Too Late To Relate?

There's this line I sometimes use in speeches, usually during the question-and-answer period. My presentations are about the ascendency of trust in the new Relationship Era of marketing, as chaos continues to subvert the primacy of advertising and positioning.

When the lecture ends, someone from the audience inevitably raises a hand and asks: "What is the one thing above all else I should do to succeed in the Relationship Era?"

I stand on the stage, scowling a bit as I appear to be pondering the question. “The one thing, eh?” I'll say. Then, after another moment, I'll nod my head sharply and offer my considered response:

“Don't be a dick.”

For some reason, that never fails to get a big laugh. But the rude answer is in dead earnest. We are ever more doing business with a public that actively avoids brand messaging, but carries on many brand conversations more or less behind the marketer’s back. That same public has also recently changed its calculus of what it values in brands.



As recently as 2006, Edelman Public Relations informs us, in answering what was the standard of trust, consumers most often cited “quality products and services.” By 2010, mere “quality” as a standard of brand confidence had dropped to number three in the Edelman Trust Barometer. Number one -- with 83% citing it -- was “transparent and honest practices.” Good conduct. Solid citizenship. Core values. The stuff of essential self.

Next March, when Can't Buy Me Like finally is released, you'll be able to see how trust is composed of three elements: credibility, care and congruency. Does the brand engender public trust by delivering on its promises? Does it understand consumer needs and seek to fulfill them? Does its every action resonate with deeply held values?

It really helps when the answer to all of those questions is yes. At the moment, a number of brands are experiencing the wages of the answer “no.” BP, Netflix, Johnson & Johnson, RIM, Chick Fil A and even Apple have learned the hard way that no brand -- not even a beloved one -- is immune to the consequences when it disappoints the public.

Which brings me to Susan G. Komen for the Cure.

In the 2010-2011 fiscal year -- in the midst of deep recession -- the charity raked in $439 million. Over three decades, it has provided almost $2 billion for breast cancer research, education, advocacy, health services and social-support programs in more than 50 countries. Its pink ribbon is ubiquitous and synonymous with the fight against breast cancer, becoming a symbol of such unquestioned good that commercial brands invested large sums just to be associated with it. These range from Yoplait yogurt to Major League Baseball, Smith & Wesson to Promise Me, “the scent of compassion and courage.” In 2010, 60 such licenses brought in more than $35 million a year in fees, not to mention the exposure they provided for the 130-some Komen races held annually around the world.  

Komen Race for the Cure was ranked No. 2 among nonprofits by the Harris Poll in “brand health.” It was among the most trusted institutions in one of the society’s most trusted sectors.

Then the women in charge acted like total dicks.

In January 2011, under pressure from social conservatives, Komen announced under some flimsy pretext that it was withdrawing grants to Planned Parenthood for breast-cancer screenings -- a move that infuriated a whole lot more people than it mollified. As events unfolded, it emerged that Komen’s then brand-new senior vice president for public policy, Karen Handel, had been a Republican gubernatorial candidate in Georgia who had herself campaigned on a vow to eliminate state funding to Planned Parenthood. Handel denied a political agenda, but nonetheless quickly “resigned.” Komen rescinded its decision to rescind Planned Parenthood grants -- but that was too little, too late.

To the faithful, trust had been breached.

The year's Harris brand-health polling happened to fall in the midst of the furor, and Komen’s ranking plummeted from 2nd to 56th. Social media went predictably off the hook, as The New York Times put it, “with head-snapping speed.” Among the most common Twitter phrases: “I will never donate again.”

There are no figures yet available for the 2011-2012 fiscal year, but at Races for the Cure Around the country last spring, organizers reported drops in donations ranging from 15% to 35%. Which means that cynical political pandering cost Komen -- and its beneficiaries -- in the neighborhood of $100 million.

Komen was a Relationship Era marketer before there was a Relationship Era. Even in the analog days, it required very little advertising to spread its message of hope. Volunteers and pink ribbons were the best advertising imaginable -- and as a bonus, those 60 outside licensees paid Komen to spread the word further.

