Wednesday, August 29, 2012

U.S. company Prolacta milks donors, charity partners

A U.S. company that makes money selling a product – made from donated mothers' milk – to children's hospitals, is polishing its image by partnering with well-known charities.

Prolacta Bioscience sells a fortifier product made from human milk for premature babies in neonatal ICUs. It has, of late, announced various donations to charity partners.

Prolacta charges $180 an ounce for its product.

The most-recent donation is $7,500 going to the Make-a-Wish Foundation as part of an agreement signed last fall where Prolacta would send a minimum of $30,000 in a year to the foundation - $1 for every ounce of milk donated in Make-a-Wish's name. Since this announcement Prolacta's volunteer donor moms have given 60,000 ounces and raised double the annual minimum - $60,000 and counting.

I marvel at the marketing savvy behind this arrangement.

Prolacta competes for human milk donors in the US with non-profit milk banks. (See blog posts here and here on Prolacta's moves into Utah to compete with the Denver Mothers' Milk Bank.) Since its inception critics have pressed the company to be up front with donors about exactly how its milk is being used and the price of its final product. When Prolacta's milk collection depots were first set up, they didn't mention the milk was being collected for a for-profit company. It was only after significant pressure, both from bloggers and mainstream media, that Prolacta's milk collection depots started to be upfront about the relationship.

For profit milk-banking - Women's Health News, 2006
Prolacta Milk Banks - forum discussion, 2006
The advantages and disadvantages to non-profit and for-profit milk banks - IBS blog, July 2007
Milking it in California July 2007
You're Going to Want To Read This - IBS blog, July, 2007
Thinking of Donating Your Breastmilk? Read This First - IBS blog, Sept. 2, 2007
Milk Money - Salon, 2007
Executives in search of milk donations - Breastfeeding Truth, 2010
Swindled: The ugly side of milk donation - Just West of Crunchy, 2011

Anxious to combat growing negative publicity, Prolacta began forging corporate sponsorship relationships with charities - first the March of Dimes, then the Susan G. Komen Foundation, and now the Make-A-Wish Foundation:

Our mission is the unique integration of two very compelling goals: to collect excess breast milk from qualified donors for premature infants, and simultaneously give back to the community in a significant and meaningful way by financially supporting selected charities based on the amount of donated milk received.

This rubbing of shoulders with respected charities an excellent way to shine up a tarnished brand. Prolacta benefits hugely from its association with these well-known charities.

See how it works? It's no longer just about helping premature babies get the human milk they need. If you donate milk in the name of one of these charities, Prolacta seals the deal with a $1.00/ounce donation back to that charity. So now, not only are you helping sick babies to live, you're fighting breast cancer, or you're helping a children's charity - why, you can even make the wishes of very sick and dying children come true with every ounce of extra milk that comes from your breasts.

Prolacta isn't just polishing its own brand, it is basking in the brand equity glow built up over years by these legitimate charities.

Phase II of this Prolacta marketing makeover is now actively under way.

Moms don't go directly to Prolacta and say, "I'd like my milk to benefit Susan G. Komen, or the Make-a-Wish Foundation."

Prolacta has instead created a separate Internet presence to market its new method of donor milk acquisition. It began by establishing the Helping Hands milk bank a year or so ago. The Helping Hands website is clear - it is run by Prolacta Biosciences in partnership with Susan G. Komen, and it is through this portal that moms ensure $1.00 for every ounce of milk they donate is paid to Susan G. Komen to help fight breast cancer. When moms fill out their donor application through this website, their milk donations translate into dollars Susan G. Komen. More than 100,000 ounces donated generated more than $100,000 for Susan G. Komen in 2011, with $41,000 sent in the third quarter of 2011 alone.

Prolacta's new Milk for Wishes website
Now, Prolacta has gone a step further. Buried in the Make-A-Wish Foundation news release mentioned above is a link to the brand new Milk-For-Wishes website. Also owned by Prolacta, looks and feels just like the Make-A-Wish Foundation's site - right down to the stars, curvy lines, and featured stories of children's wishes. The visual similarities are a powerful way for the warm fuzzies generated by Make-A-Wish to rub off on Prolacta.

Make-A-Wish Foundation website
Prolacta has gone a long way to answering criticisms about a lack of transparency with their involvement in these donor milk collection sites. It now clearly lists on its website affiliations with all of its milk collection depots and it is very clear about directly operating and owning the and sites.

This clarity is a sign of more mature marketing execution - their lack of transparency in the early days reflected an old-school P.T. Barnum "there's sucker born every minute" style that didn't count on the suckers having access to Google.

Barnum is often maligned for this philosophy, and in fact, the "sucker" quote is wrongly attributed to him. Barnum did say, "I don't believe in duping the public" and in his later years spent considerable effort exposing charlatans who preyed on bereaved widows by claiming to communicate with the dead.

Prolacta appears to have learned from its early experiences where it duped moms into donating milk to a company selling a product for profit. But are its current marketing efforts to attract donors - moms who would otherwise contribute to the Human Milk Banking Association of North America's network of not-for-profit milk banks - any more ethical, just because Prolacta is being honest?

Updated Friday, Aug 31 to add to the list of blog posts covering Prolacta's early years.