How a Nonprofit Brand Goes Bust, Part I — Komen’s KFC Pink Buckets for the Cure

Update: April 30, 2010 — Learn more in this just-posted, in-depth case study on the Komen-KFC deal.  To follow the story as it develops, subscribe to the Getting Attention e-update.

komenI’m blown away by the news — blogged by cause marketer Joe Waters — that Komen has made a huge nonprofit marketing mistake. The famed Race for Cure has undermined its own brand by partnering with KFC to cause market one of the most unhealthy foods there is — fried chicken in a pink bucket.

Pink buckets for the cure? You must be kidding me. That was my reaction to this gaffe and it’s going to be widespread. Because we’ve accepted what Komen’s told us is their brand (women’s health) and this partnership flies in the face of that persona. We all know what the F stands for.

My disappointment is a shadow of what you’d feel on discovering your spouse has been having a long-term affair, while you and the rest of the family carried on based on the assumption that s/he was in. The person you thought you knew is really someone different, which kills your trust of him/her across the board.

It works the same way — on a smaller scale — with organizations we believe in. Your nonprofit brand is the essence of your organization, your promise to your base. It represents the intersection of your organization’s wants and interests, and those of your target audience.

Once that “brand promise” is defined, branding is the art of creating a consistent, recognizable and distinct unified voice or personality that conveys your org’s focus, credibility and unique contributions via positioning, message platform, graphic identity and partnerships.

Authenticity is a prerequisite for successful branding. Komen has been trusted as a force for improving women’s health and, on its website, touts its #1 spot in the Harris poll for most-valued brand.

But this deal shows that is it can’t be trusted as such (or else it just made a huge mistake, and better rethink its decision making). Either way, it’ll be a long time before a lot of us will believe in Komen again. Brand gone bust!

Beware! It’s what you do, not what you say. Or as Momma Schwartz used to say, actions speak louder than words. Stick to mission if your brand is to be believed. Otherwise, credibility is lost.

What’s your take on Komen’s fried chicken deal? What should be the standards for partnerships? Please share your thoughts in the comment box below (bottom of page) or via email. Thanks.

P. S. Here’s how the Girl Scout brand is undermined by selling cookies.

Nancy Schwartz on April 21, 2010 in Branding and Messages | 32 comments
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  • You’re right on the mark, Nancy. A classic case of fundraising undermining mission and of how branding is widely misunderstood in the nonprofit world (it’s misunderstood often in the corporate world, too). Those dealing with branding should tattoo on their forehead your key statement that an organization’s brand it what is does not what it says.

  • David Weinstock

    I think the pink packaging idea was bad even before they tried KFC. I accidentally bought a box of spaghetti this week with a pink band, and to tell you the truth I don’t want to cook it. It’s all wrong. And using pink to stand for women in the first place is offensive to feminists of both sexes.

  • David, I couldn’t agree with you more on the pink. It’s a cheap (and insulting) shot.
    My 7-year-old daughter is all about pink. Few grown women are. Thanks!