Now, as a penalty for betraying those relationships, Komen must resort to paid advertising to attempt something very un-Relationship Era: manipulate public opinion back to where it once organically was. By focusing on individual cancer survivors and drawing attention away from the organization itself, Komen hopes for an image reset.

Hmm. The campaign may or may not help restore the charity’s reputation, but in the meantime, every dollar spent on it is a dollar not distributed to agencies helping women. Do you wish to give up a weekend to race for an ad buy?

The fight against breast cancer is certainly a worthy cause, but you'd be forgiven for being leery. In the quest for hope, you shouldn't have to hope your charity has ceased being a dick.

15 comments about "Too Late To Relate? ".
Check to receive email when comments are posted.
  1. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, September 4, 2012 at 10:28 a.m.

    The one thing needed to succeed at Relationships (or anything else for that matter) is not to ask that question looking for an easy out. Great post.

  2. kevin mahon from self-employed, September 4, 2012 at 1:13 p.m.

    If the "flimsy pretext" that caused Komen to withdraw funds was the Planned Parenthood agressive pro-abortion agenda, I guess the author believes being a "dick" to an unborn child is ok. In my opinion, if you can't extend charity to everyone that needs protection, you are just being a hypocrite! Or, perhaps you have a political agenda that doesn't allow you to think through the full range of alternatives.

  3. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, September 4, 2012 at 1:33 p.m.

    There are many places people can donate directly to breast cancer research and support without Komen's administrative costs as well as donate directly to Planned Parenthood.

  4. Mark Paul from Mark Paul, September 4, 2012 at 2:27 p.m.

    1) I'm guessing that a lot of companies don't have someone responsible for making sure that the company doesn't act like a dick.

    2) And even if such a person exists, he or she will need metrics they can apply to show the C-level execs how much it will cost them to overcome having been a dick. Otherwise, they're doomed to the touchy-feely wing of HR, from which no one escapes with a voice in the corporation.

    3) Note to Mahon: hysterical (and misspelled) exaggerations won't advance your brand either.

  5. Dan Greenberg from Impossible Software, GmbH, September 4, 2012 at 3:10 p.m.

    Really enjoyed this article and, Mark Paul: agree on all points.

    One is reminded of the collapse of the United Way... well before web was around, let alone social media. One upon a time, every group in every big company had a United Way "coordinator" whose job it was to ensure that everyone filled out the form, even if they declined to donate. When it came to light that leaders of the United Way were helping themselves to large salaries and perqs like limousines -- that is, that they were being greedy dicks -- the brand collapsed. It's not clear to me that it has ever recovered.

  6. Michael Kaplan from Blue Sky Creative, September 4, 2012 at 3:32 p.m.

    Kevin Mahon: Didn't realize that having three percent of your services offered translates to an "aggressive pro-abortion agenda." It's much more honest to say Planned Parenthood has an aggressive anti-unwanted-baby agenda (what with their scandalous distribution of birth control information) and aggressive anti-cervical-cancer agenda (all those controversial Pap smears).

    It never amazes me that the "party of small government" becomes quite the opposite when it comes to women's wombs.

  7. Becky Dunn from Yomamma, September 4, 2012 at 4:09 p.m.

    No no no not "dick"-- "douche!" Don't be a douche! This has been my family mantra for many years now and can be recited by all their teenage friends. It is a litte less icky and douche has become synonymous with "jerk." -- no genitalia necessary. Happily the younger set has no idea what a real douche is or perhaps some vague notion of a Summer's Eve product--but the ol warm water bag--not a clue.

    Rule number 1 at my house: Don't be a douche.

  8. A Bethany from Consultant, September 4, 2012 at 4:28 p.m.

    (1 of 2) With all due respect, it is only since Komen self-imploded on the third rail of Planned Parenthood that the general public has begun the well-deserved scrutiny of the organization. The PP flag effectively polarized their base and left both sides of the abortion argument up in arms. Peeling away the politics, you're left with Nancy Brinker, who left her ethics at the door a long time ago. (NY Magazine had a great piece on this just a few weeks ago when it was announced Madam Brinker would be assuming a lower profile role at Komen -- simply not enough).

