14 May 2013

To Thine Own Self… Why the Public Forgives (Or Doesn’t) In A Crisis

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One dusty midsummer day many years ago my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer.  Like most families facing that news, we were traumatized: grieving, shaken, worried, we turned everywhere for answers, including the Susan B. Komen Foundation.  Ominously, that same year, three friends were diagnosed with breast cancer as well. We needed a place to coalesce and rally.

We thought we found it. That October we attended our first Race for the Cure. It was still a fairly young race, not the sophisticated Pinkathon it is today. I was struck in wonder by how many thousands of people were there, of every shape and size, color and background and age.  The tent where you could write the names of the friends of loved ones (in whose honor or memory you were racing) on a pink sheet of paper, and pin it to your shirt? Genius. It added to the weight of the occasion, it underscored the personal attachment everyone had to this race. We all had a reason, and all of those reasons were people we loved: some still fighting, some haunting us, their memories hovering just out of reach in the autumn air.  Susan G. Komen and Race for the Cure told us this was their brand/value proposition:  This Fight Touches Everyone, so give us your money and we will use it on behalf of everyone.

As the pink-hatted survivors streamed in — eventually, my mother and friends  — and then not my mother and friends — we couldn’t write checks or raise money fast enough. After my friends and mother died, and as more got it and more died and a few more lived, I and others wrote their names on our pink sheets and pinned them on our shirts, and we ran in those  f***ing races and we gave money.

Komen had a home run: they made you realize that cancer didn’t give a damn how much money someone made, or how little, or whether they had good teeth or a bad education, or their viewing habits or what language was spoken in the home. It went after women, erasing mothers and sisters and daughters either quickly or agonizingly slowly — honeybadgerlike, it didn’t care about that either.

So when they announced last year that they were withdrawing any dollars for breast cancer services to clinics at Planned Parenthood they shouldn’t have been surprised by the outrage. They brought politics — and income — into the equation, and nearly instantly destroyed their lofty message of, “we’re all in this together.”  Komen’s brand had a new subtext: If you aren’t a conservative, or if you don’t have money, it’s okay if you die.

That’s probably not what they intended.  But because they had built their brand on the truth that breast cancer doesn’t care about politics — and then betrayed that brand — the damage was done. The uproar was more deafening than any cheers I ever heard at a Race for the Cure. Social and traditional media exploded. Eventually, Komen reversed the decision. But it was too late. Before, they were untouchable. Now everyone wants to take them down a peg.

Whereas? When Chick-Fil-A last year said they wouldn’t support Gay Marriage, I wasn’t too fussed, because I haven’t given them a dime in years. I know exactly who they are, they’ve never pretended to be anything different. I don’t agree with them, but they don’t agree with me either, and that’s okay. Their message is consistent –hence, their audience finds them.  The customers who only wanted a sandwich won’t care, and the customers who want a chain that  supports gay marriage will go elsewhere.  But most importantly, the people who wanted a sandwich and who don’t support Gay Marriage, will feel validated for going to Chick-Fil-A in the first place.

If you stay true to your values and identity and your core customers support you, you can weather drive-by outrage.  But completely act out of sync with your brand’s identities and values?  Prepare to watch those customers wave bye — almost instantly, because they don’t know who you are anymore.  And if they don’t know you, they don’t have to be true to you. Do they?

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