Seeing Pink: How breast cancer awareness nailed cause marketing

Seeing Pink: How breast cancer awareness nailed cause marketing

Seeing Pink: How breast cancer awareness nailed cause marketing 1400 787 Windy Rose Content & PR

There are three foolproof ways to know we’ve hit October:

  1. Pumpkin spice is everywhere
  2. Store shelves are overflowing with candy
  3. Everything – from apparel, to small home appliances, to drill bits (?!) – is pink

(Ok, if we’re being honest, the pumpkin spice and candy surplus don’t always wait until October. So we’re really talking about pink here.)

It seems organizations in every industry want in on the perceived goodwill tied to supporting breast cancer awareness. The phenomena has spread so far and wide that it has a less-than-PR-friendly name: pinkwashing.

We could get into the issue of virtue signaling vs. authenticity and what it can mean for your brand, but there’s another question burning in the minds of those of us who both work in PR and have lost a loved one to a less publicized, less funded cancer: how did breast cancer do it?

In a world with more than 100 types of cancer and 28 different cancer awareness ribbons, how did the pink ribbon gain such overwhelming visibility?

It comes down to delivering a widely relevant and compelling message to the right audience.


The history of the “pink ribbon” breast cancer awareness movement goes back to 1990, when Charlotte Haley began a grassroots campaign around the fact that only 5% of the National Institutes of Health budget funded breast cancer research. Haley, who herself had multiple relatives fight breast cancer (including her grandmother, who lost her battle), shared her message through cards affixed with peach ribbons. She both sold ribbons locally and sent them to prominent women who might listen to the message, asking all to wear the peach ribbons to help raise awareness and “wake up legislators and America.”

These cards and peach ribbons may not have been the first step in breast cancer awareness, as Breast Cancer Awareness Month first launched in 1985 as part of a campaign encouraging women to get regular mammograms, but they propelled the movement forward, emphasizing research funding on top of early detection and prevention.

Haley’s campaign touched a nerve for many. She reported to the Los Angeles Times in 1992 that she received calls from women moved – sometimes to tears – by what she was doing, as they or their loved ones had experienced breast cancer first-hand. The movement resonated with the audience, and they did their part to help spread the message.


Despite the flame Haley was fanning through the grass, the real fuel to the fire came in the form of early-90s “influencers.” Two of the women on Haley’s mailing list – Self magazine editor Alexandra Penney and Estée Lauder senior vice president Evelyn Lauder – used their positions in society to promote the cause through a special insert in the October 1991 issue of the magazine. They included Haley’s ribbon as a symbol, changing the color to “the most universally recognized female color”: pink.

Haley could have shared her message with her own network for years and raised some awareness, but it likely wouldn’t have resulted in the billions of dollars that are now raised for breast cancer research each year. Today, breast cancer research is overwhelmingly the best-funded in the world of cancer, out-pacing the next highest single cancer (colon and rectal cancer) by more than $52 million.

Between grassroots efforts and the expanded reach gained through public influencers, Haley’s message gained real momentum.


Hands holding awareness ribbonBreast cancer isn’t the only cause with an awareness month. Awareness months aren’t even confined to cancer. But how many such months can you name? To challenge you further: how many such months that don’t affect you personally can you name?Cause marketing – typically a collaboration between a for-profit brand and a nonprofit organization for a “common benefit,” but also “social or charitable campaigns put on by for-profit brands” – is a common practice that can boost the for-profit’s corporate social responsibility while helping the nonprofit raise awareness and funds. It can make a lot of sense for organizations with logical ties to the nonprofit or cause. (Think of TOMS donating a pair of shoes to a child in need for every pair of shoes purchased.) Not only that, but consumers are increasingly supportive of brands associated with a cause. One survey found that 87% of consumers would switch from an unaffiliated brand to one tied to a cause. So there’s something to be said for brands participating in cause marketing.But how did breast cancer awareness grab hold of so many organizations across industries in such a dominant way?As the Cut columnist Ann Friedman noted in 2013, breast cancer is a safe and effective cause marketing issue for most corporations: “It’s got an unambiguous villain (CANCER) and a natural constituency (women).” Fair point. Cancer won’t retaliate against a company for pushing for its eradication, and people can empathize with women. Breast cancer is a menacing opponent too. As of February of this year, about 1 in 8 women in the U.S. were expected to develop invasive breast cancer at some point in their lives, and approximately 281,550 new cases of invasive breast cancer were expected to be diagnosed in American women (2,650 in men) in 2021. In the U.S., breast cancer death rates for women are higher than for any other cancer except for lung cancer.It resonates because it’s relevant. Most of us know someone who has been touched by breast cancer. And if we don’t, we know there’s a decent chance we will at some point.
THE BOTTOM LINESo how can your cause or campaign invoke the same kind of pink magic that breast cancer awareness has? First, you have to be realistic about the scope of what you’re trying to promote. Who is your audience, and how many people will your message likely resonate with? How can you connect with what matters to them?Once you know whom you’re really trying to influence, you can judge success more accurately. Not every cause is going to turn the world pink every year. But can you reach the people who should care? Understanding your audience and what they care about should also inform your strategy. Which channels make sense for this audience? What messaging will connect with them? What imagery will command their attention? Tailoring your approach to the right audience will be more likely to reach your own level of “pink” success than simply mimicking what worked for someone else.

Not sure where to start? We can help figure out your audience and how best to connect with them. Let’s chat!

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