Wrong sponsorship can hurt your brand — The Komen-KFC controversy

May 24, 2010

I’ve written before about the basic ins and outs of corporate sponsorship and the importance of the right fit between charity and corporate sponsor. This issue of fit is a hot topic as of late over at the Getting Attention blog. Blogger Nancy E. Schwartz wrote a post about a controversial marketing partnership between a U.S. breast cancer charity called Susan G. Komen for the Cure and KFC. KFC is giving the charity 50 cents for every pink bucket of chicken sold (pink being the ubiquitous colour of breast cancer cause marketing). The controversy is that some see the partnership as a gross mismatch between a health cause and a product that promotes obesity (a known risk factor for breast cancer).

Nancy did a wonderful job of chronicling the issue in a case study and asked readers to contribute their thoughts and opinions. She got a tremendous response. She then compiled a summary of the comments and insights and pulled them together in a thoughtful article that would be a valuable read for any charity or corporation considering a marketing partnership.

For me, this situation really underlines how important it is for charitable organizations to have a gift acceptance and sponsorship policy. Such a policy provides guidelines for considering the types of gifts and partnerships that are consistent with the organization’s mission. These need to be in place before a corporation comes knocking on the organization’s door with a tempting fist full of dollars.

Of course, this is something that the corporate sponsor also needs to consider as some supporters of the cause may be so turned off by the sponsorship it will diminish the corporate brand as well. Corporate marketers are looking for sponsorships that assist the company’s brand and help the cause. The negative counterpart to this is that some corporations use the sponsorship to “brighten” or “wash” their brand. Environmental causes seem to be most susceptible to this dynamic these days.

For charities, it’s so important to do a thorough job of researching the potential corporate sponsor. You need to anticipate potential problems and, as Nancy suggests, if you decide to go with a sponsor that might generate some controversy, you need to have a crisis plan in place should things blow up.

There are defenders of the KFC-Komen for the Cure partnership who say KFC’s support is raising awareness of breast cancer for a demographic that has not yet been educated and mobilized around the issue (i.e., lower-income Americans, particularly African-Americans).  The argument is that the sponsorship should consider the target audience of the cause.  Other cause organizations have argued the benefits of controversial partnerships using a “change from within” argument. For example, when Wal-Mart engaged in partnerships with a variety of environmental groups (The World Wildlife Fund, among others) some raised eyebrows over the association. The environmental groups argued that teaming up with Wal-Mart on the environmental front was a way to make a huge impact given the retail giant’s scope and influence. Although these associations were not exactly a sponsorship arrangement, it did tie the two brands together. In the end, supporters seemed to have accepted the “change from within” rationalization and the partnership has continued.

I think what makes the Koman-KFC partnership a tougher sell is that it is that it’s missing that “change from within” element. Had this sponsorship been paired with an expansion of KFC products that are more healthful, it might have avoided controversy or been in a better position to defend itself. The pink packaging could have gone on the wrapper of its grilled chicken sandwiches, for example. In reality, the Koman-KFC partnership was indicated by a pink bucket (containing fried chicken) and was announced shortly after the chain launched its Double Down sandwich consisting of bacon and cheese housed within two pieces of boneless fried chicken. Yikes!

I’d be interested to hear from readers of this blog about potentially controversial sponsorships that work as well as an opinion about why they work. Know of any?

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*Photo courtesy of Neubie (Flickr)

2 Responses to “Wrong sponsorship can hurt your brand — The Komen-KFC controversy”

  1. messagecom Says:

    Thanks for your comment, Pink Strong. I’m sure this sponsorship will result in a large number of dollars for the charity. I think the point is, though, that this partnership has generated controversy and the issues at play (e.g., unhealthy food, obesity)are ones that the charity should have considered carefully before going ahead with it.

    It is true that corporations often have a genuine motive to help the charities they are partnering with but they also have corporate goals for the partnership. Sponsorships are part of the marketing mix—they are never purely philanthropic. Otherwise, the corporation would provide a straight donation with no strings attached.

    So, KFC’s overall corporate goal is profit. This sponsorship, and all others they may engage in, must fit within that overriding goal. I’m not suggesting they have sinister motives. Of course, their goal isn’t to lure women in to get obese and get breast cancer. KFC’s motive is to make money and to have a positive association with a charity whose cause fits with its customer demographic.

  2. Pink Strong Says:

    Great story. However often overlooked their intentions are good. I am sure KFC is not trying to lure in women to get obese and develop breast cancer. Take a step back and look at the bigger picture.

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