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The Cause Marketing Genius of the Pink Ribbon

Wednesday morning I had a cup of pink-topped Yoplait Strawberry-Mango yogurt for breakfast. When I mail in that top, along with the others we’ve collected, General Mills will make a $0.10 donation per lid to Susan G. Komen for the Cure.

I stopped at my grocer’s deli and picked up a little smoked turkey. The lady at the counter was wearing a pink hat with Komen’s version of the pink ribbon, but like all the versions of the pink ribbon, emblematic of the fight against breast cancer. There was a counter card saying that Boar’s Head deli product supports Komen.

Later I was looking for one of those clear film protectors for my phone and I came across a local firm that sells just the thing. Oh, and they’re donating 5% of online sales in October to the Breast Cancer Research Foundation.

If I had done all the above on Sunday or Monday instead of Wednesday, I could also have listed the pink ribbons wrapped around the goalposts and players on the NFL games I saw.

This is October, National Breast Cancer Awareness Month in the United States, and I’ve come to expect this pink-colored hue of cause marketing omnipresence and diversity. But even still, I marvel and celebrate the cause marketing genius of the pink ribbon.

General Mills and the NFL are large companies. Boar’s Head is a medium-sized company. NLU Products, which makes clear film protectors for electronic devices, is pretty small. But because the pink ribbon isn’t trademarked (although Komen has at least one version that is trademarked and has sued entities that use pink in relation to the words 'for the cure') all three companies are able to raise money for the breast cancer charity of their choice wielding the ribbon, if not always the logo of the charity they support.

There’s no licensing issues for a would-be sponsor. No extra cost for splashing a pink ribbon on your marketing collateral. You can find a thousand different versions of the pink ribbon online, or you can design your own.

I’ve termed the availability of the pink ribbon ‘Open-Source Cause Marketing’ in the past and it has its downside. The pink ribbon is abused almost as often as it is well used. October is rife with pink cause-washing.

But if Komen, or the BCRF, or the National Breast Cancer Foundation, or the American Cancer Society, or the handful of others had locked up the pink ribbon with early trademark registration not only would there be less abuse it would also paradoxically be much less ubiquitous today than it is.

Can other charities pull this off?

Maybe, but it will take a large measure of patience and faith. The pink ribbon was an overnight success after basically 20 years. No doubt there were intellectual property lawyers and marketers all along the way suggesting that the ribbon be ‘protected.’

It helps that there’s more than one viable breast cancer charity, even if Komen dominates. It could be that the major players all agreed to take a hands-off approach. It could be that the major players fought each other off.

However it happened, the pink ribbon is a juggernaut unlike anything else in cause marketing, and I say Brava!


SteveG said…
Thanks for this.. I have worked in the jewelry industry for a decade now and every year we see more and more pink ribbon jewelry hit the market and I've always wondered why so many people were making it without any consequences..

Unfortunately not everyone contributes to the research with the profits they make from the pink ribbon jewelry that they make, but it would be nice if they did..
Paul Jones said…
Hi Steve:

Great hearing from you again. Thanks as always for your comments.

Yeah, there's a lot of gratuitous pink stuff sold in October without any benefit to any breast cancer charity.

It's not perfect by any means. But the pink ribbon has gotten so big in paradoxically because of it. There's a kind of 'network effect' to the ribbon and the net result is that because no one owns it, it's bigger than it would be if someone did own it.

Again, thanks.

Warm regards,

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