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The Paradox of Pink Ribbon Cause Marketing

On a Wednesday a few Octobers back I had a pink ribbon day to beat all. For breakfast I had a carton of pink-topped Yoplait Strawberry-Mango yogurt. That carton top, along with the others we’d collected, garnered $0.10 apiece for Susan G. Komen for the Cure.

At mid-morning 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 supported Komen.

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

Without much effort we could list dozens of pink ribbon cause marketing efforts that take place each fall. But here's the conundrum, in the United States with a couple of notable exceptions no one really 'owns' the pink ribbon.

Consequently, 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. That is, while there are couple of trademarked versions of the pink ribbon, the fact is that anyone and everyone can use and, let's just say it, abuse the generic version of the pink ribbon. It's the classic challenge of property that belongs to the 'commons.'

In the past I’ve termed the widespread availability of the pink ribbon ‘Open-Source Cause Marketing’ and it has its downside. Plenty of companies say they're raising money for the fight against breast cancer but no money ever arrives at any charity.

In Canada, the pink ribbon is trademarked and you have to license it in order to use it in promotions. Wouldn't that work in the United States?

At this point the pink ribbon probably couldn’t be trademarked in the United States except by government fiat. It's just been too widely used for too long. 

But the broader point is this; if Komen, or the BCRF, or the National Breast Cancer Foundation, or the American Cancer Society, or Self Magazine, or the handful of other parties involved had locked up the pink ribbon with an early trademark registration not only would there be less abuse it would also, paradoxically, be much less ubiquitous today than it is.

Canada's registration requirement works, in part, because the rest of North America does not have the same compulsion. Canada is a 'free-ridder' on the popularity of the pink ribbon across the rest of the continent.

And then there's this; because anyone can use (and abuse) the pink ribbon, innovation can happen much faster. By contrast, registration rules reliably stifle permutation.

It's a paradox. Because the pink ribbon isn't trademarked, it's much bigger than it would be if it was. And, because it's not protected, many people and companies use the ribbon disingenuously and even fraudulently.

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