Feeling Good About Cause Marketing?

The billions raised from industry and the philanthropic community toward the war on breast cancer is supposed to make people feel good about pink ribbon consumption and cause marketing. It’s supposed to win-win for the companies and the charities. After all, a corporation sells products, increases public visibility and consumer loyalty, and gains economic advantage. In return a non-profit organization receives a portion of proceeds from the sale of some product or service, increases awareness of its mission, usually gets free advertising, and improves its budget. Is that really all there is to it?

When examining specific cause-marketing relationships, the costs and benefits of corporate partnerships become clearer.

The Company – Yoplait Yogurt

Yoplait Yogurt of General Mills is the number 1 yogurt in America, and is as popular as GM’s other top brands: Cheerios, Betty Crocker, and Pillsbury. In fact, Yoplait accounts for $1.1 billion of GM’s $11.2 billion in sales. In 1998, Yoplait teamed with Komen to create the “Save Lids to Save Lives” campaign. Every October, the company manufactures yogurt with pink lids, which consumers send in to a collection center during a specific time period. Yoplait then makes a donation of 10 cents per lid, guaranteeing a minimum donation of $500,000, and a cap of $1.5 million.

In 2008, Yoplait received over 15 million pink lids, hitting its $1.5 million cap for the first time. 15 million yogurts less the 10-cents-per-lid donation, yields $5.9 million in yogurt sales. That fiscal year, GM reported a 14% sales jump for its Yoplait division. One part of the cause-marketing equation works. Yoplait saw increased sales and visibility, and the effort on the part of consumers to buy yogurt, save lids, and turn them in during a prescribed period of time suggests a semblance of consumer loyalty.

The Charity – Susan G. Komen for the Cure

Komen received a $1.5 million donation by partnering with Yoplait. Komen also had 93 other official corporate partnerships that year from General Mills to Microsoft to American Airlines, and that number has already grown to about 160 corporate partners in 2010. Whether purchasing yogurt, computers, or air transportation, consumers can donate to Komen indirectly through these corporations. Komen’s revenue from corporate partnerships as well as the Komen race series, donations from individuals, and other fund-raising programs, assured annual revenues of about $420 million (FY 2011).

What does Komen do with the money? Reuters reports that 43% goes to education; 15% to research and awards; 12% to screening; 5% to treatment; 18% to administration and fund-raising. That is, almost three times as much money goes toward education than to research. According to Komen, Charity Navigator ranks the foundation highly because it “consistently executes its mission in a fiscally responsible way.” Fiscal accountability is crucial for non-profit organizations, especially those that receive millions in charitable donations. But there is more at stake than Komen’s revenues and assets.

Cost/Benefit Analysis – Impacting the Breast Cancer Epidemic

A key part of Komen’s mission is to promote breast cancer awareness, primarily understood through the message of “early detection.” Advocating the use of mammography to screen healthy populations of women is the primary early detection strategy promoted, not only for Komen but also for many public health programs. Screening mammography is a mode of secondary prevention aimed at finding and treating a disease that has already taken hold in a person’s body in an attempt to mitigate its effects, as opposed to primary prevention that focuses on avoiding the disease altogether by avoiding its causes. Secondary prevention vis-à-vis mass mammography screening is prevalent in Komen’s mission, programs, educational materials, awareness campaigns, and consumer advertising. The advertisements from Komen’s corporate cause-marketing partners echo this message. Yoplait’s Save Lids to Save Lives website features a video with Dr. Kristi Funk, a celebrity breast cancer surgeon, who urges women to get their mammograms.

Without knowing the harms and benefits of screening modalities and the clinical trials that assess them, the everyday person would have no reason to question the early detection mantra. However, scientists have been questioning the use of mass mammography screening for two decades and the body of evidence shows that “mammography regularly used in women under age 50 produces more harm and does not reduce deaths.” In fact, clinical trials have found that the benefits of mass screening are modest even for women over age 50. In November 2009 the United States Preventative Task Force changed their screening guidelines for these reasons. Instead of beginning mammograms at age 40, they recommended starting mammograms at age 50—every two years, instead of annually. They emphasized that these guidelines were aimed at reducing harm from overtreatment.

If mass screening produces more harm (such as unnecessary call-backs, stress, biopsies, and treatments for non-lethal breast conditions) than good (deaths reduced), then organizations and corporations that promote breast cancer awareness in terms of the mammography mission clearly favor publicity and fund raising. Supporting cause marketing to support the cause of breast cancer may feel good in the short run, but it has undermined progress in the war against breast cancer in the long run. Mission matters, and so does evidence. Lids do not save lives. If they did, we would not consistently see 40,000 women dying from breast cancer every year. It’s time to re-think the equation. For suggestions on how to do this, check out Breast Cancer Action and the Think Before You Pink campaign.

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2 comments to Feeling Good About Cause Marketing?

  • Rev Dr Joel Bexell

    Our daughter Barbie worked with the General Mills Yoplait campaign through News America for a couple of years and we passed our 1-3 Yoplait lids-a-day through her to General Mills. She has recetly accepted a position with Target Corp in Minnespolis so we lost our connection to Gemeral Mills. Plesae let me know where we can drop off our growing bag of Yoplait lids in the SE Twin Cities area or a mailing address.

    We ahve passion for this project because my wife’s sister is a Breat Cancer survivor and my wife and Barbie walked in the Twin Cities ‘Race for the Cure’ in 2009.

    Your timely response would be greatly appreciated.

    Blessings for a successful campaign.
    Rev Dr Joel Bexell

  • Dear Joel: I’m not affiliated with any of the cause marketing campaigns, so you’ll have to get in touch with GM to find out what they are planning and when. All the best to you and your family. Gayle Sulik

"women urged to get screened because it might save their lives. But that’s only 1 possible outcome, and it’s the least likely one" @cragcrest cutt.ly/jei8WJr

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