This was no mid-life crisis. After all, I’m beyond “mid” life, unless I live to 106-years old. Rather, this mid-turnship was the manifestation of a dream to do work that really matters. It was about a passionate desire to use my communication skills to sell something more meaningful than soapsuds. When I pitched the idea to Susan G. Komen for the Cure, I coined the term, “mid-turnship” to describe an “internship” performed by a seasoned (AKA “middle age”) professional. By design, I spelled the “turnship” part of the word with a “u,” rather than the traditional “ternship,” as I envisioned my mid-turnship to be a turn… ing point in my career.
Why Susan G. Komen for the Cure?
I wanted to learn everything that I possibly could about cause-related marketing, so I chose one of the premier cause-marketers in the world. I had spent my entire 25-plus year career in the for-profit marketing communications arena. Along the way I had done my share of pro-bono marketing projects for worthy causes, many of which resonated with my own life experiences, or those of loved ones. Undeniably, I found the non-profit projects to be the most personally fulfilling.
I was not a total novice to the cause-related marketing discipline. Over the years, I had convinced many clients of the marketing, and inherent consumer loyalty value of cause-related initiatives, yet my ideas and methods came from instinct and common sense, not so-called “best practices.” I wanted to observe and absorb the best practices that have permitted Komen to be the leader they are, with blue-chip partners that return, year after year, having recognized the value of an association with Komen. I also wanted the insight that would be provided from the other side of the conference table – in other words, the cause.
What were the standards and characteristics that made for a good cause partner from Komen’s viewpoint? With a host of brands seeking pink-ribbon tie-ins, why, and how, did they choose their partners? I felt blessed, downright jazzed, to have this opportunity.
Aside from the obligatory pink, there was something pervasive there.
Was it hope? Sure, there was enough to go around and spread far and wide. Was it purpose? Absolutely. Or pride? Perhaps, but, if so, it was not typical; there was not a whiff of arrogance in the air. Rather, there was something more like humility.
Perhaps I approached the question from the wrong direction. Instead of something that was omnipresent, what if there was actually something missing instead? That’s it! There was something missing at Susan G. Komen for the Cure. There was a pervasive absence of ambiguity. This was more profound to me than mere clarity; this was much more like certainty, as in: beyond doubt, to the point of conviction. Conviction is a powerful phenomenon that spawns another rare characteristic: unity.
“For the cure.” The mission is certain. The Founder, the Board, the CEO, the staff and volunteers are convicted and unified. I was enthralled and envious. I wanted to be part of something with this much purpose.
Briefly, I was a part of something with this much purpose.
Komen took my mid-turnship seriously with an ambitious and purposeful agenda. They provided me access to virtually everyone in the cause-related department, despite how extraordinarily busy and focused these people were.
On the first day I found my desk piled high with materials created for prospective partners, affiliates, survivors, and the general public, along with a bundle of surprisingly tasteful “pink” stuff. Retrospect suggests that I should not have been surprised by the good taste, but let’s face it: Pink is poised for plenty of prissy possibilities, not to mention a plethora of alliteration. Wanting to be part of the group, I quickly donned the promise ring they had given me. It was attractive, but basically little more than a wider-than-normal, smaller-than-normal pink rubber band. I had seen the stylish CEO, Hala Moddelmog, sporting her own promise ring, despite her attire in a chic St. John suit. She focused some of her unrelenting energy on twisting the ring to and fro, spinning it round and round, the word “cure” ever visible. Rubber accessories with a couture suit = haute humility. It’s been almost a year since I slid that circle down my finger. Today, I feel as if something is missing when I’m not wearing my promise ring.
While it took me a bit to identify the ambient clarity of the place, I was much quicker in my review of their literature, promotional materials, and organizational chart. Never had I seen such continuity that somehow still appeared fresh; rarely had I read stories that struck such a perfect note. What could have solicited pity effected admiration instead. The messages were as much about courage as cancer. As I turned the last page of the brochures, newsletters and such, I knew one thing for sure: Susan G. Komen for the Cure had the real thing – bona fide brand integrity, unwavering, yet still innovative, consistently up-beat despite the potentially deadly subject matter, and a potent infrastructure to protect and maximize the hard-working dollars they raised – close to a billion dollars to help educate, prevent, and cure breast cancer. As I later surmised, the brand integrity and brand equity have value well beyond fund-raising; they command authority in Komen’s public policy voice, prestige in research partnerships, and a welcome mat abroad as their mission goes global.
The Brand Police
My first meeting was with my mid-turnship mentor, Katrina McGhee, vice president of marketing. Katrina created my curriculum, in part based upon an advance outline of my self-defined mid-turnship goals and objectives. I had read and heard good things about Katrina: smart, energetic, dedicated, tough, but also delightful. I was most curious about the “tough” piece. How might it manifest in good works? The answer was soon revealed. She was Chief of the Brand Police.
Katrina’s brand “force” was primarily made up of fast-thinking, fast-talking, fast-walking women who act as if every moment counts. (Yes! There are many talented men employed at Komen, too). I never got the sense from anyone on the team that there was an individual upside to ones role or tasks. Rather, it seemed that their job descriptions were so clearly defined that they could have painted their individual brushstrokes single-handedly, yet they would still fit into the perfect spot in the big picture. This is not to suggest a soul-less assembly line; on the contrary, the process was simply very finely tuned.
