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Stepping Back From Komen’s Brand Disaster

Now that the dust has settled on the Susan G. Komen Foundation’s disastrous and embarrassing handling of their partnership with Planned Parenthood, it’s a good time to take a step back and understand how an organization that does so much right could have gotten this one so wrong.

As pretty much everyone knows, Komen found themselves at the center of a classic self-made PR disaster when they caved to perceived liability over their support of a staunch, traditional ally, Planned Parenthood. After first trying the silent treatment, Komen hit the self-destruct button with classic tone-deaf, foot-in-mouth crisis management, posting a defensive video that predictably went viral—and not in a good way. An already enflamed base was sent to the tipping point and took to the streets, while several of Komen’s board members resigned in protest.

Game. Set. Match.

Sure enough, cue Komen’s tail-between-the legs act of brand contrition, and what you have left is a trail of disillusioned advocates (one of them even hacked the nonprofit’s website) and a loss of brand equity that’ll be felt for years to come.

In any brand disaster such as this,

1. Komen prioritized nonprofit fundraising ahead of nonprofit brand value

When nonprofits fail to respect their brand by making decisions that fly in the face of what makes it valuable, the results are predictable. Komen made the classic mistake of putting short-term priorities ahead of the long-term value of their brand. With $9.3 billion in grants, Komen decided that $700,000 to Planned Parenthood posed too great a risk when Planned Parenthood had become increasingly politicized in recent years. The logic is solid really: a grant equalling about .6% of our total has the potential to alienate a large percentage of our most valuable donors….let’s cut off our arm to save the body.

And therein lies the trap. Nonprofits have a serious need to focus on fundraising, and its seductive to chase them just like for-profit companies chase quarterly earnings targets. But like so many nonprofits, they underestimated the value of their brand and focused on fundraising, and politics (which we’ll get to), instead.

2. Komen put personal politics ahead of the mission

Prior to Komen’s implosion, few knew that Nancy Brinkley is cozy with power brokers of the Republican establishment and has been a longtime, prominent donor to the party. Well, now they do! Well-known backstory is that recent piling-on against women’s rights via Planned Parenthood likely created serious liability for Komen with many who are likely close friends of Brinkley’s on the Right.

The decision to pull the plug on Planned Parenthood alone shattered Komen’s credibility and trust with thousands, if not millions of their most staunch supporters. But in exposing that the root of the decision was political expediency, they’ve raised a whole different kind of awareness than just breast cancer. Countless women and men who support women’s rights, and particularly, reproductive rights, now know that Komen’s leadership is not only aligned with, but also financially supports the very political party that’s been on an all-out assault to strip women of their right to choose.


3. Komen took the loyalty of its audience for granted

Nonprofits live on the impassioned, selfless support of their audience to make their missions a reality. When you understand the wheels that set Komen’s self-inflicted wound in motion, you realize how terribly they underestimated what happens when you take that kind of brand passion and loyalty for granted. It’s not surprising that a screw-up of such colossal proportions would originate from the top. The higher up you go, the more removed you are from the glue that makes the brand work. And in the case of a nonprofit, the glue is the support of people who give of themselves because they so firmly believe in the cause—and a nonprofit’s brand is the symbols of those causes. Cause-driven brands aren’t like products that we can find a substitute for. They represent our deepest ideals and passions. That Komen failed to see how terribly their decision would play out points to a lack of respect not only for the brand, but also deep cynicism regarding what Komen’s brand really means to the millions who support it.

What Komen learned the hard way, and I’m sure they had this drilled into their heads during the countless branding exercises they’ve undertaken over the years, is “your brand isn’t what you say you are, it’s what they say you are.” It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been in the game, losing sight of what your direct mission is and who your audience is, have severe repercussions on your brand value.

About the Author

Matthew Schwartz

Matthew Schwartz

For the last 23 years, Matt has specialized in brand strategy and digital design, focusing his passion for social and environmental issues to help organizations achieve greater impact. As Constructive’s leader, Matt plays an active role in collaborating with clients and our teams to develop strategies and design brand experiences that increase mission focus and deepen audience engagement. A frequent writer and speaker, Matt is a regular contributor to The Foundation Center, Communications Network, and other organizations. His work has been recognized for excellence by numerous organizations such as The Webbys, Communication Arts, Print Magazine, The Case Awards, Graphic Design USA, The W3 Awards, The Communicator Awards, and others. Matt earned his Bachelor’s Degree from Sarah Lawrence College in Writing & Visual Arts. He then conducted post-graduate design studies at the School of Visual Arts, Rhode Island School of Design, and Parsons.

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