Council Post: How To Avoid Common Brand Mistakes During Breast Cancer Awareness Month

By Christina Dorr Drake, CEO and a co-founder of Willa’s Organic Oat Milk.

Breast Cancer Awareness Month is in October, a time when our feeds are inundated with pinkified products, NFL uniform updates and brands co-opting the conversation.

The intent of breast cancer awareness is to create awareness of the importance of early detection, specifically self-exams and mammograms. Oddly, the conversation around self-exams is often absent from brand messaging during Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Equally, the imagery continues to be primarily of white women within a limited age range, propagating the harmful myth that it doesn’t affect younger women, men, people of color or nonbinary people.

Strike a balance.

I was diagnosed with breast cancer at 36 years old in the midst of launching a business. I had no family history. My only risk factor was that I, like 75% of women in their 30s, had dense breasts. I was extremely fortunate I caught my lump early in a self-exam, followed by a visit to my doctor and my first mammogram. I am now by all counts, cancer free, and my oncologists assure me it is very unlikely to come back. As a survivor and brand builder, this experience has reshaped my thinking about breast cancer awareness month and how brands can participate as genuine allies.

It might come as a surprise that breast cancer survivors and oncologists are frustrated by the messages they see in October. The typical breast cancer awareness month marketing tactics often unwittingly alienate brands from the breast cancer patient and survivor communities, and further propagate the myths around the disease.

Here are the three major pitfalls to avoid and how to support the cause in a meaningful way instead.

1. Avoid pinkwashing. Make a direct impact.

In an effort to avoid the word cancer and any negative emotion, brands often choose a path of toxically positive pink. Nothing about cancer is pink. There has been a great deal of conversation about how the color pink in fact alienates patients and survivors, trivializing what they go through. Even more importantly, pink propagates the dangerous myth that breast cancer is a disease that only affects women, rather than helping to create awareness of breast cancer incidence in men and nonbinary people.

Instead, consider partnering with an organization to help raise awareness of their mission, by donating a percentage of proceeds from your website sales or sharing a percentage of profits during a specific period of time in October or longer. Offering donations helps ensure your support is genuine and impactful. It also helps ensure your campaign isn’t perceived as performative, or an effort to steal the spotlight.

There are scores of breast cancer organizations worthy of support, which means you can choose one that will particularly align with your brand values and customer. If your target audience is Gen Z or Millennials, consider partnering with an organization supporting younger breast cancer patients and survivors. For example, 5Under40 is a phenomenal organization that supports women under 40 who are patients and survivors with everything from mental health treatment to post-surgery occupational therapy. The Breasties supports young women cancer patients and survivors nationwide and raises funds for metastatic breast cancer research. If the organization you partner with supports a specific group, ensure your messaging also mentions that breast cancer affects a broader population.

Make it as easy on your partner organization as possible: Offer to help create content, ask for their logo and guidelines and ask them for the specific language and links they would like you to share. Encourage your fans and customers to join you in giving and sharing the opportunity to purchase, as well as donate.

2. Don’t just show one face of cancer. Do your part to help create broad awareness.

The intent of breast cancer awareness month is antithetical to the typical imagery and storytelling we see in October, which mainly highlights cis-gender, white women within a select age range. Breast cancer rates in women under 40 are on the rise, growing 3% each year. Among younger women, Black women have higher incidences. Unfortunately, younger women don’t tend to catch it as early because mammograms generally aren’t covered by health insurance for them until they’re around 35 (depending on their state), and they aren’t as encouraged to do self-exams. Nonbinary people and men also face the disease.

If you genuinely want to participate in creating awareness of breast cancer, then it is critical your messaging demonstrates inclusivity.

3. Rather than spotlighting your brand, get creative in how you offer life-saving information.

One of the simplest and single most important things brands can do is communicate the importance of doing self-exams and getting mammograms in an effort to gain information about one’s body. According to BreastCancer.org, “Breast self-exam, or regularly examining your breasts on your own, can be an important way to find a breast cancer early when it’s more likely to be treated successfully.”

Not only that, there is an enormous opportunity for you to take it one step further providing actionable, helpful resources. Speaking with friends, I often tell them I had no idea what I was doing when I did self-exams pre-cancer. I just happened to feel something that I didn’t recall feeling a couple of months before. I’ve been amazed to hear most of my friends respond by saying, “Same. I don’t know what I’m supposed to be checking for.” Share resources for how to do self-exams, whether it’s by creating a TikTok duet with a doctor’s tutorial (there are loads of self-exam TikToks), shooting your own tutorial with an organization like The Breasties or Susan G. Komen, or sharing a beautifully shot video like this one.

Perhaps this year, you can be part of a shift in the narrative and use your brand platform to make a meaningful impact, and literally help save lives.

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