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!)


Please note: If you found this article while looking for cancer care resources, here’s one I might suggest. Family Assets is a senior care site and they published an in-depth guide on how care-takers and families can support their loved ones. Check out their guide here.

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