Brand autopsy: Komen and Planned Parenthood


Just in the last 48 hours, the breaking news on this brand implosion continues with more twists and turns than a corkscrew roller coaster at Six Flags. In the time between when I planned to write this post and now, the saga between Komen and Planned Parenthood experienced backlashes, reversal, backlashes to the reversal and social media chatter enough for us brand strategists to be talking about this for years. So how did the two brands fare?

To fill you in, The Susan G. Komen Foundation, champions of the Pink Ribbon breast cancer awareness campaign (previously one of the best non-profit branding successes known to man) decided to pull their grant for breast cancer screenings at Planned Parenthood. The cover story was that they would not fund any organization under investigation. Problem was, PP was only under investigation as a result of right-wing conservative politicos looking to score.

Social media channels lit up like a house on fire. Facebook posts, Tweets amplified the backlash of many supporters who pulled their funding and support from Komen for caving to politics. Local Komen affilates in several states distanced themselves from HQ and vowed to continue their support. Even NYC mayor Michael Bloomberg pledged $250K directly to Planned Parenthood in protest.  Angry donors directed their donations to PP and the organization raised over $900,000 in support in the last few days as a result – enough the cover all of the lost grant and then some.

The revolt has been successful. Komen announced a reversal of their decision today.

Or did they? According to some reports, Komen still does not explain clearly why it withdrew it’s support in the first place, perhaps to hide political motivations. Komen is now saying that besides being under investigation, the group did not want to fund “pass through” organizations anymore. (PP refers out for mammograms and such). So the story seems to have changed. And from what I’m seeing on social media, people are still standing firm that they will no longer support Komen now, regardless.

Talk about a brand train wreck. What can we learn from this:

1) Public Perception Wins: Komen enjoyed an extremely loyal fan base for their brand. People that would walk 60 miles in 3 days, raise money and make huge donations. When this powerful base got angry, shock waves were felt all over the world. Didn’t matter how Komen tried to spin it – people saw what was happening for themselves. I can’t speak with certitude about whether this was or was not politically motivated, but all indications are that it was.

2) Never Forget your Mission: Komen was dedicated to women’s health and cancer prevention for all. People are not sure what the hell they stand for now. Komen pulled “grants that totaled roughly $680,000 last year and $580,000 the year before, going to at least 19 of its affiliates for breast-cancer screening and other breast-health services.” And I would guess much of this was for low-income women. Help me understand why that’s not worthy of support? (PS, Can everyone finally get their facts straight and understand that only 3% of PP’s services are related to abortion? Most of their services are for cancer screening and prevention (16%), contraception (35%) and STD testing and treatment (35%). See infographic (courtesy of





3) Your Brand is Never Bulletproof: I suspect Komen thought they could bow to political pressure, slap a coat of integrity over it (“we can’t support organizations under investigation” – even if a bogus investigation) and their Pink brand would be so powerful, it wouldn’t matter. Mightier folks have fallen from such thinking. What makes it worse is this is a mission-based organization. The power was not in the pink ribbons, 3-day walks and trademarks – it was in rallying people to support a cause that transcends politics. What makes people so angry is that a women’s health organization dedicated to saving lives couldn’t even rise above that pressure and take a stand.

4) If you’going to lie to your loyal supporters (customers), at least be creative and consistent: OK, this one is just my own personal commentary on the brand damage. I digress.

Planned Parenthood, however, got a brand boost from all this and is basking in the afterglow of this backlash. They came off extremely classy. Here was Planned Parenthood’ president’s humble and gracious response  to the reversal:

We are enormously grateful that the Komen Foundation has clarified its grantmaking criteria,” Richards said. “What these past few days have demonstrated is the deep resolve all Americans share in the fight against cancer.” (WSJ)

I honestly don’t know if the Komen brand can bounce back from this doozy. Now that some of their true colors have been revealed, their trademark pink seems to look a little dingier today than it was two days ago.

And sadly, the only losers in all of this will be women fighting for a cure.

Do you think Komen’s brand can bounce back? Do you still support the brand or not? Please share in the Comments below (and please keep the discussion civil and related to brand – thanks!)



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  1. says

    I posted on my personal blog several days ago, at I am a two time Komen 3Day Walker, but my decision and donation was made the day the news came out. My 2012 donation went to support the continuance of those screenings at PP.

