Recent events involving Google and the Susan G. Komen for the Cure Foundation have raised important reminders about embracing a core mission and what happens when an organization decides to stray away from it. Both Google and Susan G. Komen deviated from their core mission, and as details emerged and public debate intensified, both organizations were forced to confront the unanticipated fallout.
What Went Wrong
Google created an uproar when it began injecting Google+ into search results without providing similar results from rival social networks like Facebook and Twitter. Google’s entire business was founded on the mission of “don’t be evil,” aiming to provide the best, most relevant, unbiased search results. Yet this move broke its promise to users, delivering deliberately biased results. The blogosphere erupted with criticism of Google, and current and former employees expressed dismay with the company’s actions.
Susan G. Komen, the nation’s largest breast cancer organization, found itself at the center of a controversy when it cut off funding to Planned Parenthood clinics for free breast cancer screening. Planned Parenthood provides needed preventative health services to 20% of American women, and its pro-female contingency could not grasp its decision. Susan G. Komen responded by saying it was fulfilling a fiduciary duty to donors by not funding grant applications made by organizations under investigation. (Planned Parenthood is being investigated by a Congressional committee instigated by a staunch anti-abortion activist on claims that it illegally used taxpayer money to fund abortions.) The organization faltered again when it started giving differing explanations for why they cut funds. The fallout: high-level resignations (and threats of resignation), a tsunami of online protests and complaints, boycotts of the organization, and boycotts of its sponsors. This pressure quickly caused the once-revered organization to reverse its earlier move and reinstate Planned Parenthood funding.
Brand Integrity at Stake
Much of the damage to each organization stems from the fact that neither appeared credible once the smoke cleared and the dust settled. Google claims that it lacked access to content from rival social networks was widely debunked, and Komen’s decision to cut Planned Parenthood funding appeared highly politicized despite its assertions to the contrary.
From a strategic perspective, the issue isn’t about good and bad - it’s about brand integrity. Google did not keep in mind the best interests of its users. Furthermore, the company is no longer a startup whose actions go unnoticed, but a large enterprise competing with the likes of Apple and Microsoft. For its part, Susan G. Komen diverted attention, good will, and money away from its core mission - breast cancer activities - by wading into explosive abortion politics.
MG Siegler of tech site PandoDaily summed up this dynamic perfectly. Although he’s writing about Google, the point applies equally to Susan G. Komen or any other organization whose mission has been breached:
“Many of us are stuck arguing the details. The details don’t actually matter. Who has access to what data doesn’t actually matter. What deals are struck behind the scenes doesn’t actually matter. Whether Google is hurting competition by using their position of power doesn’t actually matter. The destruction of the product is all that matters.”
Google may be large and established enough to emerge from this controversy with little more than a black eye. It may also decide to let its search engine take some knocks in the interest of pursuing a long-term-plan that will strengthen its competitive position against the company’s formidable foes.
Susan G. Komen, however, doesn’t appear to occupy such a strong market position nor did its missteps serve a broader strategic purpose. Its sponsors, which had supported a “safe”, apolitical cause, have been put into an awkward position, one they will undoubtedly revisit when it comes time to renewing their sponsorship. Indie band The Decemberists pulled its support from Susan G. Komen, routing its donations for breast health directly to Planned Parenthood. Will other sponsors and donors distance themselves as well?
Understanding Your Core Mission
Google and Susan G. Komen could have potentially avoided the situations they found themselves in. However, it’s easy to play armchair quarterback and pontificate about organizations that got things wrong, when getting things right can sometimes be difficult. As companies grow, core values and missions may change. This happens a lot, particularly at startups, which may need to reshape their brand – sometimes drastically or repeatedly – as their target markets, business model and products evolve. At a minimum, though, companies should take note of others’ experience and make their strategic decisions with a full understanding of what’s at stake: brand integrity, reputation and loyalty. Fully anticipating potential fallout with a bulletproof rationale and communications plan is a good way for companies to protect their brand and more successfully weather change.