Komen and the Cause Marketing Risk


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Posted on 10. Feb, 2012 by in Blog, Blog

First and foremost, I want to make it clear that the intention of this blog post is not to get into the politically polarizing decisions that the Susan G. Komen Foundation made last week.  Just like anyone else, I have my opinions about their announcement to defund Planned Parenthood, then a subsequent apology and reversal of the decision, but I’ll keep those to myself.  For this blog post, I want to look ahead to what this means for cause marketing; focus on how companies should learn from the controversy; and move beyond buying into a cause to truly embracing purpose.

Cause marketing is simple and seductive.  Who doesn’t want to see the eradication of poverty and cancer?  So, when an amazing brand builder like Komen steps before a corporation’s board to pitch a partnership, it seems like a no-brainer.  Komen gets critical funding to further their purpose to end breast cancer forever, and the newly partnered corporation gets the halo effect of supporting such a worthy cause.  It’s a win-win, right?  Not always.  The key is identifying the company’s true intention of the partnership, and outlining how it fits into their purpose for existing.

The NFL, for example, may be participating in the most visible cause marketing relationship in the country right now. Every year the NFL partners with Komen to promote breast cancer awareness by allowing players and coaches to wear pink sporting equipment. The goal is to try and better appeal to the growing female fan base.  But after the controversy of the past week, should the NFL continue this marketing activation?  Probably not.  Now, the Komen pink brand is something very different from what it was just a few short weeks ago. No matter which side of the controversy you fall, it’s hard to deny that Komen will continue to alienate many of their former supporters and partners.  This isn’t a controversy the NFL, the private sector, or anyone else will want to weigh in on with their budgets or marketing dollars.  Both sides lose in this situation simply because this partnership, regardless of intent, was just a marketing tactic at the end of the day. The NFL’s purpose isn’t to end breast cancer forever, so continuing to dabble in the cause may look cynical to those they were trying to persuade.

Just think how powerful it would be if a company the size of the NFL had the audacity to say, “We exist to end breast cancer, and we do so by guaranteeing a certain percentage of our profit goes directly to the fight.” Having a strong, singular purpose would simplify the selection of cause partnerships because they would only align with those with shared values.  It would also help them to diversify around different charities focused on the same goal.  In the face of this Komen PR incident, it would make sense why this partner would stand by Komen and continue to align themselves with the best-in-class fighters of breast cancer, sans politics.  Finding solutions for a purpose of this magnitude will require casting a wider net, so supporting multiple organizations—each with different ideologies— should be expected and accepted from the reasonable public at large.  By focusing on a clear purpose, the NFL will undoubtedly be able to deliver more funds directly to organizations with the same charge, thus lessening the need for major partnerships that have bridge organizations like Komen.

This is the promise of moving from cause marketing to purpose-driven marketing.  By defining a clear purpose, classic cause marketing becomes obsolete.  It doesn’t mean that partnerships will go away.  It means that more meaningful relationships can be forged that lead to better outcomes for both sides.  A true win-win.

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