February 03, 2012
Komen, Planned Parenthood and Branding
Posted by Christine Hurt

The last few days have seen a firestorm of protest on social media outlets such as Facebook and Twitter due to the decision of the Susan G. Komen for the Cure foundation to eliminate grant funding to Planned Parenthood for breast cancer screening.  I saw both sides of this controversy as branding problems.

Ten, fifteen years ago, Komen was building a very successful brand.  Consumers generally thought of Komen as the charity started by the sister of a young woman who lost her fight with breast cancer and the charity that hosts the 5K Race for the Cure fun runs.  (I myself placed 3rd in my age group in the 1995 Lubbock, Texas Race for the Cure.)  In the past decade, Komen has become a wildly successful charity, licensing its "pink ribbon" logo to numerous types of consumer products, flooding the month of October in pink.  (I myself have a Dyson pink ribbon vacuum.)  But, Komen has been involved in several PR crises.  First, consumer groups, crying "pinkwashing," criticized Komen for taking money from firms to put the pink ribbon on products that may be unhealthy (KFC) or even carcinogenic (perfume with known carcinogens, yogurt with hormones).  Then, Komen was criticized for vigorously defending its "race for the cure" trademark against small charitable groups raising money for various cancers and other diseases.  These controversies have spawned various anti-Komen websites and a new documentary on the politicization of breast cancer awareness, Pink Ribbon, Inc.

The decision to cut off funding to PP poses another branding threat to Komen.  PP is a health care provider to millions of women, mostly women with lower incomes.  Komen risks being seen as interested in breast cancer health of women who have their own gynecologist, have health insurance, eat Yoplait, do fun runs and have Dyson vacuum cleaners.  Komen officials have couched the decision in terms of "new granting writing guidelines" and not giving grants to organizations "under investigation," but pretty much everyone agrees that the decision was made because of PP's abortion services, either out of donor pressure, political pressure or the preferences of senior officers there.

This leads to PP's branding problem.  PP wants the world to know that this decision affects its efforts to provide breast cancer screenings, a major service it provides.  Abortion procedures constitute 3% of its services.  (Screening for STD's, birth control and cancer screenings are its big three services.)  But, many equate the name "Planned Parenthood" with abortion, possibly because PP performs about 25% of abortions in the U.S. (330,000 out of 1.2 million, according to the census).  But, PP provides many other critical health care services, mainly to those with lower incomes who don't have private doctors or private insurance.  But, PP definitely doesn't downplay abortion on its websites and even seems to highlight it.  Abortion is generally listed first in categories or lists of its services -- which are in alphabetical order.  A commercial firm would highlight its big stuff.  Now, politically, the folks at PP may want to keep it at the front, to make a point that it isn't hiding its abortion services, that abortion is legal and not a back-alley business, etc.  But, if it wants to present itself as a full-service health care provider for women, then PP might want to highlight its bread-and-butter services and develop a more general health care brand.

Of course, Komen and private donors are free to direct their dollars however they choose and may prefer a zero-tolerance policy to abortion.  However, as an organization dependent on donor dollars itself, Komen has a lot of thinking to do about its own brand.

UPDATE:  Right after I posted this, I received a notification that Komen has reversed itself on the decision.  Press release here.  The Facebook is mightier than the sword.

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