Authentic Organizational Partnerships: Co-Branding and The Abercrombie & Fitch Trauma Center

by cv harquail on March 27, 2008


(photo from TheConsumerist)

In an earlier post we considered how the new name of the Abercrombie & Fitch Trauma Center might affect the Center’s employees. Here, let’s consider why a partnership between Abercrombie & Fitch and the Columbus Children’s Hospital is inauthentic. And, let’s consider what criteria should be used to evaluate whether a partnership would support the Trauma Center’s authenticity.

Authentic organizational partnerships reinforce who the organization is, how it presents itself, and the actions it takes. They also support a dynamic fidelity between these elements.

In authentic, co-branded partnerships, the nonprofit organization adopts the name of a commercial entity, and this new name conveys who the organization is what it stands for and what it does as effectively (if not more effectively) than its former name.

The recent co-branding partnership between the Columbus Children’s Hospital Trauma Center and the teen apparel marketer Abercrombie & Fitch is a great example of an inauthentic co-branded partnership.

The Co-Branding Controversy

The Columbus Children’s Hospital recently announced that it would attach the Abercrombie & Fitch brand name to its Trauma Center in recognition for a $10 million contribution from A&F. The controversy around this announcement has focused on whether a commercial entity (rather than an individual philanthropist) should be able to impose its name on a nonprofit organization and whether the Trauma Center’s new name — and the organizational partnership that the name represents — is appropriate for a children’s medical center.

Changing Names, Changing Meaning

In the past, the accepted, conventional practice has been for a nonprofit organization to adopt an individual philanthropist’s name as a way to honor that individual for his financial “gift”. Within this convention, it’s understood that attaching the philanthropist’s name to the organization is more about the donor’s need to be recognized than it is about the organization’s need to reflect its own defining characteristics in its name. This is a kind of “co-branding” that attaches little new meaning to the organization, and has little effect on the organization’s authenticity.

However, when a nonprofit organization adopts the name of a commercial entity (be that a for-profit organization or one of its brands) the exchange is not as straightforward.

Co-branding a nonprofit organization with a commercial entity’s brand name causes problems because it blurs the line between ‘recognizing’ the donor and ‘branding’ the nonprofit organization. When a nonprofit organization adopts the name of a commercial entity in exchange for cash, what gets exchanged between the organization and the commercial entity is not just cash, but also meaning.

Because an organization’s name captures and conveys the organization’s identity and image, adopting a new name means adopting a new meaning, a new image and maybe even a new identity. When a nonprofit organization adopts a brand name, it also adopts all the meanings attached to that brand name. Co-branding itself with a commercial name changes the way the nonprofit presents itself and how it is perceived.

Brand names, by their very definition, convey a lot of meaning. Much of this meaning is inappropriate to attach to a nonprofit organization. Because this meaning has been crafted to help sell products, it’s not likely that the meanings associated with a brand are adequate for conveying the identity of an organization, particularly a nonprofit organization that is otherwise unrelated to the brand. In general, a brand name will not easily capture and convey the identity and image of another organization.

In the specific case of the Abercrombie & Fitch Trauma Center, the Columbus Children’s Hospital had already agreed to partner with a commercial brand. And, they had already agreed to make this partnership visible through co-branding and re-naming their organization. Once having made these decisions, the leadership at the Columbus Children’s Hospital should have spent more time on their third decision — which brand name to take on as a partner.

They appear not to have considered whether the new, co-branded name would ‘fit’ the image and identity of the Trauma Center. If a co-branded name fits, there will be little impact on the Trauma Center’s authenticity. But if a new name doesn’t fit, it will interfere with the Trauma Center’s ability to sustain a positive congruence between its identity, its public image and its actions.

Any time an organization chooses to adopt someone else’s brand name, they are also implicitly attaching to themselves the meanings conveyed by that brand name. Because the meanings attached to the Abercrombie & Fitch brand name contradict the values, norms, and defining characteristics of the Children’s Hospital, the name no longer fits. Adopting the A&F brand name distorts the Trauma Center’s image and interferes with its ability to sustain authenticity.

Names that don’t fit are inauthentic

When an organization’s name no longer conveys what employees think defines their organization, there are some serious implications. Organization members have to put some effort into managing the gap between the meanings conveyed by the name and the attributes of their organization. Employees can either ignore the brand’s attributes, distance themselves from the brand’s attributes, or assertively try to counteract these newly-attached and ill-fitting qualities. While it’s good for employees to be paying attention to how their organization is presented, who wants their organization’s members to be “ignoring”, “distancing” or “counteracting” the organization’s identity?

At the organizational level, the Trauma Center’s leadership has to manage away the negative effects of their new, inauthentic name. The administrators and employees of the Children’s Hospital are currently busy trying to counteract the negative press of their new co-branded name. They have a public relations problem (fanned by the tenacious Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood) that will require lots of leadership time, energy, financial resources, and community goodwill to manage. All of this is taking leadership time, effort, and energy away from providing the best emergency trauma care to the children of Columbus, Ohio.