  • I meant to comment on Joe’s wonderful post regarding this yesterday, but technical bugs wouldn’t let me so I’m happy to post them here on yet another great post about this debacle!
    Nancy, your post on this is dead on because it lays the blame wholly on Komen and not KFC. As many pointed out in their comments on Joe’s piece yesterday, KFC’s job is to sell more food. Period.
    Komen’s job, however, is not. Their mission (which for any NPO IS your job) is “to eradicate breast cancer as a life-threatening disease by advancing research, education, screening, and treatment.” Nowhere in their mission does it say their job is to raise money. Let’s face it, as NPO’s we ALL have to raise money, but not in ways that put $$ before mission.
    (OT, but Komen’s mission statement is disturbingly difficult to find on their website…I had to do a google search to get it!)
    Others pointed out that it was the responsibility of an individual person to make healthful choices about what they do and don’t put in their bodies. Sure…but when a national, well-known organization like Komen slaps their name on a food product they’re sending the message that it’s okay to eat it. Not even okay…but GOOD because by doing so you’ll be promoting women’s breast health. How will you be promoting women’s health? By hurting your own. There is no excuse for this kind of partnership. What if the American Heart Association did that? They’d be out of business by next week.
    “Cause washing” is particularly rampant in the breast cancer community to the point where it’s been given it’s own name: “pink-washing”. There are several excellent websites devoted to exposing pink-washing and encouraging consumers to “think before you pink”. The best example of this is: but just google the term “pinkwashing” and you will get 161,000 results. Mind-blowing and disheartening.
    Komen has traveled down this slippery slope before with past cause marketing partnerships. Not only does it erode their brand, but their oversaturation of cause marketing lends the idea that their supporters don’t need to make actual donations to support them – they can just look for the pink ribbon on products pretty much everywhere they go. While cause marketing may bring in extra $$ initially, I’d bet it’s had an impact on individual donor retention and giving behavior.
    I want to point out that although my NPO’s are related to children with heart defects, I am a 5 year breast cancer “thriver” and am a part of Komen’s Speakers Bureau. I’m also involved with many of their Chicago based fundraisers and activities. News of this most recent display of cause washing on their part makes me want to remove myself as a speaker and a supporter. Komen does do great work – but their Development & Cause Marketing Departments need a serious overhaul. As the Komen E.D. and B.O.D. surely played a role in picking these people, they’ve undermined my faith in their ability to make good program decisions.
    I can only hope that they learn from this mistake and don’t make it again. It is NEVER okay to put money before mission. Never.

  • Thinking more about the pink, David, it is a symbol and one that works. Not ideal as representative of women (nor is light blue, for boys/men).
    But what are your alternative ideas for a symbol as effective as color?

  • Bonnie

    Loved your Komen blog. As a breast cancer survivor, I am stunned, to say the least. I’ve done two Komen walks in two cities (with two sisters and Mom, two of them also breast cancer survivors) and never thought too highly of the (dis)organization (not the people who founded it). They use a vendor – to remain nameless – who has created software that walkers use to attract donations. You set up your own page from a template and give the page address to donors or they are supposed to be able to go to the city’s Komen site and find you. While I am no computer expert by a long shot, I am a Web content manager for a medium-sized nonprofit. Nevertheless, I found it extremely difficult to figure out how the software worked. It was so frustrating. Needless to say, I don’t do any more walks for them, but volunteer elsewhere.

  • Will you continue volunteering, Bonnie, or turn your efforts to another org?

  • David Weinstock

    I think Komen is probably stuck with pink; my gut reaction was more that KFC and Mueller’s Spaghetti were harming their food brands by associating with a deadly illness than that Komen was allying itself with unhealthy fast food. The problem with pink,I think, is that they don’t really own it. It has come to mean so many other things. IBM was “Big Blue” but they never staked their brand on blueness per se; bigness was more important. UPS tried to claim Brown, which I thought was momentarily clever but too icky to bet the company on. I guess I’m saying that a brand is more than its symbols. The symbol is just shorthand. Who cares this week what color Goldman Sachs is when their name is mud?

  • With you 1000%, David!

  • Great post, Nancy. Tweeting it now. It’s sad when nonprofits chase dollars – and forget that partnerships like this are a net negative in the bigger picture. It’s not just about an immediate payoff – it’s about impact on mission, brand and the larger social good.

