Imitation: Compliment or Cause for Confusion?

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. But Susan G. Komen for the Cure isn’t taking such compliments lightly. The Wall Street Journal reported this week that Komen is taking legal action against several nonprofit organizations that have mirrored its brand attributes, including the “for the cure” term popularized by the breast cancer power brand. Nasty or necessary?

With more than 1.5 million nonprofits in the U.S. alone, nonprofit power brands must work harder than ever to protect their brand positions and assets. At the same time, small nonprofits are leveraging the recognizable branding to break through for similar causes. Some may see Komen’s actions as “picking on the little guys,” however others, including Komen, note that brand-borrowing leads to donor confusion. The article depicted one such case where two veteran-focused nonprofits engaged in a three-year legal battle over $2.2 million in donations thought to be misguided. Millions in erroneous donations is nothing to sneeze at. Consumers are often confused by cause messages, and at times may pull out their checkbooks for the wrong nonprofit.

But can any one nonprofit claim ownership of a color, symbol or phrase broadly associated with a cause movement? Think of the pink ribbon – it has become synonymous with breast cancer support thanks to pioneers Avon and Komen. And although 79% of Americans believe a memorable color, logo or icon helps the cause stand out, overuse has led to the pinking of October, watering down any individual efforts and leading to consumer confusion about whether a pink ribbon equals a financial contribution to the cause.

But imitation is not unique to cause brands or nonprofits. Corporations protect their brands all the time through trademarks and often trademark infringement lawsuits. Are the rules any different for nonprofits, which are focused on benefiting an issue rather than satisfying shareholders? We often expect nonprofits to act more like businesses, so they can maximize reach and impact for the cause, yet are also taken aback when they exert control over their brands like a company would. How can Komen strike the balance of protecting its brand without coming across as a nonprofit bully? Tell us what you think by sharing your comments.


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