Is pink fading? Signs corporate America is moving on from the breast cancer cause

Corporate cause marketing around the breast cancer issue seems to be fading for the first time in 20 years.

Corporate cause marketing around the breast cancer issue seems to be fading for the first time in 20 years.

Although shoppers have been inundated with pink products recently, this year marks a turning point, with fewer breast cancer cause marketing programs in the market versus last year. As a pioneer in developing cause marketing programs for companies, we believe this is a result of a variety of factors, from increased scrutiny of campaigns and nonprofit partners to consumer desensitization to the cause. But with no cure on the horizon, there's still room for authentic and effective support of breast cancer awareness and research.

Why is pink fading?
Every year, Cone Communications dedicates the month of October to tracking Breast Cancer Awareness Month cause marketing campaigns, calling out the leaders, laggards, and trends in the space. Although some campaigns are still going strong, others have toned down efforts or seemingly dropped off the radar – Dutch Brother's coffee has moved away from its highly criticizedBe Aware” pink coffee mugs, while Tic Tac's breast cancer awareness “Strawberry Fields” mints haven't made a comeback. Why are companies becoming reticent to support the breast cancer issue? We've identified three key factors in the decrease of company involvement around the cause:

1.      Consumers are becoming desensitized to pink. Marketers have used the breast cancer cause as a catch-all to marketing and connecting with women – and it's been taken to an extreme. With ribbons on water bottles, hams, and entertainment-wrestler costumes, it's hard to avoid pink during October, and this oversaturation has led to consumer apathy. More consumers are turning a blind-eye to pink marketing efforts and beginning to question the motives behind these campaigns. The 2012 Cone Communications Breast Cancer Trend Tracker found 77% of Americans think some companies only support the breast cancer cause for corporate gain, while another 68% believe there are so many products supporting breast cancer in October that very few stand out. Consumers also see an opportunity for companies to address other issues – more than half (58%) think too many companies are focused on the breast cancer issue, while other important causes go ignored.

2.      Missteps from the Komen for the Cure Foundation have created controversy around the breast cancer cause. Once the flagship nonprofit for breast cancer research and awareness, the organization's decisions over the past year and a half have put breast cancer in the hot-seat, making the cause a highly politicized, controversial issue to support. Whatever nonprofits they choose to support, companies are now starting to think twice about entering the space during this highly charged time.

3.     Activism brings increased scrutiny. As breast cancer awareness cause marketing and “pinkwashing” stay in the spotlight, a number of activist organizations have started to take a strong point of view on company campaigns. Now, many people are taking a closer look at marketing campaigns attached to the issue, pointing out inauthentic efforts and bringing attention to how much money is actually being donated.

Pink leaders and laggards
Based on these factors, it's more crucial than ever to make sure companies have an authentic and transparent connection to the breast cancer cause – or face the consequences. One of the most egregious examples of pinkwashing can be found by watching the National Football League during the month of October when football fields, player's gear, and even penalty flags turn pink. The pink-doused “A Crucial Catch” campaign has found itself in hot water due to the apparent disconnect between the cause and the organization, leaving people to wonder if the NFL could have selected a cause more appropriate to its fan base. The campaign also lacks a meaningful call to action beyond raising awareness, making it unclear what sort of impact the effort is making.

And yet, with no cure on the horizon and an estimated 232,340 cases of invasive breast cancer diagnosed in 2013 alone, there's no question that corporate support of breast cancer research and awareness fills a critical need. Americans echo this sentiment – our research found 92% of Americans still believe breast cancer is an important cause to support. Thanks to leaders like Estée Lauder Companies' “Breast Cancer Awareness Campaign,” Ford's “Warriors in Pink,” and Avon's Foundation for Women's “Breast Cancer Crusade,” consumers can both feel good about supporting the cause and know the impact their money is having. Avon, a leader in the space, has supported the cause for more than 20 years and raised more than $782 million. The Foundation has a dedicated website, which reports on the organization's progress and shares inspiring stories from both grantees and survivors.

Doing breast cancer cause marketing right
So how can companies get involved in the breast cancer awareness space in an authentic way that resonates positively with consumers? Here we outline four best practices for breast cancer cause marketing:

1.      Create credible alignment: Whether it's a personal employee story or long-standing commitment, consumers want to know why your brand is supporting the breast cancer cause. As our research shows, consumers believe some companies are only supporting the issue for monetary gain, so make sure they understand your commitment is authentic.

2.      Make it relevant with storytelling: It's not enough to slap a pink ribbon on a product. Brands that weave together emotional and inspirational stories will resonate best with consumers. Show how your brand is committed to the cause through real-life examples.

3.      Focus on impact: Answer consumer questions before they have to ask and zero-in on impacts, such as what nonprofit is being supported and where their money is going (e.g., mammograms, breast cancer research, family, and survivor assistance). Make sure to show how each donation tied to a product purchase will move the needle.

4.      Engage consumers beyond purchase: The consumer relationship doesn't end at the cash register. Report program impact back to consumers and allow them to take part in the effort through volunteer opportunities or awareness building. There is also an opportunity to build communities for those affected to allow continued engagement and support.

Alison DaSilva is EVP at Cone Communications.

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