As any seasoned marketer will tell you, jumping head first into avoidable controversy will spell disaster for your brand. Whatever doesn't build a brand invariably kills it.
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Tuesday, Susan G. Komen for the Cure diseased its own brand, and put its corporate sponsorships in certain jeopardy. By cutting funding to Planned Parenthood's Breast Cancer Screening program, Komen is on the fast track to create a non-profit sponsorship implosion that could endanger the wellness of the Race for the Cure for years and decades to come.

Susan G. Komen for the Cure decided to end the hundreds of thousands of dollars in support it gave to Planned Parenthood for breast cancer screens of low and middle-income women. Why? Most pundits, however, believe it is because Planned Parenthood provides abortion services, legally, in the United States. (Planned Parenthood doesn't combine the two services, so I'm not certain why Komen would cut funding for screenings.)

The official Komen party line is that the organization has a newly minted rule that it won't fund any group that is under investigation on a local, state or federal level. A conservative pro-life congressman in Florida wants to put the screws to Planned Parenthood by launching an investigation into its finances (like that hasn't been done before), so Komen found their opportunity to terminate its relationship with Planned Parenthood.

As any seasoned marketer will tell you, jumping head first into avoidable controversy will spell disaster for your brand. Whatever doesn't build a brand invariably kills it.

Beyond what it raises in personal contributions, Komen receives millions of dollars every year and priceless exposure from corporate America sponsorships. One of its premier sponsors, Yoplait Yogurt, runs the brilliant Yoplait Lids promotion with Komen because a) makes Yoplait a hero to its core audience of shopper, women and b) Yoplait makes millions of dollars from the association.

Companies including 3M, American Airlines, Payless Shoe Source, Evian, General Mills and over one hundred others use their associations with Susan G. Komen to win over the person who influences up to 90 percent of household purchase decisions, Shopper Mom. In the industry such partnerships are called "Borrowed Equity." Movie tie-ins, sports team associations, and hundreds of non-profit organizations receive cash and exposure through these partnerships, which are the lifeblood of most large charities today. In exchange, products and services sell more.

Imagine for a moment that you're the Chief Marketing Officer of Hershey's, and you're thinking of executing a $10 million dollar sponsorship deal with Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure. You just heard that Komen has stopped its funding of breast cancer screenings to Planned Parenthood. It doesn't matter one hill of beans about how you feel personally about the politics involved. The first thoughts that cross your mind are obvious, "What will my shoppers and consumers think? How will Hershey's be painted within the controversy? What will my bosses and the stockholders think about Komen now? Will Hershey risk lower sales or even a boycott? Given the risks, is it worth any potential reward?"

Controversy (especially if it's mired in politics, ethics or moral points of view) is never good for business. As an executive representing America's favorite chocolate company, you certainly don't want to get involved in anything that makes people take sides. Hershey's makes candy, after all, not chaos! It will be unfortunate to keep your millions from the millions who Komen helps, but you'll have to sit the dance out.

Now, sit back and multiply this conversation by the hundreds of corporations and charitable groups who give money to Suan G. Komen Race for the Cure every year. When the corporations pull their funding to avoid controversy (and millions of individuals stop giving to Komen on principle), Race for the Cure will take an avoidable uppercut to the jaw. Whether it can find its way off of the mat will be up to their leadership to figure out.

As for the CMO of Yoplait, here's one way he/she might handle this situation. If enough people get fired up (early indications point to an inferno of public outcry), Komen will become a massive liability rather than an asset. The CMO should continue on with its successful Yoplait Lids promotion, with profits benefiting another breast cancer charity. Yoplait will keep the consumer's allegiance, and avoid stepping in the political fallout.

As a marketer, the Grand Canyon sized mistake Komen has made truly defies business logic. As a woman, my heart goes out to those women Komen and Planned Parenthood will no longer be able to afford to help as a result of this grievous error in marketing judgment.

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