Businesses thinking pink for Breast Cancer Awareness Month

Plenty of people are seeing pink.

It's on everything from fire engines to football helmets. Vacuum cleaners, forklift straps, laptops, even trash cans.

During Breast Cancer Awareness Month, which ends today, consumers have been licking yogurt cup lids, cutting hair and planting flowers -- all in the name of pink power.

The pale pink ribbon that was handed out at races in the late 1980s has grown to become so much more, said Karen White, managing director of sponsorships and sports channels for Susan G. Komen for the Cure.

"It's become this wonderful, universal symbol in the fight against breast cancer," she said.

Businesses to municipalities have embraced the phenomenon. Mayor Mike Moncrief established Oct. 12 as "Cares Enough to Wear Pink Day" in Fort Worth. Firefighters took up the cause by selling T-shirts and decorating two engines pink. For the second year, the National Football League put pink on just about everything to raise money for the American Cancer Society. Dallas-based Susan G. Komen for the Cure has 170 partners promoting pink products this month.

Survivors, such as Carlene King of Fort Worth, find that pink helps raise awareness, especially in the African-American community, which she works with.

"I don't have a problem with pink," she said. "I think everything pink makes people more comfortable about talking about breast cancer."

But some people see red.

Some survivors say they feel as if they're bombarded with pink and can't escape the constant reminder of their medical ordeal. Others say they feel slighted that other cancers don't get the same attention.

"There is a groundswell of people who are starting to be more than a little ticked off about all the pink," said Kim Irish, program manager for the advocacy group Breast Cancer Action in San Francisco.

Enough has been done to raise awareness, she said.

"We are aware," Irish said. "What we really need is action and changes in society to end this epidemic."

Cause consciousness

Pink power really started to explode in the last five years as cause-conscious consumers put their dollars into products with a purpose.

By 2009, cause sponsorship spending reached $1.51 billion, according to the Cause Marketing Forum. In a 2010 survey, nearly 90 percent of consumers said they would switch to a brand associated with a cause.

In 2006, Komen had about 140 corporate sponsors. That number has grown to 270 today, largely because of the overall growth in cause-related marketing.

"Done well, cause-related marketing is the ultimate win-win-win," White said.

Companies win by aligning with a brand that resonates with consumers, she said. Consumers win with an easy way to support a cause that is meaningful to them, and nonprofit groups win through increased awareness and donations, White said.

For corporations that make flat donations or contribute a portion of their retail sales, linking to a cause like breast cancer can pay off in more ways than one.

The unspoken message from the companies is that "we are not just about making profits," said Ritesh Saini, an assistant professor of business at the University of Texas at Arlington. That builds consumer confidence and helps people feel good about engaging in virtuous behavior, he said.

Last year, when the NFL started putting pink on everything from gloves to cleats, it raised awareness in a big way.

"The bigger purpose served comes into the consciousness of a whole lot of people, especially when the NFL is involved in it," Saini said.

The NFL's Crucial Catch campaign has raised funds for the American Cancer Society by auctioning pink products worn by players. Last year, the auction raised $300,000. This year 32 licensees have pink products, nearly double from last year.

Three years ago, the National Football League Referees Association joined with Komen and this year has pledged $14,000 during October.

This month, as part of the "I promise" campaign, pink filled Cowboys Stadium for three home games. The Cowboys also auctioned merchandise online to benefit Komen.

And earlier this year in Fort Worth, the Crowne Plaza Invitational at Colonial went pink to raise awareness and support Komen with a $36,600 donation from the PGA Tour pros.

Such events go a long way toward supporting breast cancer awareness. But putting on the pink promised another perk for the NFL: It was a way to attract more female viewers.

"If you want a more diversified gender audience then you probably need to communicate their values," Saini said. "If you want to align with their values, then breast cancer is a great way to do that."

Dubious reasons

Although many businesses go pink for the right reasons, some don't.

"Some companies are just trying to tug at the heartstrings of consumers to sell their products," Irish said. "You've got pink ribbons on handguns, toilet paper and other things that have nothing to do with breast cancer."

In 2002, Breast Cancer Action launched the "Think Before You Pink" campaign and started going after what it calls "pink washers," or companies that purport to care about breast cancer while manufacturing products linked to disease.

High on the list was KFC's "Buckets for the Cure" campaign because it promoted not-so-healthy fried chicken in low-income communities, Irish said.

That campaign did raise more than $4.2 million for breast cancer awareness, White said, with the donation coming out of the pockets of restaurant operators, not consumers.

Offensive campaigns have promoted pink vodka, Mike's Hard Pink Lemonade and similar beverages, despite studies linking increased alcohol consumption to a higher risk of breast cancer, Irish said.

"To us that's very irresponsible to try to appeal to women that way," she said.

In a statement, Mike's Hard Lemonade said it donated $500,000 to the Breast Cancer Research Foundation over the last two years and none of the money was tied to purchases. The donations honored an employee who died of breast cancer.

White pointed out that Komen does not partner with tobacco or alcohol companies and that would-be partners are heavily vetted.

"We avoid companies that are not making a true commitment to the cause," she said.

Still, that leaves plenty of businesses eager to commit to raising awareness for the right reasons.

All that pink could backfire, but it's not likely.

There comes a point of oversaturation when advertising even a good cause stops working, Saini said. But it's Breast Cancer Awareness Month, not year, and that makes a big difference in the public's perception, he said.

From Komen's perspective there can never be enough pink, White said.

"As long as women are dying from breast cancer, our perspective is go pink," she said.

Jan Jarvis, 817-390-7664