What’s in a Name? For Gilda’s Club at 17, Confusion and Uproar Over Branding [Updated]

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Gilda Radner’s Saturday Night Live character, Roseanne Rosannadanna, was famous for saying, “Well, it just goes to show — it’s always something.” Today, that something was a misleading headline on gossip site Gawker.com, which picked up a slightly misleading story from the Madison State Journal.

That story recounts the rebranding of a Gilda’s Club chapter in Madison, Wisconsin, dropping the name of the cancer support organization established by Radner’s husband, Gene Wilder, following her death from ovarian cancer in 1989. That chapter will adopt the name of Cancer Support Community, an organization that was founded by the merger of Gilda’s Club Worldwide with the Wellness Community in November 2009, which became official in June 2011. That part is accurate; what’s inaccurate is that the original story states that all Gilda’s Club chapters will be adopting the CSC moniker “and the Gilda name will slowly go away.”

The pioneering actress and comic, whose five-year run on SNL from 1975 to 1980 made her the Tina Fey/Sarah Silverman of her time, is an enduring icon to comedy-lovers worldwide. But Radner is also beloved for having inspired Gilda’s Club. The original Gilda’s Club location, a cozy brownstone with a cheery red door on Houston Street West in New York’s Greenwich Village, is still active, as is the organization’s mandate to provide free support and services to cancer patients and their supporters.

The CEO of Gilda’s Club NYC told us they just celebrated their 17th anniversary and “would never change” their name, while CSC’s EVP of external affairs also addressed the confusion and (see our update below) shared the organization’s official statement on the matter.[more]

Radner, who faced cancer in as ballsy a fashion as she took on comedy, found comfort during her visits to the original Wellness Community cancer support group in Santa Monica, California, and wished that she had a similar resource in New York, a dream that Wilder helped make happen in 1995 when the first Gilda’s Club opened its doors. In 2000, Gilda’s Club Worldwide was established to create a hub for the burgeoning network of chapters, called clubhouses although there are no fees.

As a result of the subsequent merger of Gilda’s Club and the Wellness Community under the CSC umbrella, individual chapters (known as affiliates) of both organizations have the right to rebrand to the joint Cancer Support Community brand name, or keep their existing name while still being able to tap into resources, such as educational programs, of the national organization, which is based in Washington, D.C. Each chapter is an independent 501 (c) 3 organization with its own board, and pays a license fee to the CSC, which owns the Gilda’s Club and the Wellness Community trademarks, for the right to operate under those names.

Still, the confusion is understanding: the CSC website is “tri-branded” with all three logos, with small Wellness Community and Gilda’s Club logos beside the CSC logo, and its own tagline (“So that no-one faces cancer alone”) vs. the Gilda’s Club tagline, “Living with cancer? Come as you are.” You have to scour the website for mentions of Gilda’s Club, although it’s mentioned 10 times in the CSC’s 2011 annual report.

Lily Safani, CEO of the flagship Gilda’s Club NYC clubhouse, told us that rebranding is not on the table, and they can’t legally be forced to change in any event. “Here, we would never change,” Safani commented. “Gilda’s Club is so well known in New York, and the name is so associated with Gilda’s legacy and all the important work we’re doing for cancer patients of all ages. The brand has tremendous equity, including with our younger members. There’s no way we’d give that up.”

Safani said the right to keep the Gilda’s Club moniker was critical to the two organizations joining forces in 2009, and they proudly celebrate Radner to this day and would encourage other clubhouses to do the same. She said she’s puzzled by the Madison move to rebrand, but that it’s their decision and the more important issue is the “great work” they do, a message that she fears is getting lost in the uproar. 

“Whether they want to have the name as Gilda’s Club or Cancer Support Community, they’re still doing great work, and people need to remember that,” she said. She also argues that other brands retain ties to deceased namesakes, and that doesn’t lessen their impact, as it becomes about the work and the people an individual legacy inspires.

Such reasoning hasn’t swayed the Madison, Wisconsin, clubhouse to keep the Gilda’s Club name as it follows in the footsteps of three other former Gilda’s Club chapters including Dallas (North Texas) and Milwaukee in shedding the name.