    Fun Fact: Komen has raised BILLIONS of dollars over the past 30 years and less than 15% is directed to research. And people wonder why there isn't a cure??

    Yes, this is the 'dirty pink secret' many BC survivors have known for years: Komen is not "For the Cure"; rather, Komen has been lining their own pockets in the name of a cure. Through dubious marketing alliances, Komen has allowed alcoholic beverages and foods that lead to obesity (hello, KFC) and even handguns to be marketed under the pink ribbon --- which amounts to nothing more than "pinkwashing". Companies can give as little a few pennies on the dollar and no one is the wiser. The public has been conditioned to hoard all things pink without ever questioning where the money is going. Well, let me tell you .... very, very little is going to research. In fact, Komen is one of the most inefficiently run charities out there, with enormous overhead. They use donated dollars to sue smaller charities for infringement of "For the Cure". There are COUNTLESS other examples. (Google Gayle Sulik and read her blog on PinkRibbonBlues; there is a particularly revealing look at Komen's accounting that was written by Anna Rachnel, a former CPA, before she died of Stage 4 breast cancer).

  9. A Bethany from Consultant, September 4, 2012 at 4:28 p.m.

    (2 of 2) So now this organization in peril is turning to advertising (likely supported by donated funds) to restore their tarnished image? This is nothing short of appalling. Advertising Age ran a piece yesterday that truly amazed me. Despite hiring top tier firms to advise them (Edelman, Olgilvy, Burson-Marsteller) not a single one has mentioned the real problem here. Even if one were to overlook Komen's divisive foray into politics or the fact that Madam Brinker refuses to leave -- the fact that less than 15% of money raised goes to research is a travesty all its own. Corporations have been duped into participating in a Ponzi scheme that would make Bernie Madoff blush. I hope the article was correct that many of these companies are seriously analyzing future sponsorship of Komen once current contracts expire -- it's NOT solely the politics, but on top of turning pink-ploitation into an art form, a company with any ethics should look at Komen like the dreaded third rail they have become. Sorry, Nancy Brinker -- no amount of advertising or cheap pink lipstick can rehabilitate the brand you destroyed.

    Oh, and by the way ... I'm a survivor. My calls to Komen went unreturned when I was diagnosed 3 years ago, yet they can't seem to stop soliciting me, my friends, and family for more donations. Cry me a Pink River, Komen. (And apologies for not including specific links --- those are normally not permitted in comments)

  10. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, September 4, 2012 at 7:12 p.m.

    Bethany, check out and Living Beyond Breast Cancer.

  11. Anna Hughes from Story Worldwide, September 4, 2012 at 7:31 p.m.

    LOVE this post. I have personally been horrified at the "Pink Washing" of everything out there, denuding the pink ribbon of any sort of meaning. Having lost family to breast cancer and been a cheerleader for too many friends going through various stages of the disease, I am appalled at how Komen has taken advantage of my trust and support. Never again, as the post says.

    And, to our friend who somehow believes that Planned Parenthood has an aggressive pro-abortion agenda to push, I invite him to read the Planned Parenthood annual report and get his facts straight before he attacks a wonderful organization that has been providing support for low-income women for years - on a shoestring budget. I'm not sure how stripping away funding for breast health screening would somehow mean fewer pregnancies terminated, but it's clear that you are not someone who is able to make those kinds of fine distinctions with your limited reasoning skills.

  12. A Bethany from Consultant, September 4, 2012 at 8 p.m.

    Thanks, Paula. I'm familiar with both organizations (as well with many in the BC blogger community who are rejoicing that this may finally allow the dialogue to change). Komen has indeed raised awareness, but it has failed to harness the energy into any type of meaningful action towards eradicating this horrible disease. All the pink silliness has only served to trivialize a disease that has no "cure". Survivors are painfully aware that no one has unlocked the secret to metastasis and despite how early BC was caught and treated, it can come back and kill. Komen has misrepresented survival statistics and were called out on it by the BMJ as recently as August. The marketing is so awful that there are women that (wrongfully) believe that a mammogram is a preventive measure rather than the diagnostic tool that it is. I'm a huge fan of Avon's Army of Women which is an independent research arm led by Dr. Susan Love as well as BCRF, which donates more than 90% of money raised directly to research. Stand-Up to Cancer is also an organization that is doing wonderful things for all cancers through collaborative teams across the globe and uses private funding to cover administrative expenses. Komen is a joke -- and notice, none of this is remotely related to their 'missteps' in the political arena. This was a pink train wreck waiting to happen.