  • Appreciate reading the comments in this discussion. Just wanted to share a little information from the KFC perspective.
    First, it was mentioned above that “The famed Race for Cure has undermined its own brand by partnering with KFC to cause market one of the most unhealthy foods there is — fried chicken in a pink bucket.”
    Actually, that isn’t accurate. While KFC is world-famous for fried chicken, we also sell more non-fried chicken on the bone than any other fast food chain in the U.S. Our Kentucky Grilled Chicken (launched last year) is a great option for people who are counting calories. (By the way, the only product shown in the KFC/Komen commercial is our grilled chicken.)
    Kentucky Grilled Chicken has fewer calories, less fat and less sodium that fried chicken.
    As an example, you can visit a KFC restaurant, order a two-piece grilled chicken meal with green beans and mashed potatoes, and the meal is about 370 calories.
    Complete nutritional information about all our products is available at
    We are very proud to be raising money for Susan G. Komen for the Cure through our “Buckets for the Cure” program. It is equally rewarding to help spread the word about breast cancer awareness with millions of Americans through our national advertising, public relations and more than 5,000 restaurants coast to coast.
    Our goal is to make the single largest donation in Komen for the Cure history ($8.5 million) and after only the first week of the promotion, we had already raised more than $1.7 million for the cause (through April 21). These dollars are going to help save lives and we couldn’t be more proud of that.
    We certainly understand that opinions may vary on this partnership, but we are really proud of the good that will come from it.
    We have tremendous respect for anyone who is passionate about finding a cure for this disease regardless of how you choose to show that support. Thanks for what you do.
    Rick Maynard
    KFC Public Relations

  • Rick,
    Thanks for being such a great listener and so quick to respond.
    I certainly appreciate your point but:
    1) KFC has done nothing wrong. You sell food of all types. Komen, focused supposedly on women’s health, did wrong in partnering with an entity that’s not oriented towards healthy living.
    2) The F in KFC stands for Fried. So even if grilled chicken (w/plenty of saturated fat, according to the nutritional info on your site) the brand is still about the fried. That’s the problem.
    3) Your interest in supporting good causes is absolutely great. Thank you.
    All the best,

  • Excellent and thought-provoking post (as always Nancy)!
    I agree with you – and side with the majority of your commentators – Komen made an extremely poor decision in aligning their brand with KFC.
    When it comes to the health issues that are virtually destroying our nation, we all but ignore prevention … and don’t we just love to put the “personal responsibility” label on it. Companies like KFC are adding billions to skyrocketing health care costs. Period.
    Thanks for the information on Think Before You Pink Estrella. I thought I was being an utter curmudgeon with my repeated “no I do not wish to make a contribution” and refusal to “buy pink.”

  • Nancy,
    This conversation and discussion is priceless. Thank you so much for bringing it to my attention! It seems brings up for me the thought that nonprofits who engage in cause marketing should have a clear statement of the kinds of companies and products with which they will and will not partner. This is all the more true in the age of the “now web” when a small mistake may have larger, web-threaded repercussions…like this one.

  • Great post on a tough situation.

    I continually tell clients that “you can’t read the label on the jar you’re in” and it seems this misstep is a classic example. So, I have to say that I’m not surprised, because it is easy to be so close to a decision that you are completely incapable of understanding all the ramifications.

    It is such a bad choice that I thought it was a joke. I kept waiting for the punch line that never came.

    Komen’s a great organization and didn’t set out to do something dumb or offensive. They blew it. The measure of them as an organization is how they handle things from here. How they move forward will be the measure of the brand. Will they ignore and blow it off or will they deal with?

    Branding today is about bonding and Komen will need to repair those bonds.

    I appreciate your point about the F in KFC…they seem to have an interesting brand situation as well. I don’t do fast food strategy but it seems unfortunate for them as well when they can’t be proud of their extra crispy recipe.

    Great discussion, thanks again.

  • Thanks for this post, Nancy. It is a truly offensive and harmful alliance. Breast Cancer Action’s “What the Cluck?” campaign is calling out KFC and Susan G. Komen for the Cure on this pinkwashing partnership. Over 1,000 people from all over the country have written to them to denounce this pinkwashing. You can find the campaign here: (as several other commenters have mentioned!)