A missed opportunity

The Columbus Children’s Hospital leadership missed the opportunity to use co-branding as a leadership tool. They could have used their willingness to adopt a new organizational name as a tool for focusing and motivating their organization and its members towards the Hospital’s medical purpose, but they did not. They did not pay attention to the way that adapting, tinkering with, or changing organization’s name changes the meanings that are automatically associated with an organization. They failed to realize how their co-branding could damage their organization’s overall authenticity.

Criteria for an authentic, co-branded partnership

How can we evaluate whether adopting a commercial brand name, as a way of recognizing a corporate partnership, would nurture a nonprofit organization’s authenticity? The most important question for a nonprofit the way the potential partnership reflects on their organizational purpose. For a nonprofit organization, their purpose is their raison d’etre. Every decision they make should be evaluated for whether it advances or impedes their purpose.

When a nonprofit organization’s authenticity is important to it, what other criteria should they use? At minimum, the potential relationship between the nonprofit and the branded entity needs to be (1) congruent, (2) relevant, and (3) expansive. Each criterion is related to a component of authenticity: the organization’s identity, the organization’s image, and the organization’s actions.


To support the authenticity of the nonprofit organization’s identity, how it defines itself, a potential partnership must be congruent. That is, the attributes, qualities, and values of the potential partner need to be congruent with the attributes, qualities, and values of the nonprofit. This doesn’t mean that the qualities of the two organizations need to be exactly the same, but only that the qualities be mutually supportive. By this criterion, the association of the animal rights group PETA with a beauty product brand that abjures animal testing makes sense.


To support the authenticity of the nonprofit’s image, the way it presents itself, the potential partnership must be relevant to the nonprofit’s purpose. There needs to be something beyond a financial reason for the two organizations to be associated with each other. By this criterion, a potential partnership between an animal rescue center and Purina (the pet food company) would seem more authentic, while a partnership between the animal rescue center and a car manufacturer would seem irrelevant and thus not support authenticity.


To support the authenticity of the nonprofit’s actions, a potential partnership should allow the nonprofit to expand its purpose-focused activities through non-monetary means. There should be a way that the relationship with the commercial entity “adds value” to the nonprofit’s ability to pursue its purpose. Things that might expand the organization’s purpose include enlarging the organization’s scope, improving their technical capacity, raising their public profile, developing members’ leadership skills, and inspiring and motivating members.

A Failure of association

Using the criteria of congruence, relevance, and expansiveness, the partnership between the Trauma Center and Abercrombie & Fitch corrodes the Trauma Center’s overall authenticity. There is no discernible congruence between the Trauma Center’s values, qualities, and attributes and those of Abercrombie & Fitch. Rather, there seems to be a serious contradiction between the Hospital’ s professed desire to be a place where “curing and caring go hand-in-hand”and A&F’s exploitation of teenage sexuality to sell clothing.

Beyond the obvious exchange of money for publicity, there is no relevant reason for the trauma center to attach to itself the Abercrombie & Fitch brand name. Yes, there may be a distant rationale, that A&F is part of the Columbus, Ohio community and is donating money to the hospital as a way to support the community. But an association with Abercrombie & Fitch is not relevant to the direct pursuit of the Trauma Center’s purpose.

The partnership does not expand the Trauma Center’s ability to pursue its purpose through non-monetary means. Its employees are not motivated by the new meanings pasted on the Trauma Center’s image through the Abercrombie & Fitch brand name. And, there is no way that these new qualities help the Trauma Center as an organization to focus on providing their service to the community.

The Hospital administration missed the opportunity to associate themselves with brand name that brought with it meanings that could have supported, extended and motivated them in their health care mission.

Possible exceptions, where branding a nonprofit might make sense

Although in general I’m against naming nonprofit and/or publicly funded organizations with commercial brand names, there are a few cases where this sort of the connection between a nonprofit and a commercial organization might make sense for the nonprofit. Consider, for example, the possibility of the “Lifetime Entertainment for Women Breast Cancer Clinic”.

Anyone familiar with Lifetime Entertainment — either as an entertainment brand or as an organization — knows that this organization is a long time advocate for breast cancer awareness and better regulation of mastectomy surgery. Attaching the Lifetime brand name/organization name to a nonprofit medical center devoted to women’s cancer research or cancer treatment would make a lot of sense. This relationship would support the authenticity of the nonprofit.

Both the nonprofit and their commercial entity would benefit from this association — the commercial entity would get brand recognition as well as acknowledgment for their long term support of this issue, and the medical center would get financial support. In addition, both the commercial entity and the nonprofit would benefit from knowing that they have a partnership that bridge is the for-profit and non-for-profit worlds to spread a message that supports their shared goal –to “stop breast cancer for life“.


Because authentic, co-branded partnerships are possible, nonprofits should refuse to sell themselves to the lowest bidder — that is, the brand that offers them only money. Instead, nonprofits should look for commercial partners who will elevate their game. If a nonprofit organization is going to adopt a commercial brand name and the meanings that go along with it, these meanings should be congruent with the nonprofit’s purpose, relevant to the nonprofit’s purpose, and able to expand the nonprofit’s pursuit of its purpose.

Otherwise, the new name will be in authentic and the nonprofit organization will have missed the opportunity to enhance its ability to pursue its purpose.

{ 1 comment }

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