  13. Andrea Rader from Susan G. Komen for the Cure, September 5, 2012 at 8:03 a.m.

    Hi -- this is Andrea Rader at Susan G. Komen and I just want to correct some numbers that have been floating around in the comments. We spend 83 cents of every dollar on mission programs, which includes research, AND community health programs that serve women directly (about 2,000 of them last year). Our funds provide financial aid to women undergoing treatment, pay for screenings for low-income and uninsured women, and provide education about the disease. We paid for 700,000 screenings last year for low-income or uninsured women and provided another 100,000 women and families with things like wigs, groceries, living expenses during treatment, transportation to treatment, insurance co-pays and surgery. Our thinking always has been that the research will get to cures but women need help today, and so we've always invested in these community programs in addition to research. You can check our Affiliates' websites (we have 119 of them nationwide) to see where the money is being spent locally. For those wondering about research, we're currently funding more than 500 active research projects (at more than $300 million), along the full spectrum: prevention, environmental factors, better detection tools, and better treatments, especially for metastatic disease. Thanks for the opportunity to weigh in.

  14. A Bethany from Consultant, September 5, 2012 at 2:35 p.m.

    @Andrea Rader: Those numbers are not accurate. I would encourage you to read the analysis done by Anna Rachnel (a former public accountant), who died of Stage 4 disease earlier this year. It is posted on Gayle Sulik's blog, There are many people in the BC community who are outraged and deserve the courtesy of a response where they might see it.

    Secondly, you conveniently do not address the outrageous "pinkwashing" that Susan B. Komen has brought to an art form. How does an organization with a mission of "For the Cure" reconcile their alliances with companies that produce alcohol, high-fat foods (KFC!), and others that have dubious links to the causes of BC and contain BPA and other known carcinogens? Your own website warns women that both alcohol and obesity are KNOWN risk factors for BC. Completely irresponsible. And that companies can give as little as pennies on the dollar when marketing under the pink ribbon is deplorable.

    As for your local affiliates, they couldn't even be bothered to return (multiple) phone calls when I diagnosed. You cannot claim you help women with their expenses, insurance co-pays and other issues when in fact, you do so only selectively.

    Research funding? People have explored your financials and no where near $0.83 on the dollar is going towards research. MAYBE at the local level, but that hardly accounts for the billions raised in the past 30 years. Komen's overhead is as massive as it is legendary. (Did you read the piece in NY Magazine?) And, little detail here ... how much of the research is going to metastatic disease, because afterall, THAT is the BC that women die from. But that doesn't exactly fit the happy pink face of Komen.

    Better yet. How is it possible that Nancy Brinker continues to oversee the Board when she has clearly become a polarizing figure that has driven away much of the base Komen has alienated on BOTH sides of the Planned Parenthood flap? Neither side has any interest in returning to support Komen while Brinker is still in any position of power at the organization.

    How about the article in the BMJ (written by prominent doctors) who address the fact that Komen's advertising misrepresents the value of mammograms (many women have been led to believe they 'prevent' BC) as well as misstate survival statistics?

    Shall I go on?

    These are just a few of endless questions that continue to go unanswered and sadly, this comment section is not the place you are going to reach anyone. Your FB and Twitter feeds go virtually 'radio silent' during any controversy and ignore such questions when they are presented.

    I'd highly encourage you to reach out to the BC blogger community. You might be surprised to learn that many survivors have never been happy with Komen (prior to the Planned Parenthood fiasco) and have wanted to change the dialogue. "Awareness" is not synonymous with "Prevention".

  15. Robert Hendrickson from The Garden Center Group, September 8, 2012 at 6:42 p.m.

    Odd post... you've pretty much made a career coming off as a dick yet plenty of people continue to support you, including me.

Next story loading loading..