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Pinktober: An Interview with CSR Expert Susan McPherson

3p Contributor | Wednesday October 31st, 2012 | 0 Comments

A version of this interview originally appeared on Vitamin W.

Earlier this month, breast cancer fundraising made news. In a good way. The nation’s two major breast cancer charities agreed to adopt guidelines to help pink-ribbon consumers understand how much money is going where. After a few rounds of bad publicity, pink needed a cleanup.

After discontinuing funding to Planned Parenthood earlier this year, Susan G. Komen for the Cure saw huge public outrage. There were social media tornadoes, including petitions for the group’s leader to resign. Some breast cancer walks this fall have reportedly experienced lower enrollments because of it.

Even before the Komen controversy, many groups, including the NFL and KFC, had been accused of pinkwashing, or “pinking” products just to raise profits.

But now Pinktober will be getting a bit more black and white, thanks to the new guidelines developed by the New York Attorney General’s office. The best practice guidelines include a recommendation that companies be up front about the specific amount donated from each purchase, whether there is a maximum donation, and the total money raised.

So what’s the state of pink today? We asked Corporate Social Responsibility queen Susan McPherson her thoughts on Pinktober. McPherson is a Vice President and Director of Global Marketing at Fenton and runs the popular #CSRchat on Twitter.

Vitamin W: Does the average consumer still view Pinktober positively after Komen dropped Planned Parenthood? 

Susan McPherson: I haven’t yet seen any data to support this, but we witnessed quite a large uprising on the interwebs last year, which is a sign of the times. Such a print story five or even three years ago wouldn’t have spread like wildfire without the social media platforms we have today.

VW: Can you name a few pink campaigns that you think are authentic and impactful? And why?

SM: Yoplait’s campaign has been going on for years: yogurt is a healthy thing for women to eat, it’s effective and authentic. It’s not trying to be anything it’s not.

It’s different for brands that have always been in the women’s space. Avon may be criticized for using parabens in some products, but they have been doing good things for women for years. The company was founded in 1886, and they have been empowering women via financial independence ever since. They can speak to women in a different voice because of that long history. What they do with the walks is authentic and totally appropriate for their large population of sales reps as well as their customers. Avon also makes a very pretty shade of pink nail polish. They are marketing to the audience they already have, and 100 percent of the profits go to their breast cancer work. The Estee Lauder Companies are another leader in this space, and Evelyn Lauder is credited with creating the recognizable pink ribbon twenty years ago.

VW: Are there some issues that have difficulty getting support?

SM: Violence against women is something the media doesn’t cover. Violence in general is something that is not talked about. It’s probably where breast cancer was 30 years ago. Still one in four people are victims of violence.

VW: What campaigns have not had the right impact?

SM: Cause campaigns don’t work when they are far removed from either the company’s core business or the audience they are targeting. When Kentucky Fried Chicken partnered with Komen, there was so much outrage because there is no connection. (If someone has cancer, there are far better foods to eat.) With the NFL, women are not their audience. Those are two clear examples where it’s fundamentally not your constituency.

That said, the more people and corporations think about ways to give back, the better our world will be — whether it’s by writing checks, working for an advocacy group or nonprofit, or using the resources of their companies. If Pinktober makes it easier for a company to get involved, at least they’re on the path to do better.

We think of CSR as being only for big companies, but it can be done by the dry cleaners down the street. For example, there is a dry cleaner shop in Brooklyn Heights that has a tip jar and all the money goes to the Obama campaign.

VW: Why is breast cancer the women’s issue that receives corporate support? And will we move beyond it to support other women’s causes? 

SM: Breast cancer causes have been very safe to rally around, and a good place for companies to start with a corporate social responsibility/cause marketing campaign or program. Pinktober has become such a phenomenon because it’s easier for a company to get involved — the precedent has already been set.

How can you argue against supporting breast cancer? It’s the first body part you come in contact with as an infant. What shocks me is that heart disease, which plagues many more women than breast cancer does, doesn’t have a red month. Lung disease kills more women, but we don’t have “lungtober.” It’s an interesting phenomenon that this is often the first cause. It’s like dominoes; other brands follow. That said, I don’t see companies supporting breast cancer, then moving into other women’s health issues. What makes me nervous, however, is when companies glom onto this cause to get in customers’ good graces and sell products, and then don’t consider funding other women’s concerns that are as important.

I think it’s magnificent that corporations continue to shine a light on women’s health. We forget, it was only 30 years ago that people didn’t say the words “breast cancer.” It was President Ford’s wife who was the first to openly come out with the fact that she had contracted the disease. For millennials, it seems histories ago. But quite frankly, it wasn’t.

So all the marketing around Pinktober is good. It keeps the conversation going, I’m all for whatever lets funding continue and shines a light on this disease and others.


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