Komen Bows Campaign in Bid to Restore Blemished Brand

Will Its Reputation, Fundraising Efforts Recover From Planned Parenthood backlash?

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Six months after igniting severe backlash for pulling Planned Parenthood funding, nonprofit Susan G. Komen for the Cure is betting on a national ad campaign that features survivor stories to rally supporters. But as the organization preps for Breast Cancer Awareness Month in October, it's still fighting an uphill battle to restore its tarnished brand. In fact, industry insiders are wary about whether the nonprofit can restore its image, drum up donations and retain corporations' support when their contracts run out.

TV ads will air in mid-September featuring four different survivors, including a young woman diagnosed with Stage 4 breast cancer at age 21 and still alive to tell her story eight years later. Print ads will launch in October magazines, digital content will go live Sept. 5 and earned-media efforts are being planned to support the overall campaign.

Founder Nancy Brinker
Founder Nancy Brinker Credit: Susan G. Komen

"People very frequently see all the pink in October and don't understand that this is actually money that 's being raised to help a woman down the street or in the worst part of town whose decision today is to buy bus fare or food for her kids," said Andrea Rader, Komen's managing director-communication. "We're telling that story through the people who [have] benefited from the research and outreach programs and advocacy work we've done and reminding people this is an organization that has meaning."

The organization typically launches fall ad campaigns each year, largely part to promote its races. But an executive close to the organization said this year's multimillion-dollar campaign outlay far exceeds Komen's traditional fall spending. And while last year's campaign encouraged women to be screened for breast cancer, the push this time around is all about bolstering its brand and image.

The campaign, executed by Burson-Marsteller's Proof, a WPP agency, also reflects a strategy to keep founder Nancy Brinker out of the organization's promotional efforts following her not-so-well-received presence during the February crisis, multiple executives told Ad Age .

In various media interviews and appearances, Ms. Brinker came across as out of touch, and her actions only exacerbated the communications flubs that politicized the brand in the eyes of many supporters. Shortly after announcing that Komen would withdraw funding from Planned Parenthood, the organization contradicted itself numerous times and then apologized for its actions. Eventually, Komen reversed its plan to withdraw funding, but along the way critics berated the organization for its slow response in social media and for letting right-wing, pro-life politics influence its decision-making.

"There have been recommendations for Nancy Brinker to keep a lower profile," said one executive close to the organization's strategy. "This is a long-term issue. [Komen] understands that , and it's time to build back trust."

Donations are down about 30% compared to a year ago, according to multiple executives familiar with the matter. When asked about that figure, Ms. Rader said it's difficult to determine how much donations have declined. Participation at some races, which serve as Komen's prime source of funding for community programs and research, has fallen from 1% to 35% in certain regions, she said.

And although Komen told Ad Age that it hasn't lost any corporate partners since the February uproar, there's talk of defection among PR players.

Carol Cone, the chairman of Edelman's Good Purpose group, said two Edelman clients have asked for advice on whether to renew their contracts with the brand. Even beyond Edelman, she said a number of corporate sponsors have said they're "seriously analyzing the relationship." She would not disclose the details of those conversations.

"Komen did power the breast cancer movement, but this [misstep] was so visceral for people on the left and right," she said. And while Komen used to be the big cause-marketing opportunity in town, the not-for-profit world has become smarter about working with corporate sponsors. When it comes to cause-marketing opportunities, said Ms. Cone, "there are more choices now."

Cheryl Welch, integrated communications director at General Mills, said her company is sticking with the charity. "Our partnership with Komen has helped support millions of women fighting the disease in communities across the country by funding education, treatment and research initiatives."

Last month the organization announced that Ms. Brinker would move into a new management role as chair of the executive committee of Komen's board when the search for a new senior executive is completed. Also, Komen president Liz Thompson announced plans to leave the organization in September.

Nearly six months after the departure of Karen Handel, who had been associated with the initial decision to pull the Planned Parenthood funding, the company is still searching for a public-affairs lead. In May, Leslie Aun left the company to become VP-communications at Venture Philanthropy Partners, and Rebecca Gibson, most recently a marketing communications manager and a nine-year Komen vet, left to take on a corporate communications role for Mary Kay.

Despite these personnel changes, which created a stir in the nonprofit world, Komen has remained intentionally quiet on the communications front until now. "We looked around and said, "We have work to do.' This was clearly a big event in our year, but it couldn't deter us from the mission," said Ms. Rader, regarding Komen's quiet summer. "We've acknowledged that there has been an impact [to the brand] and that 's why it's more important than ever to remind people that the decision that was made was reversed, that we apologized for the decision and still have urgent need to take care of women."

In addition to Proof, the organization is working with Ogilvy PR on certain global communications initiatives, and earlier this year it hired The Herald Group to support its reputational efforts.

Gene Grabowski, exec VP and crisis expert at Levick, said what Komen really needs are more "third parties speaking on their behalf. Nancy Brinker can't save the brand."

He believes, however, there's still hope for the brand, even if it's "much diminished."

Ms. Cone agreed. "Cause invites people into something bigger than themselves. They fell on their sword when it was about Komen and rose to the sky when it was about a sisterhood fighting breast cancer," she said. "They still have a core and they should focus on the core."

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