    The Komen brand has been tarnished. Many survivors/walkers/runners will still see Komen as the most powerful organization they can align with to raise money. Others will never trust the organization again, in particular because of the interviews that Nancy Brinker did right up into last evening.

  2. Red Slice says

    Thanks Annie – and a powerful and poignant blog post you posted. Very telling that someone like yourself who has been so involved feels disappointed and hurt. I really believe this will be something Komen may never come back from. And given the strong ties to conservative and anti-abortion groups, I guess none of us should be surprised that this conflict of interest was bound to rear its ugly head sooner or later:

  3. suzette sommer says

    I was shocked by the details about Komen that came out due to this. I had no idea their use of donors’ funds was so poor, how little goes to research and treatment and prevention, vs other uses.

    I am a huge fan of Planned Parenthood, but even beyond that, I no longer want to support walkers for Komen. If someone asks me to donate for that now, I will decline and I will tell them why. There are other cancer fighting charities which make much better use of donors generosity. I’ll encourage people to support those who walk the walk, not just talk the talk.

    I won’t waste my time buying sponsors pink products any more, either.

  4. says

    Another interesting offshoot from this: now people are looking at Komen’s charity rating, and their relatively high overhead. Even if the PP situation dies down, their tarnished image is now inviting more scrutiny than even before.

  5. Chryssa says

    I have been a long-time PP supporter, and one of my good friends is a staunch (still) Komen supporter. If I am going to donate my money it will be directly to the Breast Cancer Research Foundation, not to Komen. People are free to decide where their money goes, but I’d rather see it go directly to the source.

  6. Red Slice says

    Thanks Suzette. Yes, this will impact everyone associated with Komen, as many people like you will stop supporting the products and brands associated with the Pink Ribbon. Like you said, there are other worthwhile places to donate to, and I hope people take the money they would have spent with Komen and at least still support other orgs rather than stop giving towards the fight for a cure altogether.

  7. Red Slice says

    Thanks Chryssa. That is a great point I should have stated in the post. Komen is free to give grants to whomever they want, but we are also free to support whomever we want. Works both ways and they will feel that brand backlash for a while, I would bet.

  8. says

    I will not support Komen in the future. I am highly distrustful of them now. And the fact that they their reason (organization under investigation) didn’t hold water because at least two other organizations they gave to were being investigated as well, including one whose staff are being accused of sexual abuse of children. The real problem is credibility now. I just son’t believe them anymore.

    And I may be looking at this through a fundraising lens (I was a grants consultant who specialized in grant requests to corporations and private foundations), but the stats that have since come out regarding their salaries and overhead are troubling to say the least. What is puzzling to me is that a sponsor/donor as large as Bank of America would write checks without scrutinizing their income vs expenses data. Either that, or they looked at it and chose to ignore it. I think that this may be the tip of the iceberg as far as misplaced donor trust. It will be interesting to see this unfold.
    Judy Dunn recently posted..I Just Got a Warm Hug from Larry Brooks and He Wants to Give You One, TooMy Profile

  9. says

    Great piece Maria. This was a huge black eye for Komen, going to be hard to bounce back. Especially as more fact come to the surface. I heard a disturbing statistic about how much of their donations actually go to causes, but since I haven’t verified it I won’t repeat it here. All that to say that they really misread their audience and I agree that it was sheer hubris to think they could sneak this by their community.
    Bridgette Boudreau recently posted..Turning the CornerMy Profile

  10. says

    Maria, a great post. Yep…another marketing blooper…one of many in the last 6 months: Isn’t it interesting to see the criteria management uses when making critical decisions? First comes personal management agendas, political influences followed by religious dictates and way, way down the line comes the end-user. Hmmm. Perhaps Komen got exactly what it deserved.

    I also think it is interesting to watch how upper management continues to stub its toes on how our world operates today. The old days of sitting in cushy offices making questionable decisions behind closed doors just isn’t possible nor is it advisable. With social media, the power rests with consumers and users. Ignore them and there are consequences…real consequences.

    Thanks for the discussion, Maria.

  11. Red Slice says

    I have heard this from more than one source as well, Bridgette, and need to check it out for myself. Thanks for your feedback.

  12. Red Slice says

    Hi Judy, to echo your point and Bridgette’s they may have opened themselves up to unwanted transparency. Maybe this is a good thing, since their financial operations may start to come to light and if there are issues, they can be called out. Perhaps they enjoyed the halo of the pink ribbon for too long.

