The pink ribbon carries a lot of associations—women's health, breast cancer, 10K runs. But in a prominent fight this week between breast cancer charity the Susan G. Komen Foundation and women's health organization Planned Parenthood, the ribbon is suddenly associated with controversy—unfamiliar territory for the anti-cancer cause.
As anyone not living in a bunker for the past week knows, the behemoth breast cancer charity decided to pull hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations to Planned Parenthood, citing a congressional investigation over whether Planned Parenthood uses federal funds for abortions. Planned Parenthood in turn accused the Komen Foundation of having "succumbed to political pressure." Then today, in a surprising about-face, Komen decided to "continue to fund existing grants, including those of Planned Parenthood." Yet from a marketing standpoint, the damage may be done to the ubiquitous Komen brand, which from here on out could carry heavy political baggage.
The Komen Foundation has not historically tended to deal in politics or even controversy. Many of the foundation's detractors had generally stuck to criticizing the organization's methods, such as what some call "pinkwashing" campaigns: emblazoning pink ribbons on yogurt, kitchen mixers, fried chicken, even baseball bats, ostensibly in an effort to raise money but also helping some companies to better move product. But those arguments seemed to be mainly about Komen's fundraising process, not its ideology—"cancer is bad" being a generally inarguable concept.
Planned Parenthood, in contrast, has long had its elbows out, holding its own in the political realm for decades. Last year, Planned Parenthood weathered a heated congressional fight over a budget amendment that aimed to eliminate federal funding to the organization.
In other words, the lines had long been drawn between Planned Parenthood supporters and opponents. Now, Komen has drawn its own line, adding a new political layer to the formerly apolitical organization, potentially cutting down its vast base of support.
"They're kind of the market leader in breast cancer charities," says Barbara Kahn, professor of marketing at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business, but the recent controversy will cut into its market share, so to speak. "In marketing, we use the word 'segmenting.'" In the Planned Parenthood debacle, says Kahn, Komen is "dividing the market into people with political affiliation—right-to-lifers versus Planned Parenthood supporters."
That all matters now, when Facebook and Twitter are still alight with protest messages against the Komen Foundation. But will it matter a month or a year in the future? Some businesses have dealt with lingering stigmas due to their political stances. Target, for example, donated to an anti-gay candidate in Minnesota's 2010 gubernatorial election. Ripples from that conflict continue even now, as two investment firms have submitted shareholders' resolutions to block the store from making future political contributions.
It's important to note, however, that the debacle has not been a zero-sum game by any means; both organizations have benefited from the controversy, seeing their donations spike in the last week. And while Komen has certainly lost the support of some pro-choice potential donors, it may have also gained more intense support from the pro-life crowd.
Komen's change of heart may mitigate any long-term damage to its brand, says Kahn, but she also says that it has now been associated with a political cause, for better or worse. "[People] may not remember the exact flap," she adds, but the mental connection they have drawn between Komen and pro-life politics may be difficult to eliminate.