It may be for a cause, but not everyone tickled pink by campaign

Monday, October 15, 2007

MOUNT LAUREL, N.J. -- October used to be shrouded in black and orange, but in recent years, pink has nudged into the palette.

It seems just about every product you can buy -- from Indianapolis Colts mini-helmets to M&M candies, from Avaya phone faceplates to Yoplait yogurt -- is available in pink, or at least pink packaging, as part of a promotion to raise awareness and money for breast cancer research.

The companies say the "cause marketing" campaigns do good for the world -- and they're not bad for sales, either.

It may sound like an idea that's hard to argue with, but all the pink has some people seeing red.

"Pink Ribbons, Inc.," a book published last year by Samantha King, a professor at Queen's University in Ontario, found fault with the way corporate sponsorship has put the emphasis in finding a cure rather than figuring out why the cancer rate is so high.

And for five years now, the San Francisco-based group Breast Cancer Action, which bills itself as the "bad girls of breast cancer," has been running an anti-pink product campaign called "Think Before You Pink."

The group's executive director, Barbara Brenner, a breast cancer survivor who never wears a pink ribbon herself, says that in many cases corporate images get what she calls a "pinkwash" while the cause gets nominal donations.

"Awareness, we don't need any more of," she said. "We have plenty of awareness. The question is what we do now."

The pink sales campaigns are probably the biggest and best-known efforts in the world of "cause marketing," where companies team up with charities to bring in more money for both.

The first blockbuster cause marketing campaign came in 1983, when American Express Co. announced it would contribute money to restoring Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty based on how much its customers charged.

Applications for the card spiked, card use peaked, and $1.7 million was raised.

And corporate America had a new sales pitch. "It focused a lot of attention that you could motivate consumers by appealing to the best in them," said David Hessekiel, president of Cause Marketing Forum, a Rye, N.Y., company that puts on workshops about cause marketing.

In 1982, the Dallas-based foundation now known as Susan G. Komen for the Cure began trying to get attention for breast cancer, a deadly and common disease that wasn't much talked about.

It started getting attention with its Race for the Cure. Some of the sponsors of the walk/run started marketing campaigns around the cause.

Now, those campaigns are a juggernaut.

In the last fiscal year, which ended March 31, Komen says it brought in more than $58 million from corporate sponsors. Much of that money came from peddlers of pink products, though some was also from Race for the Cure national sponsorships.

Nearly 140 companies are currently running promotions to support Komen; additional companies are using pink and contributing to other breast-cancer causes.

In the past 25 years, Komen has invested nearly $1 billion in breast cancer research, education and support. The interest it has raised is one reason government spending on the disease has grown in that time from $30 million per year to about $900 million per year.

Cause Marketing Forum's Hessekiel sees breast cancer as a natural for cause marketing because it reaches women, who do much of the nation's shopping, and because it's linked to the pink, which makes a handy symbol.

Last year, the Camden-based Campbell Soup Co. made a special pink version of its famous red-and-white cans of chicken noodle and tomato soups for Cincinnati-based Kroger Co. It sold 7 million pink cans at the stores.

This year, Campbell is making 14 million pink cans and shipping them to 60 grocery chains around the country that comprise nearly two-thirds of supermarkets.

While some pink products are sold at a higher price, the pink soup is marked down -- with a special 3 cans for $5 deal.

As part of the deal, the stores are giving Campbell special space to display the pink cans.

Last year, the pink cans sold at Kroger better than the red-and-white ones usually do. Company spokesman John Faulkner would not say whether the company's bottom-line improved because of the promotion.

"It allows us to support the cause, and support it in a very visible way," Faulkner said.

While some companies make contributions based on sales volume, Campbell is simply giving a total of $300,000 to three breast cancer-related charities, including $100,000 to Komen.

Though it's hard to prove, Breast Cancer Action's Brenner says some companies spend more promoting their pink stuff than they donate.

As long as the contributions are substantial, that's not troubling to supporters of cause marketing.

Hessekiel said the companies are in the business of making money, after all.

"They could decide that they're going to put cartoon characters on their package and pay a licensing fee," he said. "And none of that money would be going to charity."

Komen certainly does not mind if the companies that support it sell more because of it. "Cause marketing is one of the things people implement when they believe in doing well while also doing good," said Katrina McGhee, vice president of marketing at Komen.

Both Komen and Breast Cancer Action give similar advice to consumers: Make sure you know which charities benefit and how much they will get.

Brenner takes it a step further, though. She says it might be better just to write a check to a charity rather than buy the blushed goods.

On the Net:

Susan G. Komen for the Cure:

Breast Cancer Action's Thank Before You Pink campaign:

Cause Marketing Forum:

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