Spend to Save: Ensure Your Shopping Dollars Go Far to Fight Breast Cancer

By Claudia Kalb

It’s that time of year again: the leaves are turning yellow and red, the yogurt lids and running shoes are turning pink. October, if you haven’t noticed, is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. And that’s a good thing. The American Cancer Society estimates that 192,370 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer this year, and 40,170 will die.

But with the information campaigns about risk factors and mammograms come a bonanza of pink-ribbon products that promise to raise money for breast-cancer research. Necklaces, bow ties, shoes, vacuums, umbrellas, pens, and yogurt cups—all adorned with little pink ribbons. Consumers can’t help but wonder: should I buy this brand over that one? How much am I actually contributing to breast-cancer research? Is any of this a scam?

Partnerships between for-profit companies, like shoe manufacturers, and nonprofits, like breast-cancer advocacy groups, fall into a business model called cause marketing—a mutually beneficial effort that has expanded dramatically over the last two decades. “There is a huge increase in the number of consumers who want more than a product that works well or smells nice,” says Michal Strahilevitz, a marketing professor at Golden Gate University in San Francisco and coauthor of “The Power of Pink: Cause-Related Marketing and the Impact on Breast Cancer,” an analysis published in the Journal of the American College of Radiology in January. “They really want to feel good about the brands they’re choosing.” A 2008 online survey conducted by Cone, a strategic marketing firm in Boston, found that 85 percent of Americans said they found it acceptable for companies to involve a cause or issue in their marketing, up from 66 percent in 1993. And 79 percent of respondents said they were likely to switch from one brand to another if was associated with a good cause. Buying for a worthy charity gives buyers what Strahilevitz calls the “warm fuzzies.”  And it benefits the for-profits and the nonprofits, too. Businesses get to push short-term sales, and possibly spike their revenues, and they build long-term loyalty. Charities get greater name recognition and, most importantly, cash to fund educational outreach projects and research.

But not all pink-ribbon fundraising is equal. Some companies donate a percentage of their revenues to breast-cancer research organizations; others set a minimum dollar amount, a maximum dollar amount, or both. Some are actively committed to the cause; others are more interested in attracting consumers and making sales. The onus is on nonprofits to carefully vet the companies they work with.

Susan G. Komen for the Cure, which has a trademarked pink-ribbon logo for approved partners, has partnered with dozens of companies since the 1980s and has been hugely successful in attracting business partners. But they won’t take everybody. “We are selective,” says Karen White, Komen’s director of corporate relations. Komen looks for contributions that equal at least 3 to 5 percent of the product’s retail sales price. They won’t allow promotions from sales of alcohol, tobacco, or firearms. And ideally, the organization wants to see companies not only brand their products, but educate consumers about breast cancer and participate in activities, like Komen’s flagship fundraising event, Race for the Cure. “They’re not just buying a ribbon, they’re authentically committing to our cause,” says White.

Anybody buying pink-ribbon items should be selective, too. First, read the product labels carefully. Many state statutes as well as guidelines set by the Better Business Bureau (BBB) require companies to disclose pertinent information to consumers—at the very least, the name of the charity and the percentage or amount of money the company will donate. The BBB advises consumers to look for products that disclose the duration of the campaign, as well. And consumers should do their homework on who they’re dealing with. “Make sure the company selling the product is a known, reputable brand and know that the charity is also legitimate,” says Christie Grymes, a partner at the law firm Kelley Drye & Warren. Organizations like Komen and the American Cancer Society list the companies they partner with on their Web sites. Tip sheets like these can help you navigate the field.

It can get a little tricky when it comes to minimum and maximum donations. The BBB recommends that companies state these numbers on their packaging, but it’s not always clear to manufacturers or consumers exactly when they’ve hit their targets. That means that it’s always possible that pink products will remain on store shelves after the marketing campaign’s expiration date. Grymes, who has worked with companies involved in cause-marketing campaigns says her clients typically come close to their caps, but tend not to exceed them because they manufacture only enough pink products to match their dollar goals. “They do their research on the front end,” she says. If you’re concerned about where your dollars are going, purchase products that clearly state when the campaign ends and look for companies that donate a respectable percentage or set a minimum, not a maximum amount.

Pink ribbon campaigns vary in their approaches. Many require that you do nothing more than buy the product; the company takes care of the rest. One of the longest-running and most successful campaigns, however, is Yoplait’s “Save Lids to Save Lives,” which requires consumer participation. Consumers must mail in their pink yogurt lids in order for Yoplait to make its 10 cents per lid donation to Komen. The pink-lid approach has its share of critics over the years, including Strahilevitz, who questions a campaign that requires people to pay for postage and consumes environmental resources when the goal should be both pink and green. “It’s gas, it’s paper for the envelope, it’s a hassle,” says Strahilevitz.

Despite these concerns, Yoplait received some 15 million lids last year and hit its $1.5 million cap for the first time since it launched its campaign in 1998. Critics have an interesting point of view, says Tammy Sadinsky Martin, Yoplait’s marketing manager, “but so far what we’re doing is really making a difference.” Individuals rally their family and coworkers, says Martin, and community organizers, like the sorority Zeta Tau Alpha, organize lid collections, making everybody feel more engaged. Martin says the company is always looking for new ways to raise money, but “we know what has driven success and what continues to help make an impact to the cause.” Overall, Yoplait has donated more than $22 million to the breast cancer cause.