Aggressive Komen Brand Management Sparks Controversy: Can One Organization Really Own an Entire Color?

By on Tuesday, January 25, 2011
NBC World News reported last night on a controversy involving one of America’s most well-known charities, the Susan G. Komen Foundation and its legal pursuit (to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars) of smaller nonprofit organizations using “for a cure” or “for the cure.” Additional footage is also available.
NBC reported that smaller charities with the same goal of combatting breast cancer, are now facing legal battles with the fundraising juggernaut. Sue Prom, a volunteer fundraiser and co-founder of the “Mush for the Cure” dog-sledding breast cancer fundraiser, is facing possible legal action from the Komen Foundation for use of the phrase “for the cure.”
Prom told the Huffington Post that she was actually warned by the National Breast Cancer Foundation to file for a trademark to protect Mushers for the Cure from the Komen Foundation before they would accept her donations. In its best year, Mushers for the Cure has raised $25,000. She now faces the prospect of getting a “cease and desist” order.
The Wall Street Journal reported on the legal skirmishes in August 2010, noting that the Susan G. Komen Foundation was even warning other nonprofits to avoid using the color pink, on pain of legal action.
“It is startling to us that Komen thinks they own pink,” says Mary Ann Tighe, who tangled with the breast-cancer charity over the color for her “Kites for a Cure” lung-cancer fund-raiser. “We cannot allow ourselves to be bullied to no purpose.”
Last year, Ms. Tighe’s Uniting Against Lung Cancer got a letter from Komen requesting it change the name of the charity’s “Kites for a Cure” fund-raiser, a beach event featuring hand-decorated kites, to “Kites for a Cause,” or another name. Komen later warned her against any use of pink in conjunction with “cure.”


The Susan G. Komen Foundation is practicing a new level of hyper brand vigilance in the nonprofit world.

The Huffington Post also covered the controversy in December 2010, noting that the Susan G. Komen Foundation has filed legal trademark oppositions to more than a hundred “Mom and Pop” charities. The story has sparked concern from donors.

Have things gotten so bad in the world of nonprofit fundraising, that we now have nonprofit organizations dueling over colors and fighting over names, instead of worrying about how to raise funds to cure cancer?

Komen’s actions seem to have risen to a new level of litigous intensity, not typically found in the nonprofit world. While many well-known charities manage a handful or a dozen trademarks, few register as many combinations. A trademark attorney talking with NBC, said that Komen has applied for or registered 197 trademarks. I think one would be hard pressed to find another nonprofit with as many trademark registrations or applications. NBC reported that since 1996, Komen reviewed 83 groups trademarking names related to “for the cure” and last year the organization spent more than a half of a million dollars on legal fees.

On the other side, the Susan G. Komen Foundation and other charities feel that they have donors getting confused by the multitude of smaller charities using “for the cure”. A spokesperson told NBC they may have been overzealous in their defense of “for the cure” because they feel an obligation to their donors and supporters who’ve built their brand. They worry that donors might assume funds are going to Komen when giving to these smaller charities, when really they are not.

The Wall Street Journal cited a real example of such confusion – the legal battle between the Wounded Warrior Project and Wounded Warriors, Inc. (now re-named Wounded Warrior Family Support due to the legal battle), over $2.2 million dollars raised by A lawsuit was originally filed in 2007, and earlier this month, the Nonprofit Times reported that a judge dismissed an appeal and awarded the Wounded Warrior Project $1.7 million dollars.

The $1.7 million included $1.295 million for deceptive trade practices and $400,000 for unjust enrichment as a result of confusion. The judge found that the Wounded Warrior organization in Nebraska, had managed a passive website that generated about $1,400 a month in donations. They did little advertising, fundraising or marketing. But after the Wounded Warrior Project was featured on Fox TV, the website started getting more than $90,000 a month in donations. After the website was shut down by a judge in July 2008, the Nebraska Wounded Warriors saw a 56% drop in donations, while the Wounded Warrior Project’s donations went up by 29%.

But is Komen really faced with such confusion?

As a consultant, I’ve always advised my clients to rigorously protect their trademarks, logos and names. The biggest worry is often not “brand confusion” but outright “brand piracy” – where someone with nefarious intentions lifts the organization’s name or logo and raises funds that never come to the charity. Or where someone is using the name or logo to raise funds, but refusing to comply with established guidelines for fund management that raise questions about how the funds are being used and managed.

In those situations, I’ve recommended legal action be taken. But there is so much overlap with language, that taglines are often much more difficult to protect. And colors in general, are very difficult to stake out. There are only so many colors, and there are thousands of nonprofit organizations raising funds. To say that only one group can use the color pink, seems egotistical at best.

And then there’s the culture issue. It’s common in the nonprofit world for smaller organizations or affiliate groups to use the branding of a larger organization they are affiliated with or are raising funds for – spawning a host of fundraising toolkits, logo usage information, and advice on marketing throughout the nonprofit world. Many charities view this strategy as empowering brand amplifiers, not detractors. They are effectively making others ambassadors of the brand. Komen even has an ambassador program, and certainly encourages runners and others participating in its programs, to do this very thing.

The legal actions taken by the Susan G. Komen Foundation against other charities fly against the collaborative and grassroots culture of the nonprofit world. Why not work with these charities to ensure donors are properly educated about what their money is going toward, rather than legally squashing them?
One could argue it’s a classic case of the legal department, overpowering the marketing department. Komen’s aggressive brand management is actually hurting its brand, and giving it a repuation of bullying other nonprofit organizations. Sue Prom told Huffington Post:
“I used to give money to Komen all the time, but now I’m just kind of wary of them,” she said. “I’m not buying Yoplait yogurt or anything that has the word ‘Komen’ on it. They seem to have forgotten what charity is about.”

Good brand management should be about living your values as an organization, not just defending your turf. Let’s all hope that the collaborative spirit and energy shown typically through the Susan G. Komen brand, infiltrates the organizaton’s leadership attitude. New solutions are needed, and too many resources that could be going to real cures are getting squandered.

Everyone wants to know what you think.

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