  13. Nicole says

    The websites I know to check charity ratings are and I am sure there are a few others as well.

  14. Dana says

    I think and hope that the brand will be tarnished for good – I seem to have developed a distaste for pink anything in the last 48 hours. It’s time people start becoming aware of where the money really goes. Follow the money… Nancy Brinker (Susan G. Koman’s sister and CEO of the org.) 2010 salary was $459,406 a year, according to Wiki. And Brinker says that the whole PP debacle wasn’t political – give me a break! Karen Handel lost the Georgia gubernatorial election just prior to accepting the Koman position – during that race, her stance as a ‘pro-lifer’ was clearly known. Interestingly enough — we’ll have to wait until March when the organization files their taxes, to learn what her salary is as it’s not presently available. Shameful manipulation of money and people. I will give directly to Planned Parenthood and not be “pink-washed” by the false integrity of this organization.

  15. says

    As a marketing and graphic design professional, I believe that the Susan B. Komen Foundation has done a terrific job at bringing awareness and funding to the breast cancer cause. However, their blunders these past few days makes me think that they, as an organization, has lost its way. Leadership forgot their mission, vision, as well as their audience. Non-profit organizations forget they not only answer to their board, but their donors as well. They forgot this critical population of their stakeholders to their own determinant.

    As a canine cancer advocate and Chase Away K9 Cancer Ambassador, I am appalled at the high overhead that the foundation accumulates annually. Maybe this is a wake up call for organizations like Charity Navigator to hold 501(c)3’s at a higher standard as well as donors to be more diligent in researching organizations before allocating funds.

    We are building Chase Away K9 Cancer’s infrastructure so that volunteers are empowered to raise funds with minimal overhead. One who think that Susan B. Komen would want to do the same. I am proud to say we funded over half a million dollars in research over the last 5 years. I understand that not every organization can be like Chase Away, but I hope more organizations will now be more diligent with their funds knowing that donors, like Susan B. Komen’s, will let their voice by heard very publicly.

    Brains on Fire, a branding firm in South Carolina, wrote a great book about branding movements and empowering stakeholders while holding true to your vision. Check it out for yourself and maybe send a copy to the Susan B. Komen Foundation. They could use the help.

  16. Red Slice says

    Thanks for the insight Dana – and the book recommendation (and the book endorsement for me!) Cheers.

  17. says

    An interesting side note to this whole debacle is the corporate sponsors of Susan G. Komen. Can you imagine how Energizer feels being promoted as a sponsor of SGK just before the shit hit the fan? Their Facebook page is filled with comments from people saying they will not buy Duracell products until they disassociate with SGK. Check out Yoplait’s Twitter stream and you’ll see the same thing (though they were brilliant at responding and setting up a FB tab for fans to vent their frustration).

    If I was a corporation, I would think long and hard about associated with this brand now because the damage has been done. Whereas the pink was a natural choice before – “sure, I’ll buy the Gillette razors instead of the other brand because they help fund breast cancer research” – I don’t think women will be as inclined to do that anymore. Before it was a feel-good thing, and now it is tarnished and partisan.

    You have only to look at the list of corporate sponsorships on their website to see how many will think twice about remaining on that page. (I tried linking to it, but the page is not coming up for me now – I’m sure their website is flooded today)

    I think this is going to make a huge impact on their corporate sponsorships for a long time to come.
    Betsy Talbot recently posted..Living the Good Life Requires MovementMy Profile

  18. says

    Great post! I don’t think anyone thought of the pink ribbon as partisan before this week; and from now on Komen will never be able to separate their brand from politics. What a shame! If you haven’t joined Dr. Susan Love’s Army of Women please look into it. One of the toughest parts of research is finding subjects that fit the study profile. Army of Women sends the descriptions so you can volunteer to be a subject or refer someone in your network who fits the profile if you don’t. I love being a part of the Army of Women because it feels like something you can DO to fight breast cancer! My heart goes out to all the women who have walked, and raised money for Susan G. Komen, who may still be fighting the good fight against this disease and have lost a champion. Don’t give in, don’t give up — lots of other women are supporting you.

  19. says

    I have in the past supported Komen somewhat vicariously through in kind donations and volunteering. I do, however, make many donations and do considerable fundraising for other organizations and other cancers. I honestly have never been a huge Komen fan. Too much of the money they bring in is spent on marketing the brand, which worked for them largely. The statistics when I had checked last were that only 50% of their fundraising actually went to cancer care and prevention while the other half was administrative. That’s not a great average.

