The Fall of a Pink Giant?

The move a few weeks ago by the Susan G. Komen Foundation to stop providing grants to Planned Parenthood, the quick reversal after widespread backlash, recent staff resignations and ongoing controversy exposed a weakness in a brand many once thought unassailable. But women’s health may be better off for it.

As the self-described “global leader of the breast cancer movement,” Komen carries the weight of the breast cancer brand on itsshoulders. And women—the brand’s core constituency—took to the social media airwaves to decry what they perceived as hypocrisy by Komen. The breast cancer brand, many women argued, is built on supporting and improving women’s health and defunding Planned Parenthood flies in opposition of that mission.

Komen fell into the classic trap of seeming inauthentic to its audience. Despite pursuing an aggressive strategy to lay claim to the title of sole women’s health brand, thus allocating other causes and conditions to the margins, the foundation seemed surprised to find that it was viewed as representing the voice of women’s health.

Now that the dust is settling the question of damage remains. Will this misstep loosen breast cancer’s grip on its leadership position? And if so, is what’s bad for the breast cancer brand good for women’s health?

Make no mistake—breast cancer is the biggest brand in the history of disease. Everyone from the NFL to Yoplait to American Airlines attempts to get a piece of that brand equity each October by pink-washing themselves in solidarity. As the face of the breast cancer movement, the Komen Foundation is the main benefactor of all that attention raising an estimated $35 million each year from marketing partnerships.

Komen earned its dominant position by smartly building a consumer-styled breast cancer brand and relentlessly marketing it. Each year over 1.6 million people participate in its Walks for the Cure—heavily advertised events with carnival-like atmospheres where participants sport pink-themed costumes, provocative banners abound and partner brands promotetheir products to the beat of inspirational music and speeches.

Although not created by Komen, the movement’s iconic symbol, the pink ribbon, was conceived by another pioneer in marketing to women—Evelyn Lauder. The daughter-in-law of Estee and vice president of the cosmetics company, Evelyn used her influence to promote breast cancer with beauty andfashion editors making the brand synonymous with other women-centric products.

The runaway success of the breast cancer brand has brought wide-spread attention to the disease leading to early diagnosis, better treatments and hope for many women fighting this illness. But while women diagnosed with breast cancer have benefited significantly, the overwhelming market dominance of the breast cancer brand has come at the expense of other women’s health concerns.

As the former chief lobbyist for the Lupus Foundation of America, I learned firsthand how difficult it was for a women’s health issue to get noticed when it fell outside of the pink glow of breast cancer. The couple of million in federal research dollars that sporadically goes to a disease like lupus—which not only disproportionately affects women, but women of color and those in their child-bearing years—in comparison to the $150 million plus dedicated to breast cancer research in the Department of Defense budget alone underscores why only one drug in last 50 years was approved for lupus while a host of treatments are available for those battling breast cancer.

That disparity—between women’s health issues at large and breast cancer—can be traced partially to the power of the breast cancer brand. Twice as many women die every year of stroke than breast cancer, but a stroke is not sexy. While the Komen Foundation and others have aggressively marketed breast cancer as THE women’s health brand, their efforts are buoyed by the subconscious interest in breasts as a symbol of desire. After all, the golden rule of marketing remains—sex sells.

It may be premature to proclaim the fall of the breastcancer brand. In fact, one test of a brand’s strength is its ability to weather a storm. But a lessening of breast cancer’s dominance may create the opportunity for other women’s health issues to gain attention and much needed support. As a result, by slipping up and eroding some of its strength in the market, Komen might actually do more to promote women’s health in total than the foundation ever could on its own.

Rachel Kerestes is Strategy Director at MiresBall, a West Coast-based brand agency.

5 replies »

  1. Speaking from years of experience, Rachel is right on. Those of us toiling in the vineyards of women’s health know that in the public mind, there are only three issues of interest: breast cancer, osteoporosis, and domestic violence. And these are serious and important issues. But as Rachel points out, 90 percent of lupus patients are women, and two-thirds of those patients are women of color; heart disease and stroke are the leading causes of death among women, and women’s symptoms are different from men’s; and diabetes, which can lead to nerve damage, heart disease, and blindness, disproportionately affects women and particularly Hispanic and African-American women. Yet funding research into these women’s health problems is pocket change compared to funding for breast cancer research. So yes, I would agree that the Komen misstep may be good news for women’s health.

  2. Nate-where do you get your stats for the percent of the population not supporting PP?

  3. It sure did get a lot of publicity for sure and my take on this is how difficult it is today to make decisions with all the information we have. When I watched the video on how they tried to substantiate their decision, it was clear business analytics “on where they could best spend their money”, sound familiar, it should as we hear it all the time.

    With much of the information today, and there’s a lot of flaws developing as well with high levels of aggregation with information, we yet don’t quite have the experience yet to work with analytics and yet figure out where the line is for certain levels of forgiveness.

    When you don’t allow some levels of forgiveness today and flat out common sense in other areas it becomes some what of a cold financial decision and again we hear it all the time and thus the Komen story logged in at Chapter 10 in my series on the Attacks of the Killer Algorithms.


    My NY professor/mathematician web friend and I have this conversation all the time with growing into using analytics wisely and that everything is not completely white or black. The fact too that last year they were suing other charities for the use of the word “cure” was not too hot either and again we hear the calling of corporate decisions when in fact they are not the way we view a charity, so they get in trouble when such decisions conflict with the word “charity” and public perception, which includes me as well.

  4. The best “public” backlash they could buy

    Over the course of about 60 hours, ABC, CBS, and NBC emphasized the controversy with a whopping 13 morning and evening news stories. A Media Research Center study found that the soundbite count was loaded: 76% of the quotes came from supporters of Planned Parenthood (35 in total). Only 11 clips or statements came from Komen representatives or new allies.

  5. Don’t mistake a well orchestrated media campaign for public support. The majority fo the public doesn’t support PP, PP was just much better about using the media.