Katrina explained the cause departments’ vertical practice structure, in which defined specialties were assigned to cause-related managers by product category: health & beauty, packaged goods, fashion, etc. Despite the individual domains, the group still valued, and sought the teams’ collective wisdom at a weekly gathering known as the Marathon Meeting, where would-be partners and promotions were discussed and vetted.
Komen’s guidelines for potential partners are thoroughly outlined on the komen.org website, with such requirements as: a guaranteed minimum contribution for the promotion, a strongly recommended minimum 10% of the purchase price donation for participating products and services, request for product samples and more. Prospects are also directed to download and complete the required new business questionnaire for consideration as a partner. Komen ultimately accepts approximately 20% of the partner-prospect submissions.
“Is Komen leaving donation dollars on the table?” I asked.
Katrina had ready answers. “Aside from obvious categories that are inconsistent with our message and mission [alcohol, tobacco], we seriously consider whether the real support and infrastructure are there for the would-be partner. Can the proposed program really deliver our breast health messaging? Can their concept raise the funds to meet our minimum donation requirements? Does the idea or brand conflict, or create competition for an existing loyal, long-term partner? Is there a champion for the cause at the top of the organization?”
From the partner side, it’s not strictly about near-term revenue. A good cause-related program can shift the paradigm on how consumers view a product for the long term, paving the way for a relationship with the consumer. A cause relationship can become a parity breaker in-store. In many respects, the Komen cause team actually performs on behalf of the prospect when they decline a partnership that is not well suited for both sides. As Katrina said, “The consumer will know when a brand is not committed to the cause and is just selling products, which doesn’t work for the cause, or the partner.”
The Circle of Promise
Once again, I began my day with Katrina. I had questions; she had answers for me, and for everyone else who appeared at her open door, or rang her telephone, including on this morning, an interview with Ebony Magazine.
Komen was embarking on an unprecedented campaign to engage women in the African American community. The campaign had been named, “The Circle of Promise.” This particular constituency had been identified for good reason: African American women were dying from breast cancer at a significantly higher rate than other women, despite a lower cancer incidence rate. This knowledge made me angry; it seemed to me like a random, and unfair disease bias.
Research findings highlighting this outcome disparity among African American women had given pause to Komen leadership. Why had this been happening? How could they change it? These questions led to the creation of The Circle of Promise, and a powerful top-down commitment to reverse this alarming trend. It was not even 10AM and I had been reminded that it takes courage to look backward, to peer in the rearview mirror and see those who may not have benefited as much as others from decades of unrelenting effort. This is hard to face, but Komen did so, intent on building trust and energizing a movement to again elevate the individual struggle to a larger purpose, which took Komen back to their roots: the real work. The partnerships, races, gala benefits, promotions, donations, and all the pieces of the cause-related efforts are merely lifting tools for elevating the struggle. Proclaiming what may be fundamental to their extraordinary success in the not-for-profit arena, a cause-related team member reminded me, “This is not something Komen does; it’s part of who we are.”
The days sped by in a flurry of note taking as I moved from one office to another to question, listen, observe and even on occasion, challenge. I found that I could not help but offer my thoughts. Even an intern has perspective, albeit at times, naïve. During those moments, I was most mindful of the curious dynamics of a “mid-turnship” versus a traditional youthful internship. I have experience and transferable knowledge; I wanted to be more than a sponge; I wanted to squeeze back. I did and the team was receptive.
Elevating the Individual Struggle to a Larger Purpose
Over time I have thought a lot about this concept of individual struggle elevated to a larger purpose. There really was a beautiful woman whose name was Susan G. Komen. She died too young. It was her individual struggle with breast cancer that lead Susan’s sister, Nancy Brinker to found the Susan G. Komen Foundation 26 years ago. She promised Susan that she would do everything in her power to end breast cancer forever. Today, Susan G. Komen for the Cure is the world’s largest grassroots network of breast cancer survivors and activists fighting to save lives, empower people, ensure quality care for all and energize science to find the cures.
So, what are the so-called best practices of cause-related marketing that I longed to learn? The prevailing answer is to be steadfast and uncompromising in one’s commitment to the mission. Some may find “uncompromising” to be an inflexible concept, but consider that the very heart, and root of the word, is PROMISE.
What this means to causes, and cause-related marketing, is not complicated: every initiative, every promotion, and every partnership should be held to the standards of the mission. One must ask, and answer, the straightforward questions:
Ultimately, and most importantly, does this relationship help the cause to keep their promise? Just as your mother told you, and as Nancy Brinker and her team have proven with Susan G. Komen for the Cure, it’s really all about keeping your promises.
“There is a subtle difference between a mission and a promise. A mission is something you strive to accomplish – a promise is something you are compelled to keep. One is individual, the other is shared. When a mission and a promise are one and the same… that’s when mountains are moved and races are won.” ~ Hala Moddelmog (President and CEO, Susan G. Komen for the Cure)
Putting Cause-Related Marketing Best Practices into Practice: