Susan G. Komen for the Cure®’s new fragrance Promise Me has more than a few people up in arms about the lengths this nonprofit organization (or perhaps more appropriately termed, nonprofit corporation), will go to guarantee its position in the breast cancer marketplace. The organization technically is in the business of ending breast cancer not hawking pink ribbon product lines. If it worked as it should, achieving its mission would render the organization and its increasing number of branded products obsolete.
This irony is not lost on a growing number of individuals and organizations taking aim at what they believe to be seriously misdirected activities. Komen’s corporate partnership last October with consumer products investor and operator, TPR Holdings, only invigorated discontent. TPR‘s targeted investments include “scalable mass and prestige opportunities in health, beauty and wellness categories.” Together, Komen and TPR envisioned “union of beauty and charity” that took the form of a scalable, mass-produced, prestige item specifically designed for Susan G. Komen for the Cure®, a fragrance called Promise Me. The perfume was released in April, given as a complimentary sample to prospective beauty bloggers and reviewers, and is slated to remain on the market for six months “with new editions launching each year.”
The Komen-TPR partnership capitalizes both on the famous promise that Komen founder Nancy Brinker made thirty years ago to her sister to end breast cancer and on the cross-promotion of Brinker’s latest book, which chronicles her attempts to keep that promise through the growth of Susan G. Komen for the Cure®. When consumers purchase Promise Me the fragrance from the promotional website or in department stores (i.e., Lord & Taylor, Nordstrom’s, and Sephora at JC Penney), they received a free copy of Promise Me the book (while supplies lasted). The perfume is also available on the Home Shopping Network (HSN), and Brinker was featured on HSN on May 26th to kick off TV sales.
Brinker’s appearance on HSN confirmed for many the mounting suspicion that Susan G. Komen for the Cure® is more interested in being in business to sell Brinker and her cause than to solve the crucial problem that founded the organization three decades ago.
A scathing essay by KomenWatch titled “The Scent of Exploitation“ analyzed the Promise Me website and promotion to illustrate the slick marketing and business logic of the beauty/charity partnership. “Against a sensual light plum background,” KomenWatch writes, “the copy describing the new perfume is alluring,” a way to …
“tantalize women consumers with sophisticated femininity and a just a hint of sensuality and social conscience…The advertisement oozes inspiration and exquisite attention to detail all the way to the perfume bottle marked with SGK’s signature (and trademarked) running ribbon.”
Featuring the eleven fragrance notes used in Susan G. Komen for the Cure®’s signature formulation, the creators of Promise Me then Komenized the scent by assigning special meaning to each. Pink peony signifies “femininity, tenderness and passion” while providing a “special message of hope.” Orchids represent “love, beauty, and strength.” Musk gives a “warm, sensual finish.”
Enriching the flood of sensuousness with the mandate of optimism, French perfumer Jean Claude Delville adds his own message about what the fragrance inspires: ”a long lasting emotion of positive energy, hope, and love…something empowering…that would speak to all women.” As Delville’s message suggests, Susan G. Komen for the Cure® — and mainstream pink culture more generally — uses an idealized feminine aesthetic to stylize the fight against breast cancer. The cause relies on imagery of pretty, happy, optimistic survivors who wear their survivorship with pride, elegance, sensuality, and the perfect blend of cosmetic enhancements.
The marriage of femininity and consumption as the ultimate means for “doing good” for the cause of breast cancer is the cornerstone of Susan G. Komen for the Cure®’s branding strategy. Multitudes of advertisements suggest the ideal approach to the “war” on breast cancer: Look good; feel good; buy the brand. This prescription is meant for survivors and supporters alike.
The “Inspired to Fight” advertisement for the 2010 Dallas Race for the Cure features a gorgeous bald woman made up to have eyebrows, eyelashes, and a healthy complexion. With head tilted back, a flawless smile, and a pink ribbon streaming around her neck and bare shoulders, this sexy “survivor” with moxy looks back at the camera as if she hasn’t a care in the world. She is “inspired” to wear a ribbon, “fight” the good fight, and showcase the beauty of her survivorship. In this ad, she could just as easily be spritzing herself with Promise Me fragrance.
Nancy Brinker herself is the ultimate embodiment of the Susan G. Komen for the Cure® brand. In her appearance on the Home Shopping Network to sell the Promise Me Eau de Toilette Gift Set at the special price of $39.99, the immaculately groomed Brinker wore a pink jacket embroidered with Susan G. Komen for the Cure®’s trademarked running ribbon. Brinker seldom wears anything other than pink, ribboned attire in her public presentations. In addition to the usual commentary about her sister, her promise, and all of the good her organization has done, Brinker equated the fragrance of her signature perfume with the prettiness of pink.
“It feels like, and has the fragrance of, what you would imagine pink is like. And you feel it when you wear it…It’s such a pretty color, a beautiful bottle…”
By the end of Brinker’s 15-minute TV spot HSN sold nearly 2000 Promise Me gift sets. TPR Holdings aims for roughly $30 million in sales this year, generating $3 to $4 million for Komen. Next year “another scent with new juice and different packaging” will launch Komen into yet another revenue-producing cycle.
With all of its other partnerships, fundraising events, advertising, and public relations promos, Komen has obtained significant financial leverage and the brand is a household name. Some organizations and disease-specific causes wish they had a fraction of the attention and resources amassed by the pink machine. Komen’s approach, however, does not come without significant trade-offs that could end up undermining the organization. Stay tuned.