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Put a Pink Ribbon on It – and Then Do More

A plea for making a real difference this Breast Cancer Awareness Month

October marks Breast Cancer Awareness Month and, no doubt, the iconic pink ribbon will begin to appear everywhere. Launched 25 years ago to raise awareness of breast cancer and demonstrate solidarity, the pink ribbon campaign has helped raise the public’s understanding of the disease. But nearly three decades later, breast cancer remains an urgent public health issue: 1 in 8 U.S. women will develop invasive breast cancer over the course of her lifetime and breast cancer is the second leading cause of cancer death in women (second only to lung cancer).

Marketers, brands and organizations are acutely aware that they have an engaged and committed public. Seventy-seven percent of consumers overall and 84 percent of breast cancer patients and survivors say they are likely to purchase items with a pink ribbon or special edition product during Breast Cancer Awareness Month, according to a national study conducted by M Booth’s Mtelligence practice.

While mass awareness of “pinkwashing” hasn’t deterred Americans from wanting to support the cause, the amplified threat of public scrutiny and potential for negative press has helped set some unofficial standards for acceptable engagement by brands, companies and organizations. But these standards are pitifully basic: use language that promotes “taking action” (asking for “awareness” isn’t enough anymore); guarantee that a large percentage of proceeds will benefit the cause; be 100 percent transparent regarding fundraising practices and where money is going; and ensure the promoted product does not have a negative link to breast cancer.

Shifting messaging around Breast Cancer Awareness Month from “awareness” to “action” is a welcome change that reflects progress made over the last decades. The thinking is, we have all heard of breast cancer so instead of talking about general awareness, the focus should now be on taking action. But what difference has this semantic change made in the way brands, companies and organizations engage around the cause? The answer: no difference.

If brands want to talk about “taking action” they have the obligation and opportunity to deliver campaigns that strive beyond “purchase our product to trigger a donation.” Donating funds to a credible charity, such as the Breast Cancer Research Foundation (BCRF), is a crucial piece of the journey toward preventing and finding a cure for breast cancer and cannot be understated, but it is just one expression of “action.” We’re in desperate need of solutions that truly improve the lives of those affected by breast cancer. But this level of “action” requires brands take time to understand the actual needs of the community. It takes listening to those who have been or currently are in the trenches to determine how your brand is uniquely positioned to address a particular need state of the community. And there’s no shortage of issues facing those affected by breast cancer—from diagnosis to treatment to post treatment—that present opportunities for brands to create real change, generate progress and provide authentic support for the breast cancer community.

Weight Watchers is one brand that has taken this more thoughtful approach to engagement and action. The company learned that women with breast cancer gain weight both during and after treatment, and have a much harder time losing weight than their cancer-free counterparts. Weight Watchers recognized that weight gain was a significant obstacle in a woman’s post-treatment life, so they created Project L.I.F.T – Live Inspired. Fight Together. Developed in collaboration with the American Cancer Society, the program supports breast cancer survivors by giving them a community to lean on, resources to help lift their minds, bodies and souls, and achieve the best holistic health possible. Weight Watchers was in the position to deliver a genuine solution to an underserved population within the breast cancer community and they stepped up.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if in October ride-sharing apps like Uber or Lyft rolled out ongoing programs for breast cancer patients offering free or discounted rides to and from treatments and doctor’s appointments? For many women, transportation is a major source of physical, financial, and emotional stress during treatment. Meals present their own host of issues. While food restrictions and recommendations vary, meal or grocery delivery services could lessen the burden through reduced-priced memberships for those in treatment as well as curated meals/grocery lists.

These examples represent the kind of purpose-driven thinking and real action we need to see from more brands. There are so many creative and useful ways they can demonstrate their support in October and every day of the year. Let’s urge brands to move beyond sheer awareness and isolated donations to a more holistic approach that solves problems for those affected by breast cancer. Let’s think beyond pink.

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