As the news broke, an uproar grew on social media, with actress Martha Plimpton, SNL’s Horatio Sanz, journalist Xeni Jardin (who’s going through cancer treatment herself) and Salon.com writer Mary Beth Williams protesting any moves to drop the Gilda’s Club name. A Change.org petition has sprung up, while the #GildaLives hashtag has been circulating on Twitter. Brian Williams also addressed the controversy on NBC Nightly News:

Canadian Gilda’s Club chapters, meanwhile, have pledged to keep with the branding, while other U.S. locations such as the Grand Rapids, Michigan, chapter stated that they’re sticking with Gilda’s Club “and will continue to listen to our local constituents to assess as the national organization builds its brand.”

Linda House, EVP of external affairs for the Cancer Support Community, provided the following statement from CSC to set the record straight:

Over the past day or two there has been some media coverage stating that Gilda’s Clubs around the country are being forced to change their name to Cancer Support Community, the name of the Headquarters organization. We feel the need to correct the record. At no time has it been mandated that there be a name change from Gilda’s Club to the Cancer Support Community for any affiliate. The statements, blogs and news stories indicating this mandate are simply untrue and do not accurately reflect the facts. We are disappointed that many of the media did not contact our Headquarters to verify the facts and instead relied on unsubstantiated online information for their stories.

The legacy of Gilda Radner will always be an important part of the past, present and future of our affiliate network and organization. As many of you know, when Gilda was diagnosed with cancer in the 80s, she went to a place called The Wellness Community in California. She noted on page 139 of her book, It’s Always Something, “To this day I have the highest regard for the work of The Wellness Community. I wish there were a thousand more of them.”

In 2009, The Wellness Community and Gilda’s Club joined forces in an effort to serve even more people affected by cancer. At no time has it been mandated that any local affiliate, either The Wellness Community or Gilda’s Club, change its name to Cancer Support Community. All affiliates have always been given the choice to be called Gilda’s Club, The Wellness Community, or Cancer Support Community. That is because we are an organization that empowers its network to make these kinds of decisions locally. Most importantly, we want all affiliates to fulfill our mission of serving those impacted by cancer. The real story here is that approximately 3,000 people were diagnosed with cancer today and instead of telling them about our free services, we are focusing on a story that is not based in any fact. We hope that those who read about us and our network will tell people they know with cancer about our work and free services and help advance our vision that no one faces cancer alone.

The mission of the Cancer Support Community (CSC) is to ensure that all people impacted by cancer are empowered by knowledge, strengthened by action and sustained by community. In 2009, The Wellness Community and Gilda’s Club joined forces, bringing together more than 50 years of collective experience to provide the highest quality social and emotional support for people impacted by cancer through a network of over 50 licensed affiliates, more than 100 satellite locations and a vibrant online community, touching more than one million people each year.

Backed by evidence that the best cancer care includes social and emotional support, our network offers services free of charge to men, women and children with any type or stage of cancer and to their loved ones. As the largest, professionally-led nonprofit network of cancer support worldwide, we deliver a comprehensive menu of personalized and essential services including support groups, educational workshops, exercise, art and nutrition classes and social activities for the entire family. In 2011, CSC delivered more than $40 million in free services to patients and families. We are proud to advance the innovations that are becoming the standard in complete cancer care. So that no one faces cancer alone.

House, a former oncology nurse, added, “I grew up with Gilda — her presence is apart of the fiber of what we do” and pointed to Radner-inspired legacies such as CSC’s online support group called the Living Room, and the use of “Noogie” (a reference to Radner’s running “Todd & Lisa” SNL skit with Bill Murray) for the activities that CSC affiliates organize for kids with cancer. She also noted that the $40 million figure represents “actual costs, not the value of the care.” She also commented in an aside, “Think of all the cancer patients we could have been helping today,” and told us this not an issue at the annual meeting of CSC affiliates that was just held in Los Angeles.

Even as CSC stresses the good work of its 50 local affiliates over the name, fans of what Radner did for women, comedy and cancer refuse to say “Never mind.” They argue, as Richard Roeper does, that the name on the door matters — and that name should continue to be Gilda’s and not some generic moniker devoid of personality. Some CSC affiliates would argue, as Madison, Wisconsin does, that Radner’s name doesn’t resonate as it once did.

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