Breast Cancer Awareness Cancer echo branding

Pink, Pushy and Profitable

One Caveat: Before reading this post, please know that I am not a cancer patient, nor am I a cancer survivor. When it comes to the whole Pink Movement, I defer to those on the front lines –  cancer patients and survivors. If you’d like the perspective of one amazing cancer advocate and survivor, check out this blog post by Jody Schoger titled “Women with Cancer: Redefining Pink.” I follow Jody on Twitter and recommend that you do the same. She is a writer, blogger and a self-proclaimed optimist. As a cancer survivor, I give her views on Pink a whole lot more credibility than my own. That said, within this blog post I will share with you my thoughts on how some businesses approach Pink. I know I am treading into dangerous territory, but I’m going there anyway.

This October I am seeing pink like never before. It’s everywhere. And I’m no stranger to pink. Each year I participate in a number of breast cancer awareness and survivor events sponsored by my hospital clients. I even have an assortment of pink neck wear for October, including a couple by Lilly Pulitzer. Fancy!

Here’s my problem. I already support a few cancer related organizations with donations each year. With that in mind, I’d prefer not to get a sales pitch about supporting a breast cancer charity when I walk up to the counter to buy my skinny Latte at my local coffee shop. On the most basic level, I don’t want to be put in the position of having to say “no thank you” to the lady behind the counter wearing the crazy pink hat. I don’t want to have a conversation with my Barista about my views on philanthropy and my history of giving. That’s what happens at my local Caribou Coffee establishment. During October and part of November, Caribou Coffee Company sells its Amy’s Blend collection in honor of their Roastmaster Amy Erickson who passed away from breast cancer. Amy was a real person who lost her tragically lost her life to breast cancer. That is real and should not get lost in this story about Caribou Coffee. When a customer purchases Amy’s Blend products, Caribou donates 10% of sales to CancerCare – a non-profit organization that provides counseling and financial assistance to people dealing with cancer. Based on the most recent annual report I could access online, CancerCare spends $0.17 of every dollar it receives on fundraising, management and general expenses (overhead). The rest goes to support its programs. It gets three stars from Charity Navigator. So it looks like a good cause – and a less controversial choice than the Susan G. Komen Foundation.

I applaud Caribou’s support of the cause and the passion embodied in the actions of its employees. But I don’t like being asked daily by a coffee worker to give to this cause by making an additional purchase. And by the way, the only way that I am aware of giving via Caribou is to buy more of its products. They are using this promotion to up-sell me on products I don’t normally buy.

Here are the rough economics behind this promotion: A pound of Amy’s blend is $15.99. My understanding is that a pound of beans, including packaging, costs an organization like Caribou about $4.00 per pound. That means they make $11.99 margin per pound, and donate $1.59 per pound to CancerCare. Amy’s blend is also priced higher than most of their coffees (see the graphic to the right). Overall, Caribou is doing a good thing, but let’s acknowledge that they are using it to drive business and build goodwill for their organization. That’s the principle behind a lot of the corporate philanthropy. They are connecting with consumers around values. “Look at how passionate we are about breast cancer. Won’t you join us.” In Caribou’s case, the link with their former employee (Amy) helps to take the promotion out of the realm of “pinkwashing.” Amy is their genuine connection to the issue. This marketing practice is called Echo Branding – connecting with consumers through a display of shared values. I teach businesses how to do this. But I teach them to do it in a more genuine, authentic and less obtrusive manner.

I wouldn’t mind it nearly as much if a Caribou employee asked if I would like to make a $1 donation to a breast cancer charity. But that is far different from asking me to buy a $15.99 product where 10% of the purchase will go to a charity and Caribou will make a large profit from the transaction. It is a win, win, win for them. They get goodwill from the association with breast cancer, increased $ per customer transaction during October, and they get to feel good about the real money they direct to CancerCare (a good outcome).

I want to close this post with a quote from Jody’s blog post. Her words are far more powerful than mine. Please visit her blog and check out the post in its entirety.

“The first week of Breast Cancer Awareness has ended. Sometimes it reminds me of how Christmas has been commercialized – it starts early, is in your face, and makes myth of the experience itself. It can trivialize a serious disease, divert discussion and dollars. I happen to think if we continue to act fearlessly – as friends, as survivors, advocates and activists – in bringing our intellectual collective to bear on the issue we can change the landscape for your daughters. Last week I was stunned to hear someone on our weekly #BCSM chat express the thought that we – co-moderators Alicia Staley and Deanna Attai, MD and I — had a political agenda. If having an anti-cancer, evidence-based, pro-survivorship, community-based agenda is political then yes, I’ll be the first to print campaign buttons and banners. On my dollar. Not from pimping cancer.”

3 comments on “Pink, Pushy and Profitable

  1. Thanks for sharing this information Dan. As a marketer, my concern for the overall effort is at what point does the message saturation become so overwhelming that it begins to detract from this very worthy cause. From purely a branding perspective, I’m not sure who “owns” pink anymore and the brand does seem to be losing some integrity because of the overcommercialization that you point out in your Caribou example. I would hate to see such a pure and worthy mission become diluted over time.

    • Thanks Brian. You raise some important points. The marketing of “pink” is taking on the over-saturated quality of the holiday season. At what point does it loose value because of oversaturation and mismanagement? The pink marketing is out of control. As you point out, no one owns the pink brand. Seem problematic.

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