual property. But one can imagine ways in which Komen could work with tiny charities, rather than immediately threatening litigation.

  • chris wright

    You're so biased its ridiculous Ms Sutton. Stop the madness. I, for one supported SGK's move to stop funding and post like mine on Facebook were abundant and equal to those that opposed it.  It seems like intellectual people understood the move to stop the funding and emotional zealots opposed it. 99% of Americans have NO idea where SGK spends its money or what direction the money goes in. As intelligent people, we should support our government when they try to investigate wrong doings in organizations; corporate or not-for-profit. Its a good thing that Planned Parenthood offers screenings to women who cannot afford it. But if they are told that they can NOT perform abortions on Federal money and they are doing so, then they are wrong. I will not condone that. investigate away!!! And SGK should not support that either. 

  • CassDawn

    so why didn't they remove their funding from penn state; who is also under investigation? 

  • Ginger Mayerson

    They're been jerks at Komen for a long time.   For example, Nancy Brinker, was the White House chief of protocol who
    wouldn't let the Obamas into Blair House a week or two earlier so the Obama girls could start school and not have to move three times, only two.  Brinker said the house that is used for incoming presidents was an incoming president.  Politics much?  Maybe a little racism, too, yes?

    Y'know, I'm not so sure this brand should recover because they suck and I'm glad the world knows about it.  The people who run it are greedy, angry, elitist, stupid, and I'm so sick of pink I could puke.   Since Planned Parenthood raised $1M on this scandal, it's time for another hipper, more tolerant and less political charity or charities to take over from the Big Pink Monster.  Enough all ready.

    This is a brilliant essay, Ms. Sutton, thank you for you intelligent opinions and highly readable prose.  I hope those of us able to appreciate you will see more of your writing in Fast Company.

  • PurdueKev

    What a one-sided, biased article.

    The Komen Foundation is "an organization driven more by politics and the personal beliefs of its executives than its concern for women’s health"?  Really??  And Planned Parenthood is not?  That this blogger can write that without any apparent trace of irony pretty much confirms where her political beliefs lie.

    One organization is dedicated to saving human life and finding a cure for a horrible disease.  The other is dedicated, at least in part, to ending nascent human life.  Sorry, but its pretty clear which group is the more noble in spirit and mission.

  • Laurel Sutton

    Yes, my political beliefs are quite left of center. I also drive a Prius.

    It is of course Komen's prerogative to deny funding to organizations that perform abortions, should their board approve this decision. Why didn't they just come out and say so, rather than claiming that it was because of the Congressional investigation?

  • Ryan Day

    1)     It's not an article, it’s
    a blog.

    2)     This is an opinion
    piece by Laurel Sutton who is not a FC writer discussing how Komen did a disastrous
    job of handing this from a PR standpoint.

    3)     I suggest that if you
    would like to discuss the morality of Komen vs. Planned Parenthood you do that
    on a religious site not one that looks at how the morality of a board member
    swayed the entire organization (aka a brand) to cut off funding of an
    organization that spend the lion share of its time on contraception and cancer
    screenings that abortions.

    4)     Any PR / Branding
    professional would tell you this is a case study in what not to do. Worse than, “new

  • Look Solutions Co.

    Thank you for great insight  on the last two days of Race for the "Cure" Brand explosion.   As a person who is in the" Branding world", I sat back and started evaluating the collateral damage with my partners early yesterday morning.   We agreed that this was not only about the cause "Finding a Cure" but how this would eventually impact the Brand that is doing much to help the cause.   Personally, all my future donations will not be made to the SGK foundation as it is now becoming clear to all that the Foundation has lost its focus and it's roots of simple advancing early detection of Breast Cancer in all Women.    As many large organizations grow the ability to bully is always there, SGK just got a huge dose of the power and the ability to mobilize fast in todays world of Social Media. 

  • Jbrown

    It's very interesting how a non-profit organization has become a brand. Maybe that's the 1st sign something is wrong. I would think a non-profit is an organization of individuals that are deeply invested in doing the right thing no matter how it is perceived. I would be concerned about giving my time and money to an organization that is so worried about their 'brand' they stop caring about doing the right thing. I'd say they've fallen victim to corporate politics within their organization and spending too much time feeding their own egos. This to me says they are too big and lost their way several years ago. So what's so wrong with a non-profit organization that cares about preserving all life? That's not such a bad brand to have.

  • Laurel Sutton

    Non-profits, like any other organizations that interact with the public, need a brand to communicate their values and mission. But the brand shouldn't overshadow the mission or alienate the very people who support that non-profit with dollars and activism. PETA is a good example of another non-profit that has placed their brand in jeopardy a number of times with their questionable publicity campaigns.

  • Ralph Haygood

    "It’s incredible that the folks who run Komen were so clueless...": Take a look at Nancy Brinker's history of political donations (, and you'll see plenty of cluelessness. In particular, she appears to have been a big fan of Mark Foley.

  • Ironman70

    After seeing this last week, I was in favor of supporting PPH directly....Regardless of your ideology, after reading this article (and doing some background snooping of my own) and understanding the corporate/sociological politics being played by SGK, I cannot imagine anyone, male or female supporting this group for another second. When the words "cease and desist" become your battle cry to save the financial coffers, not only do I think your organization is arrogant but is also a blatant d-bag. So to anyone interested or concerned, read this article, think it through, and I suspect you will feel similar to how I am reacting. Quietly imagine all of "those" things you hate about the corporate world. When you are finished you will most likely realize that SGK is now symbolizing all of them. Right down to the last "cease and desist".

  • Kevin Weiss

    So there is a link to donate to PP and a link to write a letter to Nancy Brinker, but not a link to donate to SGK?  And people in the media wonder why people outsde the media think they're biased?  Please.

  • CassDawn

    be a little weird to write an opinion that they are acting without integrity and then encourage your reader to donate, no?  

    i found a few pro-SGK blog pieces (and articles actually) - each encouraging people to write letters of support and send money to SGK.  i'm sure that you've been over to their sites delivering the same message . .. must be under a different name.