A Partnership Gone Bad: The AAFP & Coca Cola

Partnerships, including those with corporations, can be a vital part of social marketing. They provide a lot of opportunity for an organization to reach greater audiences and fund activities. They also provide opportunity for the corporation to give back. Both sides should view the partnership as a path towards shared goals. When that doesn’t happen, things can take a turn for the worst.

Take the example of the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) partnering with Coca Cola. The AAFP is a membership association for family physicians, that also engages in many public health activities, including promoting healthy kids. Coca Cola, a manufacturer of soft drinks and other unhealthy beverages, is not necessarily in favor of, or working towards, those same goals.

When the partnership was announced in 2009, members held protests to resign their membership , ethical questions were raised, and the partnership generated a great deal of negative press.

The partnership was billed as a funding source for the Academy to create marketing materials promoting reduced consumption of sugary beverages. The impact of those materials was never heavily promoted, however, and the partnership was never viewed (by many members) as a worthwhile endeavor (and it ultimately ended quietly in 2015).

Beyond the issues related to the AAFP, Coca Cola’s relationship with a number or health organizations and researchers has come under intense scrutiny.

What lessons can be learned from all of this? First, ethics are important. If there is any doubt about the ethics of the partnership, organizations should proceed with extreme caution. Additionally, organizations should consider very carefully the reactions of their members, customers, or other important groups before they enter into partnerships. Listening to these groups can prevent anger and mistrust, a mistake the AAFP had to learn the hard way. Finally, if the partnership is still made despite potential negative consequences, the outcomes should be carefully monitored for success, so the partnership can be justified.

Cover image via https://nonprofitquarterly.org/2015/10/05/the-benefits-and-risks-of-corporate-academic-partnerships/ 


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