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  Casey Quinlan Komen for the Cure: Hoist by Their Own Pink Ribbon?
by Casey Quinlan
February 6, 2012

Susan G. Komen for the Cure spent 30 years building itself into a global brand that successfully sold itself as the premier non-profit focused on women’s health. It has invested $2B in breast cancer research in that time, planted 124 affiliate chapters worldwide, and was named one of the two most-trusted non-profit brands in America – the other was St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital - in a 2010 Harris Interactive survey.


All that hard work seemed to be hanging by a slender pink thread in the firestorm of protest that resulted from Komen’s announcement that they were pulling almost $800K in grants to Planned Parenthood. Komen said it made the decision due to rules now in place at the charity preventing it from giving grants to organizations that are under investigation by local, state, or federal authorities for any kind of wrongdoing. Planned Parenthood is being investigated by a Congressional committee - led by an anti-abortion activist, Rep. Cliff Stearns R-FL - for violations of the 1976 Hyde Act, which forbids federal money being spent on abortion services.

The thread got stretched even thinner when it was revealed that a $7.5M Komen grant to Penn State had not been pulled. Penn State is currently under investigation by the Dept. of Education for violations of the Clery Act, which requires university officials to issue a timely warning if a campus crime represents a threat to the campus community. Can you say “Jerry Sandusky”?

I am a breast cancer warrior – I don’t care for the word “survivor” personally, I feel that it has a victim-ology that I just won’t own – and I know that the cancer community has grown weary of Komen’s pinkification. I myself have participated in fierce conversations across that community over the last few years about why pink now makes many of us see red. The chatter got particularly piquant in 2010 after Komen launched what we called Lawsuits for the Cure, wherein they sued other cause brands over the use of the phrase “for the cure” in brand messaging.

In 2010, Komen unleashed the legal hounds on some small charitable organizations including Uniting Against Lung Cancer, which was raising money with an event called Kites for a Cure. The breast cancer community erupted with a chorus of “what are you DOING?” directed at Komen, and on one health activist site we actually fielded a somewhat feeble response from Komen’s Director of Communications Andrea Rader. That post also contains an examination of Komen’s 2009 annual report, with an assessment of its donation-to-research-dollars-spent ratio.

Komen likely can’t figure out how they’ve lost control of the conversation – either the smaller one over Lawsuits for the Cure or the fierce flame-thrower they’ve faced in the days since they announced their defunding of Planned Parenthood. And that is, to me, the big branding lesson here. They haven’t been listening to their brand’s constituency. They lost sight of their original mission – ending breast cancer – and became all about the pink ribbon. Protecting their brand, their tagline, their marketplace became the mission, and they’re losing their war.

“The Komen brand had preexisting fractures when the now-you-see-it-now-you-don't funding of Planned Parenthood emerged this week,” says cancer blogger Jody Schoger about the controversy. “Komen’s credibility and leadership has been seriously impaired.”

Branding guru Kelly O’Keefe, Professor at the VCU Brandcenter and President of O’Keefe Brands, makes this observation about Komen’s self-inflicted wounds. “There's nothing more tragic than a management team that doesn't understand their own brand. The Komen Foundation [doesn’t] understand their followers. They don't see the link between their appeal and the appeal of other organizations that provide life-saving help to women. They cultivated years of goodwill and shattered it in hours. Only time will tell whether their retraction will stop the fallout, but it will be a long time before consumers trust them again.”

Lung cancer is now killing 50% more women than breast cancer, according to CDC data. Deaths from metastatic breast cancer haven’t decreased in the last 20 years. Where are the awareness campaigns for those scary stats? If Komen is indeed about saving women’s lives, why aren’t they all over one or both of those issues?

I’m afraid that the answer is buried under an avalanche of pink ribbons, pink hats, pink sneakers, pink mugs, pink Bibles (really?), pink perfume from Avon (which contain toluene and galaxolide, known carcinogens, but Komen seems OK with selling it), pink buckets of Kentucky Fried Chicken (what?), and plenty of other pink gear that’s sold to raise “awareness”. Awareness of Komen, since I sincerely doubt we need to be made more “aware” of cancer. Komen’s primary focus is no longer women’s lives, its focus is now solely on its “pink” brand.

Here’s where the brand becomes the enemy of the mission. This situation can happen to a for-profit enterprise as easily as it can to a non-profit. Just ask Detroit, which lost its focus on building what worked, and wound up almost burying itself. Or Johnson & Johnson, which survived a huge brand threat in the 1982 Tylenol poisoning case only to find itself, in the last couple of years, ground under the wheels of a series of recalls of its Children’s Tylenol and Benadryl.

Komen started with a very worthy mission. However, the ugly underside of cause branding – particularly cancer causes – is that money given to your cause means that it isn’t donated to mine. Turf wars spring up when there’s big money on the line. With an annual raise of more than $400M in 2010, Komen’s in that big-money category. Undoubtedly this is why they’ve chosen to buddy up with the NFL in recent years, gearing up teams with pink gloves and pink cleats as part of the breast cancer awareness pink-fest that is October. By the way, the NFL doesn’t actually give any money to Komen as part of the pink-cleat-fest; it’s solely an “awareness” campaign.

We don’t need more awareness. What we need is effective prevention, early detection, and treatment. However, ending breast cancer would mean the end of “pink” – which is not what the Komen brand is all about at this point, is it? Ending “pink” ends the brand, which would be bad for those who depend on the pink machine for their continued financial health.

“Pink” seems to be less about saving women’s lives at this point than it is about self-sustenance. “As the public critique of pink ribbon culture and industry continues to mount, those who have the most to lose from changing the system, those who profit from pink consumption, publicity, and propaganda, continue to speak out in defense of the status quo,” says Gayle Sulik, medical sociologist and author of the best-selling book “Pink Ribbon Blues: How Breast Cancer Culture Undermines Women’s Health”.

Author and breast expert Elisabeth Dale of The Breast Life weighs in with what I think is a great observation about branding, breasts, and Komen. “Breasts are symbols of motherly sustenance and nurturing. The Komen breast brand was destroyed when the foundation appeared to act in a callous and uncaring way towards other, less fortunate women. It was a dick move.”

Indeed it was. And now we wait to see if “pink” is smart enough to learn from its mistakes.

   Casey Quinlan is a storyteller, speaker, media strategist, healthcare advocate, and author with an extensive background in broadcasting, theater, and stand-up comedy, who believes that it – business, and life – is all about the story. Telling a great story attracts and engages your target market, driving the growth of your brand — find out more at

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Komen for the Cure: Hoist by Their Own Pink Ribbon?
 SGK has completly screwed the pooch... and this is a great way of stating that !! 
- February 7, 2012
 Great article, Casey. You really nailed it on all fronts. 
Rachel Reynolds, Executive Director, CJ's Thumbs Up Foundation - February 7, 2012
 You hit on points no one else seems to be focused on. Extremely cogent and thought-provoking. I agree - somewhere along the way "Pink" became the cause. While I'm glad the public nature of all this will force them to address their shortcomings, it's sad to think about at what cost. 
Donna Sellers, Director, Brand Strategy, Parallels - February 9, 2012
 Thank you all for your comments! I've been seeing red when presented with pinkification for a while now, as has most of the breast cancer activist community. The Komen brand has become the enemy of its initial worthy mission, and must either re-focus on the mission, or admit they're now flacking pink as a product with no thought of actually ending the need for "pink". 
Casey Quinlan, Mighty Mouth, Mighty Casey Media LLC - February 9, 2012
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