pink-ribbon-imageCause-related marketing is a factor in the lives of today’s consumers. You may as well make an informed decision. It’s on your yogurt lid. Your coffee. Your pasta. Your cosmetics and even your kitchen appliances. In my opinion, cause marketing is a parity breaker. All things being equal, why not vote (with your purchase) for the product or service that will best share their profits with a worthy cause? This is a legitimate basis for a decision, especially among those brands who choose consumer transparency that will satisfy even the most skeptical among us.  I am so intrigued by this prospect that I actually invested in learning more about it by spending two weeks at Susan G. Komen for the Cure in a “mid-turnship.”

This was no mid-life crisis. After all, I’m beyond “mid” life, unless I live to 110-years old. Rather, this “mid-turnship” was the manifestation of a dream to do work that really matters. It was about a passionate desire to use my communication skills to sell something more meaningful than soapsuds. When I pitched the idea to Susan G. Komen for the Cure , I coined the term, “mid-turnship” to describe an “internship” performed by a seasoned (AKA “middle age”) professional. By design, I spelled the “turnship” part of the word with a “u,” rather than the traditional “ternship,” as I envisioned my mid-turnship to be a turn… ing point in my career that would simultaneously incorporate the rearview mirror and the windshield in front of me.

Why Susan G. Komen for the Cure?

I wanted to learn everything that I possibly could about cause-related marketing, so I chose one of the premier cause-marketers in the world. I had spent my entire 30-plus year career in the for-profit marketing communications arena. Along the way I had done my share of pro-bono marketing projects for worthy causes, many of which resonated with my own life experiences, or those of loved ones. Undeniably, I found the non-profit projects in my career to be the most personally fulfilling.

I was not a total novice to the cause-related marketing discipline. Over the years, I had convinced many clients of the marketing and inherent consumer loyalty value of cause-related initiatives, yet my ideas and methods came from instinct and common sense, not so-called “best practices.” I wanted to observe and absorb the best practices that have permitted Komen to be the cause leader they are, with blue-chip partners that return, year after year, having recognized the value of an association with Komen. I also wanted the insight that would be provided from the other side of the conference table – in other words, the cause.

What were the standards and characteristics that made for a good cause partner? With a host of brands seeking pink-ribbon tie-ins, why, and how, did they choose their partners?  I felt blessed, downright jazzed, to have this opportunity.

Aside from the obligatory pink, there was something pervasive there.
Was it hope? Sure, there was enough to go around and spread far and wide. Was it purpose? Absolutely. Or pride? Perhaps, but, if so, it was not typical; there was not a whiff of arrogance in the air. Rather, there was something much more like humility.

Instead of something that was omnipresent in the air at Komen, I asked myself if it were possible that something might be missing instead? That’s it! There was something missing at Susan G. Komen for the Cure. There was a pervasive absence of ambiguity. This was more profound to me than mere clarity; this was much more like certainty, as in: beyond doubt, to the point of conviction. Conviction is a powerful phenomenon that spawns another rare characteristic: unity.

“For the cure.” The mission is certain. The Founder, the Board, the CEO, the staff and volunteers are convicted and unified. I was enthralled and envious. I wanted to be part of something with this much purpose.

Briefly, I was a part of something with this much purpose.
Komen took my mid-turnship seriously with an ambitious and purposeful agenda. They provided me access to virtually everyone in the cause-related department, despite how extraordinarily busy and focused these people were.

On my first day at Komen I found my desk piled high with materials created for prospective partners, affiliates, survivors, and the general public, along with a bundle of surprisingly tasteful “pink” stuff. Retrospect suggests that I should not have been surprised by the good taste, but let’s face it: Pink is poised for plenty of prissy possibilities, not to mention a plethora of alliteration. Wanting to be part of the group, I quickly donned the promise ring they had given me. It was attractive, but basically little more than a wider-than-normal, smaller-than-normal pink rubber band. I had seen the stylish CEO, Hala Moddelmog, sporting her own promise ring, despite her attire in a chic St. John suit. She focused some of her unrelenting energy on twisting the ring to and fro, spinning it round and round, the word “cure” ever visible. Rubber accessories with a couture suit  = haute humility. It’s been over a year since I slid that circle down my finger. Today, I feel as if something is missing when I’m not wearing my promise ring.feature_mothersdaycard

What could have solicited pity effected admiration instead. Never had I seen such message continuity that somehow still appeared fresh; rarely had I read stories that struck such a perfect note. The messages were as much about courage as cancer. As I turned the last page of the brochures, newsletters and such, I knew one thing for sure: Susan G. Komen for the Cure had the real thing – bonafide brand integrity, unwavering, yet still innovative, consistently up-beat despite the potentially deadly subject matter, and a potent infrastructure to protect and maximize the hard-working dollars they raised – over a billion dollars to help educate, prevent, and cure breast cancer. As I later surmised, their brand integrity and brand equity have value well beyond fund-raising; they command authority in Komen’s public policy voice, prestige in research partnerships, and a welcome mat abroad as their mission goes global. Their integrity has value for all of us.

