Innovation & Design

Corporations Love to Think Pink


The color has become an iconic brand symbol for breast cancer, and major companies continue to jump on the bandwagon

Once associated generically with baby girls' booties and Barbie dolls, pale pink has increasingly come to represent a specific brand: awareness of breast cancer. It began in 1992, when Estee Lauder (EL) cosmetic counters first gave away loops of pink ribbon to raise awareness of the disease that the American Cancer Society estimates will kill 40,970 women in 2006. Since then, the pink ribbon has given way to myriad pink products, developed by everyone from Pioneer to Ford Motor (F).

During October, Breast Cancer Awareness Month, major corporations sell rose-colored goods to help raise awareness and funds for the disease. Many of the products seem incongruous: poker sets, vacuum cleaners, even martini glasses (although some studies have shown that alcohol consumption can increase the risk of developing the disease).

But the broad range of corporations involved shows how successful the "color as brand symbol" strategy can be. It is questionable whether a traditional brand using the strategy would be as successful, but the number of companies willing to introduce a special pink edition of its widget in support of curing breast cancer is almost limitless.

PINK PRODUCTS EVERYWHERE.

"Companies have pressure to jump on the pink bandwagon. To not have a pink product during Breast Cancer Awareness Month could suggest a company doesn't care about the disease," observes Martyn Tipping, president of branding-strategy firm Tipping Sprung. "Plus, it's a great way to send out extra press releases and gain publicity."

This season, there's a pink external 6G hard drive from Seagate (SGX) that will benefit the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation. Delta Airlines is flying a pink plane to raise awareness for the Breast Cancer Research Foundation—and is selling pink lemonade to raise money for the organization on domestic flights. And Campbell Soup (CPB) has produced special-edition cans of condensed tomato and chicken noodle soups, trading in its iconic red-and-white label for pink-and-white (with a pink ribbon symbol, too) this October.

As a marketing strategy, thinking pink allows companies to recast themselves as socially responsible corporations dedicated to women's health (and female consumers), or simply to increase brand awareness with mentions in media roundups of fund-raising products during Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

A "WIN-WIN CONCEPT."

The original Estee Lauder ribbons riffed on the grassroots, yellow-ribbon campaign to remember Americans who were taken hostage in Iran in 1979-80. It was a strategy repeated in a grassroots peach-colored ribbon campaign to increase breast cancer awareness in the 1980s. While there is no single owner of the pink ribbon symbol, the Breast Cancer Research Foundation owns the specific style of pink ribbon that appears on its logo, as does the Komen Foundation.

The success of the pink campaign is easy to understand: It's a perennial win-win concept. Breast cancer patients and researchers can benefit from the funds raised. Consumers can engage in feel-good shopping. And, from a business standpoint, some companies even see a surge in sales or orders.

Campbell Soup, for example, saw a full 100% increase in orders of its tomato and chicken noodle soups from the Kroger grocery store chain during the pink promotion. As Advertising Age reports, Kroger usually purchases 3.5 million cans to sell in October. This year, the first for the pink cans, Kroger ordered 7 million. Campbell will in turn donate $250,000 to the Komen Foundation—about 3.5 cents per can.

The funds raised for breast cancer non-profits have been significant. The Komen Foundation saw more than $30 million raised in 2005 from the sales of pink products by companies that pledged donations or a percentage of revenues.

The organization expects to see more funds raised this year, says spokesperson Emily Callahan. This is largely because there's a 30% increase of pink products from last year. "In 2005, we worked with 100 products," Callahan says. "This year there are 130."

RECORD NUMBERS.

And the Breast Cancer Research Foundation, which owns its version of the pink-ribbon logo, also has hit a new record number (80) in the number of pink-themed benefit products the organization has cross-promoted since it was founded 13 years ago by Evelyn Lauder, wife of Leonard A. Lauder, chairman of EstÈe Lauder. Since 1993, BCRF has granted $144 million to cancer research, raised from sales of these products alone.

"There's a public perception that everything is pink now, and that we'll take anything. But we don't accept every product," says Erin Medley, assistant manager for marketing at BCRF. "We're interested in companies that have a dedication to the disease."

BCRF screens for appropriate partners with a questionnaire that asks how and why a company is dedicated to breast cancer research, asks for a minimum $5,000 donation, and also requires a specific donation amount—say, 10% of proceeds—to be publicly established for each pink product. The Komen Foundation also screens proposed pink products for those that match the cause. "After all, we're licensing our good name," says Callahan.

Other nonprofits have jumped on the pink bandwagon. Ralph Lauren (RL), for instance, launched its Pink Pony line of clothing (marked by a distinctive pink polo player) and accessories in 2000, and directs 10 percent of sales to its Pink Pony Fund. In 2003 the Ralph Lauren Center for Cancer Care & Prevention opened in New York's Harlem neighborhood, largely supported by the Fund. The clothes are available throughout the year and aren't limited to Breast Cancer Awareness Month—indicating that the company has a long-term commitment to fighting the disease.

THE CRITICS SPEAK.

Despite the feel-good nature of pink-product sales, the phenomenon also has its critics. Some believe the proliferation of pink products is diluting the impact of breast-cancer awareness campaigns, potentially turning customers off from buying yet another pastel appliance in October.

"The idea of pink products growing in number is truly phenomenal. But think of Gucci extending its brand to the point that everyone had Gucci key chains. Gucci then lost cachet and meaning," says Martyn Tipping of Tipping Sprung. "The brand lost its core. This pink branding phenomenon could be overextended."

Samantha King, author of Pink Ribbons, Inc.: Breast Cancer and the Politics of Philanthropy (University of Minnesota Press), cautions that once the pink-product trend grows stale, corporate support for breast cancer might dwindle. "When corporate interest fades, there might be less money donated to the cause," says King, an associate professor of physical and health education and women's studies at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont. "That's the problem with relying on marketing and private interest to raise awareness and funds."

What can't be argued with is the potential of color as a brand strategy. UPS (UPS) has made the blah color brown its own. IBM (IBM) is often associated with its nickname, Big Blue, in reference to its logo. And the Lance Armstrong Foundation is quickly making yellow—used in the organization's trendy Live Strong bracelets—a symbol for testicular (and other) cancer.

While pink is now breast cancer's symbolic hue, the key for foundations and corporate benefactors alike will be to maintain public interest in and awareness of the disease long after Breast Cancer Awareness Month ends.

Click here for the slide show.


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