Has the Pink Ribbon Brand Become Unmanageable?

Be honest… What is your gut reaction when seeing NFL football players in pink socks? A little much, maybe? Bordering on over-saturation? Frustrating even?

As the “Pink Ribbon” month has ended and the flow of pink as abated to a degree, some may have more questions than answers about the direction of this massive cultural movement. Some might feel conflicted. They want to be empathetic, but they also don’t appreciate visual noise. They wonder if they should feel bad about not feeling the “right way” anymore.

If we consider pink ribbons as a brand, it has certainly been successful in achieving a few goals. For instance, breast cancer “awareness” is at an all time high. But what does that mean? Well, it means probably more women are being tested more regularly, more cancer is discovered earlier, more surgeries are performed, and more treatments are being delivered to manage the disease. That’s all well and good.

But it can also be argued that pink ribbons as a brand have lost their way, and there’s significant backlash about who is benefitting or profiting from this media frenzy. A compelling documentary film, Pink Ribbons, Inc., strips away the glossy, happy veneer of the movement by listening to the disenfranchised patients, survivors, and families—and by following the money. Many breast cancer “survivors” have strong feelings about the role of cause marketing, and there’s good reason to be skeptical of its aims and results. To the harshest critics, the whole movement smacks of rampant corporate profiteering and insensitivity to the victims.
A concise L.A. Times movie review of Pink Ribbons, Inc. is here and the movie website is here. Of course, where money would best be spent is always up for contentious debate. For instance, should more money go to finding a cure, discovering better treatments, or to finding the cause?

Pink Ribbon Screen

From another perspective, a fascinating branding dialog can be had over who is really in control of the pink ribbon movement in its broadest sense. To many brand theorists, consumers own the brand—or, at least, the emotional meaning of the brand. But the pervasiveness of the pink ribbon movement has, ironically, made the personal impersonal. The broad stroke of “Join Our Cause” has clouded the effort to create awareness of personal stories and education about early detection. In the most cynical eyes, though, the movement is more about helping non-diagnosed friends and family of breast cancer victims feel better about themselves.

The failure of the branding is not one of intention; it’s a failure of communication. What are these organizations really doing with their corporate partnerships? Why should you give money to them? What are their long-term strategies? Why isn’t there greater levels of transparency?

Every brand can get off track. Values change, priorities change, goals change, people change. That’s when “horizon values” and “horizon goals,” as we like to call them, can be useful. One of the first horizon goals of the pink ribbon movement was near complete citizen awareness of the importance of frequent mammogram screenings. That was a noble goal, to be sure. But what happens when everyone is aware? Continual awareness? That becomes white noise that will be tuned out.

There’s a way out: Stressing new horizon values. Having horizon values that seem unreasonable or unachievable at first glance doesn’t mean you will be held completely accountable if you don’t achieve them. Most consumers are reasonable and realize that change takes time. They know a cancer-free world won’t happen in anyone’s current lifetime. That’s okay. You can still say that’s what you want.

And the Susan G. Komen organization (ww5.komen.org) does that, in fact. From their website: “…we have invested almost $2 billion to fulfill our promise, working to end breast cancer in the U.S. and throughout the world through ground-breaking research, community health outreach, advocacy and programs in more than 50 countries.”

That horizon goal has worked well so far. But now it may be time for more narrowly defined goals that the public can get behind. Consumers are expecting more and more transparency, but they don’t expect miracles—yet.

What is the current meaning of the Pink Ribbon?