The Race for the Exits: How Komen Can Stop the Exodus

02/06/2012 06:50 pm ET | Updated Apr 07, 2012

Drastic action is imperative if Race for the Cure hopes to stave off a catastrophic implosion.

Now that Susan G. Komen has reversed its decision to stop funding breast cancer screenings for Planned Parenthood, it must take drastic, meaningful and very public measures to win back the hearts and minds of supports, consumers and corporate sponsors. One "mea culpa" apology will not be enough to shore up sponsors or win back consumers' loyalty.

As anyone working for Komen can attest, surviving a traumatic event doesn't mean you're healed. It's an even odds bet that Komen, will remain highly toxic to promotional partners and their target audiences for months and years to come if it doesn't make substantive change and voice it to the public immediately.

When using borrowed equity to sell products or services, marketers seek out the best fit for their brand and their consumers. Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure was the Cinderella story of all charitable efforts, arguably the most popular nonprofit in history. Yoplait, General Mills, American Airlines, Evian and a host of other big players partnered with Komen to lift their brands among a coveted audience, Shopper Moms.

Those of us marketers around at the beginning remember the truly groundbreaking arrival of Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure. Komen, singlehandedly, changed how marketers felt about what was, historically, a verboten subject. Before Susan G. Komen, the vast majority of marketers thought pairing cancer with their products or services was brand suicide. Marketing agencies bold enough to suggest Komen tie-ins heard in more than one corporate conference room, "You want us to do WHAT? Tie candy in with BREAST CANCER? It'll ruin our BRAND!" Then came Race for the Cure. Pink ribbons began to show up everywhere, on everything. And Shopper Moms LOVED it. They were buying up Komen related products in droves, and corporate sponsors reaped the rich rewards. Shopper Moms were passionate in their support of women's health, and their actions taught many in marketing a crucial lesson. An association with Breast Cancer and Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure didn't harm a brand, it could skyrocket it.

Sadly, today is a completely different day for Komen. Marketers need to be beyond certain that the pink ribbon and Susan G. Komen logo will make shoppers want to buy a box of corn flakes rather than avoid or (marketing gods forbid) intentionally boycott it. With all of passion on both sides of the issue, Komen has a long, uncharted and potentially perilous road ahead of it.

If you're a member of Yoplait's marketing department, for example, the logical step would be to sever the relationship with Susan G. Komen as it exists today in support of another worthy breast cancer charity. As a multi-million dollar brand trying to sell more yogurt, Yoplait simply can't risk shopper backlash. Susan G. Komen cannot, unfortunately, turn back the hands of time and erase their grievous error in judgment. However, doing nothing past issuing an apology will permanently damage what almost three decades of painstaking efforts have established.

Komen must shore up marketing and consumer support by ridding itself of those whose thinking got Komen into this mess in the first place. The current board, President, CEO, CMO and Director of Public Policy should resign, effectively immediately. By eliminating the leaders who approved the Planned Parenthood grant debacle, it will send a loud and clear message that the Komen women knew, loved and trusted is back in business. When outraged consumers no longer fault Komen for its incompetency, supporters will return and partnerships with Komen will be viable for corporate sponsors. If Komen continues with the old guard that got them in the mess in the first place, consumers and marketers will have no assurances that such an error in judgment won't happen again.

In addition to replacing the leadership at Komen, the organization should consider inviting a respected voice from the breast cancer-screening arena at Planned Parenthood to sit on the Race for the Cure board. Also, Komen would be smart to partner with the breast cancer screening area of Planned Parenthood on a share promotional effort. The two could execute a cooperative campaign with one of Komen's corporate sponsors. "Support Breast Cancer Screenings for Women in Need," benefiting Susan G. Komen and Planned Parenthood's breast cancer screening initiatives, would help a) put the focus back where it belongs -- on breast cancer and women's health and b) show consumers and marketers that Komen is serious about change that's devoid of politics.

Even if Susan G. Komen implemented the suggestions herein, there would still be a massive amount of repair that must take place. Consumers' loyalty is a fascinating in regard to its potential benefits and liabilities. If you meet consumers' wants, needs and desires, they will stay true. If you forget who your audience is, even for a couple of days, it can take a brand like Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure generations to recover.

The mission of Komen is simply too important to women to wait that long.

Sarah O'Leary is a 25-year marketing veteran and author of Brandwashed: Why the Shopper Matters More Than What You're Selling".