    Regardless, I signed every petition I could find this week which urged them to reverse their decision. I stated my withdraw of support. Frankly, I think that may stand. I will be weary of giving them my money in the future. I would also rather fund PP and other organizations like Young Survivors Coalition where I can see this money making a difference. Most of my support throughout the year goes to the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. Those other organizations are being far more responsible with our money, as far as I can tell.

    Very poor form on Komen’s part. I’m still disgusted.

    Furthermore, I’m tired in general of Companies making large political contributions with money I’ve paid on bills. ATT is an example of this. I’ve been a customer of their’s for a long time, and I’m under contract again having upgraded my phone last year. I was very frustrated to learn that they make huge contributions to the Republican party. It’s not like deciding to buy a different yogurt or battery brand next time, I’m stuck with them until my contract is up or until I decide to pay the fee to cancel it. I want to choose companies by service and price. Though now it seems more and more choosing by political affiliation is factor.

    @Betsy Talbot, those are great points about the affiliated brands. I see considerable backlash from this end of their partner support in the future as well.
    Nicole recently posted..Zion is Here!My Profile

  20. Carole Sanek says

    What I would like to say is this – while everyone is bashing what appears to be a poor decision – jury is out in this house because NONE of us here know what really happened, why is it that no one is writing about the good that SGK is responsible for funding? Not just PP which I do support. Let me give you one example – I have 4 but I will give you one……..I have a huge number of Stage IV friends who are still walking this earth because of Aromatase Inhibitor research. My best friend is one of them. What I find deplorable in this entire debacle is how no one seems to want to talk about the good that has been done – it hasbecome so easy to judge and so hard to defend and that really is very sad. I am not saying what SGK did this week was right and one of your postings here was spot on – PP vouchers out mammograms in most cases – this was a case of bad decisions and bad branding for SGK but I will still walk the 3 Day in Boston this year because I am part of a team and I don’t let my team down.

  21. Beatriss Scatolakis says

    I have lived in Dallas, TX. since the inception of the Susan G. Komen Foundation. For many years I have contributed as I watched friends confront breast cancer and die. More survive now than ever I believe. I always felt as though my money was going to support a good cause. Now this foundation is embroilled with the Religious Right (which is neither), has sullied its reputation and further tarnished its integrity by backtracking, all the while never being forthright about the root cause of their initial decision. We are not stupid. That is why the backlash was swift and powerful. Some large corporate donors are opting to withhold funding until Komen does a housecleaning at the top. It is time. The leadership with integrity hit the doors the day the litigiously sanitized manifesto hit the press. No more of my money is going to Komen until there are some major changes. There are plenty of other women’s programs I can sponsor.

  22. Behdad says

    It’s not just PP though, they also pulled funding from places doing embryonic stem cell research. as well as other many websites….Google ‘komen defunds embryonic stem cell research’ and see what turns up. I mean, I’m not advocating for or against embryonic stem cell research here, but to defund the research and then toss funding for PP out as well………it raises some serious questions.

  23. says

    Thoughtful analysis of the branding issues, Maria. It will be interesting to see whether Komen makes any substantive changes, beyond shuffling a few board members (i.e. Karen Handel). One thing is for sure: Komen’s shiny pink ribbon is looking a bit dirty and frayed.

  24. Red Slice says

    Thanks so much Carole for your viewpoint. Very true that they’ve done a lot of good. I’m glad you shared your view that you will still support the organization -and best of luck with your walk!

  25. Red Slice says

    Sadly, yes it is. Thanks Elisabeth. And thanks everyone for your opinions and take on all of this.

  26. says

    Yes, it has certainly been interesting to watch this all play out! For me personally, this is something I won’t be able to forgot when considering any future support of Komen. If an organization is so inconsistent and swayed by public opinion to one day act in opposition to its own mission and then the next day recant, why would I want to give of my time and money to that particular organization when there are so many other deserving organizations out there?

  27. Margaret says

    The power was not in the pink ribbons, 3-day walks and trademarks – it was in rallying people to support a cause that transcends politics.Problem was, PP was only under investigation as a result of right-wing conservative politicos looking to score.
    Margaret recently posted..vigrx plus reviewsMy Profile

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