  • Conor Byrne

    This is one of those instances where a charity should be brave and say No. I’m a little surprised no one from the charity has commented, that could be more damaging. Great post

  • Lisa

    I’m a two-time cancer survivor and am absolutely sick and tired of seeing cancer (specifically breast cancer) used as a marketing tool. It annoyed me before I was diagnosed, but now it just aggravates me. I will go out of my way to buy things that are not pink-branded. The worst part of all of this is that people are going to be burned out on it and like any trend, it will go out of style. However, people will continue to get cancer. Please donate to a group like Breast Cancer Action instead of Komen, which does a good job of marketing but that’s about it.

  • Phil Ferrante-Roseberry

    I was going to come up with a biting parody featuring pink cigarettes, but it seems it’s already been done:

    Boy, Komen, talk about shooting your brand in the foot.

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  • Jen

    I’ll be honest, I really hadn’t thought much about the pink bucket vs. unhealthy food inside. I just figured it was a way to earn a few more bucks and, originally, I supported it. Whatever it takes, right?

    But, between this editorial and a note I got today about how Susan G Komen grants donated money to Planned Parenthood, I’m reconsidering my commitment to Komen. I’m beginning to think that Komen really does not have the proper direction and guidance to be successful in their mission.

    The article in the note was more along the lines of the contradiction of ideals between Planned Parenthood providing abortions and recent medical research that states abortions increase the risk of getting breast cancer. While I can see the contradiction, it started me wondering about where our donations really go.

    I too had to really search to find any information and I found very little. I’m sure there’s an annual report out there somewhere that will show me exactly where the money goes. But, I have to say I was surprised, especially now that I’ve read Estrella’s post stating the mission statement is “to eradicate breast cancer as a life-threatening disease by advancing research, education, screening, and treatment”, that it appears none of the money raised goes to breast cancer research … or at least not enough that they’d talk about it on their site.

    Information from their site —
    The funds raised from the Susan G. Komen Global Race for the Cure are granted to local programs that support Susan G. Komen for the Cure’s promise to save lives and end breast cancer forever. Up to 75% of the funds raised by the Global Race for the Cure stays in the D.C. Metro Area to fund breast health education and breast health screening and treatment projects.

    The remaining 25% of the funds raised by the Race for the Cure are used for the Susan G. Komen Global Promise Fund which is dedicated to reaching underserved people in areas where breast cancer death rates are highest and they’ll do so with projects that:

    – Increase breast health awareness and access to detection and treatment of breast cancer
    – Recruit and fund medical staff
    – Provide services to breast cancer survivors and their families
    – Recruit and train lay ambassadors to promote breast cancer awareness and treatment messages in underserved areas around the globe.

    Where does it say anything about the money going towards research to reduce the overall number of breast cancer cases?? Awareness is great but how do we stop it from happening in the first place?

  • No, Nancy, I don’t see myself volunteering for Komen again. I’ve moved on to less pink pastures.

  • Ruth Sternberg Portnoy

    I have little to add to the objections to linking pink with fried food. I thought it was weird when I saw the commercials and I still think it’s weird. BUT I think the American Heart Association now has a prime opportunity to move into higher gear spreading ITS messages. Heart disease kills many more women annually than breast cancer does. We don’t hear enough about it. Breast cancer is an important subject, too – but pink has edged out a lot of the other messages. I wouldn’t want other nonprofits commenting negatively on their sister organizations’ campaigns; that would be bad form. But there must be some way that this misstep can be a start to something positive in the heart-disease arena. Maybe linkage with the local foods movement? Or at least fresh vegetables? Organics?

  • Howard Adam Levy
  • michael

    What did Komen pull in last year in these cause marketing deals….$30 million+. That type of money tends to generate its own rules…and change the rules of the game. Komen has enormous cache and can sell that at a good price….KFC gets a good deal here.

    In a recession, competition for dollars increase. When you have a large sprawling organization that eats up lots of pricey overhead then the temptation is to fudge at the margins. Nothing new here.

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