Every year, breast cancer survivors, their friends, and families adorn themselves in pink shirts, ribbons, and other accessories for the world’s largest fund-raising event for research and awareness: the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure.
But is the recognizable symbol a hindrance to the cause? Yes, says a study conducted at the Rotterdam School of Management at Erasmus University in the Netherlands. Professor Stefano Puntoni demonstrated in a series of 10 experiments over three years that women were less likely to think themselves at risk and less likely to donate to breast or ovarian cancer causes in response to advertisements with a pink color scheme. Despite Puntoni’s original hypothesis that pink was the “best color for women’s issues,” his study’s results proved otherwise.
According to the report, when a woman perceives a cancer advertisement aimed directly at her through gender-specific colors, such as pink, she likely will “subconsciously go into a state of denial. By adding all this pink, by asking women to think about gender, you’re triggering that [mechanism],” Puntoni said in The Harvard Business Review. “You’re raising the idea that this is a female thing. It’s pink; it’s for you. You could die.”
Ian Michiels, director of the enterprise marketing practice at MarketSphere Consulting, explains, “There’s definitely a perception in society that there are girl colors and girls have certain roles. Twenty years ago, that may have been appropriate, but now the way women act in society has changed.”
Michiels says he “wasn’t shocked at all” by the study. “It’s still tough for women and their careers, and I can see how [traditional marketing] can point that out,” he says. “It’s a traditional way of viewing that, and we have moved beyond it.”
Although she admits she was surprised by Puntoni’s results, Kimberly Collins, research vice president at Gartner, says she understands the potential pitfalls of color-specific advertising. “Pink is associated with what you might refer to as the fairer sex, not as strong,” she explains. “It just has an association with being weak and frail. I can certainly see that some people may take it to the extreme of being associated with being not as good as men, basically going back about 50 or 100 years in time when that might have been a stereotype that some people may have had.”
Even with those findings, most breast cancer awareness and fund-raising organizations use pink in their branding. “There is a brand that has been created with a color,” Michiels states. “You’ve got the ribbons and the association with that. They have spent a tremendous amount of money in all kinds of different avenues making sure that’s associated with breast cancer. You wouldn’t just throw it out because a few people are offended.”
Collins adds, “The longer you let a brand like that kind of sit around and be well-known, the harder it is to change it. If you make a change now, then you have to explain why you made the change.”
The decision to revamp the advertising campaign needs to be based on numbers, Collins says. “They have to weigh the cost of changing, which may be quite hard given that the brand has been around for so long, versus the benefits of actually changing,” she explains. “If it was 20 percent or more of the population and you’re talking about missing out on millions of dollars, it might be time to change simply because you will have better benefits from making that change.”
Both Michiels and Collins encourage charitable organizations to use social media to determine the general population’s perceptions about any colors used in their campaigns. “Social is really rapidly changing because these are the types of things that you can ask the population about and get some quick, instant feedback and make decisions before you officially launch,” Collins says.
Social provides “very low-cost avenues to change perceptions,” Michiels notes. “I can see how people could feel this way, but is it enough to say that it’s a big enough deal that we should make an issue out of it and make changes because of it? Social is a really cheap way to evaluate whether or not this whole pink campaign concept is the right thing.”
In addition, Michiels notes that charitable marketing is “fundamentally the same” as other forms of advertising. “You really have to resonate, be relevant and timely, and touch them at a personal level,” he says. “If you’re not doing that, then you’re just part of the noise, and you aren’t going to rise above it because there is just a ton of marketing out there today.”
Collins agrees: “Many of the basics in terms of how you take the target customers and manage that process should be the same. The difference is in the perception of the people receiving that message. It probably wakes people up…and they may not mind those campaigns as much as the ones for products they don’t like.”
Will the longstanding Think Pink undergo a makeover? Unlikely, says Michiels. “You aren’t going to throw out five to 10 years of capturing mindshare in that way. People associate it with that, and that’s a good thing.”