Monthly Archives: February 2012

Beware of Marketing Linsanity: To protect your reputation, apply this test before bringing your Lin-spired product to market

Linsanity has swept the nation.  Even people who hate the Knicks find themselves taken in by this great story of an unknown point guard who was about to released and sleeping on a couch becoming the Knicks’ game-changer, in the truest sense of the word.

This is the kind of icon that brands often fight to associate themselves with – a hard working, Harvard-educated athlete who embodies the American dream and the old adage that hard work pays off. A recent study suggests that he is more marketable than first name only NBA greats like Kobe and LeBron.  Rumor has it that Nike will begin offering Linsane sneakers via Nike ID as soon as this week.  No doubt the endorsement deals are already rolling in.

But brands should beware of marketing Linsanity.   Aligning with a celebrity must be authentic and relevant in order to be successful.  Take, for example, Ben & Jerry’s new Lin-inspired flavor, complete with lychee and fortune cookie pieces. Ben & Jerry’s is known (and loved) for its cheeky, humorous approach to flavor development (Chubby Hubby, anyone?).  So their approach to creating a limited edition flavor was completely authentic to the brand. Unfortunately, it also prompted backlash, and a series of twitter apologies, due to the racial stereotyping involved with the flavor.

Why will Nike Linsanity probably work, while Ben & Jerry’s failed?

Authenticity – I’m not aware that Jeremy Lin is a major ice cream lover, or credits ice cream for his amazing performance on the court.  But he definitely wears sneakers…

Relevance – Yes, Jeremy Lin went to Harvard.  And yup, Ben & Jerry’s is from New England.  But it ends there.  Nike, on the other hand, has committed to basketball in a major way…and having a shoe aligned with a player is a proven formula for success.  Launching via Nike ID would be particularly genius (and on the heels of the blockbuster Nike Fuel launch).  Nike ID is a high-priced, presumably high margin product.  It’s exclusive (often a criteria for trendy) and it eliminates the product development cycle time and enables them to go to market while Lin is still hot.  After all, it remains to be seen if he will have the staying power of a Michael Jordan, Kobe or LeBron.

Aligning his play with your brand is appropriate – Racial stereotypes aren’t.  (Never mind that Lin is from California).

In conference rooms across corporate America, marketers are scrambling to capture some of the Linsanity opportunity.  Let the Ben & Jerry’s gaffe serve as a cautionary tale to us all.

From a pink halo to a pink badge of shame…overnight

I often say that good communications is not an effective remedy for bad policy.  When trouble hits, everyone suddenly needs “communications help.”  But communications can only change perception if you’ve fixed the underlying problem.  Case in point:  the Susan G. Komen Foundation.

I remember when the Susan G. Komen Foundation came on the scene.  It was early on in my PR career, and every client I had wanted to partner with them – almost as fervently as they wanted to be on Oprah. Soon we had pink everything – from KitchenAid mixers to diamond necklaces – all supporting breast cancer research.  And the Komen Foundation became the Xerox, QTip or Kleenex of breast cancer.   Heck, the NFL had a pink out.  The Komen Foundation and the pink ribbon became the gold standard for every health advocacy group out there.  Until today.

Unless you’ve been shut off from the world the past few days, you know that the Komen Foundation will no longer be funding mammograms and other cancer detection services through Planned Parenthood.  I learned about it the same way you probably did – on Facebook.  And if social media is a good indication, this one isn’t going to just pass over.  The Komen Foundation has quickly become Public Enemy No. 1 for women everywhere, and put the debate over coverage of contraceptives on the back burner. Commentary ranges from statements about the power and influence of right leaning politics to suggestions that the foundation itself has lost its way in a sea of pink licensing and promotional deals.

The Komen folks point to a new policy that prohibits them from funding, but a recent story highlights the departure of a top executive as a result of that policy, and several inside sources who paint a picture of duplicity – a public Komen advocating for women, while privately scheming to cut off Planned Parenthood in a nod to conservative politics who’ve made sport of villain-izing Planned Parenthood.  What inevitably follows is the question of Komen’s trustworthiness, and where the money goes.  How much of the millions they raise through walks, endorsement, licensing and product sales really goes to cancer research, and with what kind of results?