The Brand Police

My first meeting was with my mid-turnship mentor, Katrina McGhee, vice president of marketing. Katrina created my curriculum, in part based upon an advance outline of my self-defined mid-turnship goals and objectives. I had read and heard good things about Katrina: smart, energetic, dedicated, tough, but also delightful. I was most curious about the “tough” piece. How might it manifest in good works? The answer was soon revealed. She was Chief of the Brand Police. Katrina’s brand “force” was primarily made up of fast-thinking, fast-talking, fast-walking women who act as if every moment counts. (Yes! There are many talented men employed at Komen, too). I never got the sense from anyone on the team that there was an individual upside to ones role or tasks. Rather, it seemed that their job descriptions were so clearly defined that they could have painted their individual brushstrokes single-handedly, yet they would still fit into the perfect spot in the big picture. This is not to suggest a soul-less assembly line; on the contrary, the process was simply very finely tuned.

Komen’s guidelines for potential partners are thoroughly outlined on the website, with such requirements as: a guaranteed minimum contribution for the promotion, and a strongly recommended minimum 10% of the purchase price donation for participating products and services. Komen ultimately accepts approximately 20% of the partner-prospect submissions.

“Is Komen leaving donation dollars on the table?” I asked.

Katrina had ready answers. “Aside from obvious categories that are inconsistent with our message and mission [alcohol, tobacco], we seriously consider whether the real support and infrastructure are there for the would-be partner. Can the proposed program really deliver our breast health messaging? Can their concept raise the funds to meet our minimum donation requirements? Does the idea or brand conflict, or create competition for an existing loyal, long-term partner? Is there a champion for the cause at the top of the organization?”

From the partner side, it’s not strictly about near-term revenue. A good cause-related program can shift the paradigm on how consumers view a product for the long term, paving the way for a relationship with the consumer. In many respects, the Komen cause team actually performs on behalf of the prospect when they decline a partnership that is not well suited for both sides. As Katrina said, “The consumer will know when a brand is not committed to the cause and is just selling products, which doesn’t work for the cause, or the partner.”

The days sped by in a flurry of note-taking as I moved from one office to another to question, listen, observe and even on occasion, challenge. I found that I could not help but offer my thoughts. Even an intern has perspective, albeit at times, naïve. During those moments, I was most mindful of the curious dynamics of a “mid-turnship” versus a traditional youthful internship. I have experience and transferable knowledge; I wanted to be more than a sponge; I wanted to squeeze back. I did and the team was receptive.

Elevating the Individual Struggle to a Larger Purpose

Over time I have thought a lot about this concept of individual struggle elevated to a larger purpose. There really was a beautiful woman whose name was Susan G. Komen. She died too young. It was her individual struggle with breast cancer that led Susan’s sister, Nancy Brinker to found the Susan G. Komen Foundation 26 years ago. She promised Susan that she would do everything in her power to end breast cancer forever. Today, Susan G. Komen for the Cure is the world’s largest grassroots network of breast cancer survivors and activists fighting to save lives, empower people, ensure quality care for all and energize science to find the cures.

So, what are the so-called best practices of cause-related marketing that I longed to learn? The prevailing answer is to be steadfast and uncompromising in one’s commitment to the mission, regardless of who wants in for whatever purpose.  Some may find “uncompromising” to be an inflexible concept, but consider that the very heart, and root of the word, is PROMISE.

Take note when you purchase, particularly this month when pink is pervasive. No doubt, any contribution to help to eradicate breast cancer is meaningful, yet some “gestures” are more important than others. Regardless, take heart in knowing that cause marketing is in our lives. As such it allows the practices of every day living to have more value. It costs you no more than thoughtful decision making.

Terri Evans

Terri Evans

Terri Evans is 25+year marketing communications professional, a partner at LeslieEvansCreative and Bcauz marketing (cause-related). She has been a food columnist for Atlanta Intown and Atlanta Buckhead newspapers, and a contributing writer for Georgia Magazine, the Atlanta Business Chronicle and other publications. Evans was also a finalist in a Southern Living cooking competition. She is (and has long been) at work on a novel set in the South (of Georgia) and the South (of France). She's always cookin' up somethin'.