The pundits will surely be lining up to talk about the importance of crisis communications.  And yes, good crisis communications will be key to the very existence of the Komen Foundation.  But this isn’t a communications problem – this is a policy problem.  In an apparent nod to conservative politics, the Susan G. Komen foundation manufactured a new policy in order to sever ties with Planned Parenthood. The Komen Foundation seemingly forgot, or miscalculated, the priorities of its passionate advocates and supporters. Good communications, even great communications, can’t fix bad policy or bad decisions.  The Susan G. Komen Foundation needs to make good decisions first, then communicate.



The Pink Scandal:  Who are the winners and losers in the Komen Foundation Reputation Debacle?


Planned Parenthood – who may get some reprieve from being the poster child for abortion and re-cast for what they are – a provider of women’s health services – and one that heavily serves poor and uninsured women — a population of women who often have few options for healthcare.

Former Komen Exec Mollie Williams – who got out of dodge before things got ugly and has handled media inquiries with dignity and grace.

Mike Bloombergwho personally pledged to match donations to Planned Parenthood for Cancer screenings up to $250,000.

Serendipitous Beneficiary – The American Cancer Society – long respected for their work to combat the dreaded “C” word – they have the opportunity to “take back” breast cancer as their own, and mobilize support from the people who still want to fight cancer, but don’t want to support the Komen Foundation.


No surprises here – The Susan G. Komen Foundation, and the research that may see a decline in funding if support for their efforts dwindles.  You have to question whether ceasing a $600,000 grant – a drop in the bucket for both organizations – was worth the reputational damage.

Women – Millions of uninsured and low income women who rely on Planned Parenthood for their healthcare needs, including cancer screenings.

The employees of Susan G. Komen Foundation – When the sex abuse scandals of the Catholic Church were on the front page, a priest friend told me he was ashamed to wear his collar in public for the first time in his life.  I would imagine that many of the employees at the Foundation work there because they passionately believe in this cause.  Overnight, they’ve gone form walking tall and proud because they work for the gold standard to defending themselves and their employer.

Collateral Damage – The color pink is no longer the new black; but the pink ribbon may be the new Scarlet Letter.   Pinkwashing is the new greenwashing.

A Big Stumble in the Race for the Cure

Some NGOs court controversy and engage in political theater to promote their causes and fill their coffers.  Until this week, the Susan G. Komen Foundation, the leading breast cancer charity, was mostly known for pink ribbons, hot pink adorned athletes, their Races for the Cure across America and efforts to promote breast cancer screening and finding and battling the disease.   All that changed with the announcement of the organization’s decision to cut funding to Planned Parenthood.  The news unleashed a torrent of opposition to Komen from cyberspace to Capitol Hill and has proved a monetary god send for the beleaguered Planned Parenthood.

Though the drama continues to play out (Komen announced a reversal of its decision today), it is already having a devastating impact on the reputation of Komen, with organization executives resigning in protest, women throughout the country cutting up their pink ribbons and Komenwear, calls for boycotts and politicians racing toward microphones to opine on the decision.  In time, we will be able to gauge the effect on Komen’s standing and the multi-millions it raises each year but the organization’s early stumbles in terms of communications cloud its future.

From a crisis communications aspect, an organization needs to war game the potential public reaction for any controversial announcement (and first appreciate what in fact will be controversial) and be prepared for potential reactions among all its stakeholders.  This can help decide what and how to communicate.  For an otherwise incredibly savvy- marketing Komen, there seems to have been a serious lack of planning here or appreciation of the impact of the news.

The initial rationale for the decision that was floated tied the defunding to new criteria which barred grants to organizations under investigation.  For Planned Parenthood, this was a seemingly politically motivated investigation by a conservative Republican Congressman. Thus, Komen was catapulted into the center of an election year scrum amidst passionate politicos of all stripes.  With social media already hyper-buzzing, Komen added even more fuel to the flames with a poorly scripted and stiffly delivered defense of its action on its Facebook page.

As the controversy took over the airwaves and digital media (with Planned Parenthood reaping the benefits of the media onslaught and a rush of new contributions), Komen committed perhaps an even bigger communications gaffe.  It changed its story. Yesterday, Komen founder Nancy Brinker, grimly and combatively did the cable TV circuit, to offer a new rational for the funding cut and equivocate a bit on what the decision meant to future grants for Planned Parenthood.  The reason du jour was now Komen’s desire to support groups that directly provide breast health services and that Planned Parenthood only provided referrals.


This fire fight is far from over but it is already offering lessons in what not to do from a crisis communications perspective.  We will keep watching to see how Komen plays it from here and how it will ultimately impact its reputation.