When marketers spoke of the ‘pink dollar’ a few years ago, they were talking about gay and lesbian consumers. Now, they’re more likely to be referring to the potential sales boost if they link their brands to breast cancer.

Over the past couple of years, in the name of breast cancer fundraising, we’ve been exhorted to buy pink Tim Tams, pink M&Ms, Mount Franklin mineral water with a pink lid, pink finger buns from Baker’s Delight, pink deodorants and soap from Dove, pink light globes from Osram and even pink tomato sauce from MasterFoods!

As Jane Nethercote wrote in Crikey last year: “Nowhere is the corporatisation of philanthropy more evident than in the colour pink.”

Mother’s Day is a natural fit for breast cancer awareness and fundraising, so we’ve seen a number of breast cancer-related events and campaigns in the last two weeks. But there’s also Breast Cancer Awareness Month in October, making for a pair of breast cancer seasons in the consumer calendar.

Why so many different initiatives across different markets and different times of the year? Contrary to popular perception, there isn’t just one breast cancer ’cause’. Rather, there are at least four separate breast cancer organisations, each of which has joined with commercial ‘partners’ or ‘supporters’. Confusingly, almost all of these partnerships involve the use of the colour pink.

Baker’s Delight has thrown its dough behind Breast Cancer Network Australia, whose logo is a stylised pink paper doll (the “Pink Lady”), as featured on gaudy pink finger buns and cut-outs in bread-shop windows. Other BCNA supporters include Pacific Brands’ Tontine/Doona brands and the clothing retailer Sussan. BCNA also gets AFL support for its “Field of Women” event to be staged again this August in Sydney.

The National Breast Cancer Foundation, which funds breast cancer research, has registered the words “Pink Ribbon” as a trademark. “Pink Ribbon Day” is held in October, but NBCF also stages the “Mother’s Day Classic” fun run in May. Unilever donates “a percentage” of sales from limited edition Dove Pink deodorants and soaps to the NBCF. There are special pink Osram light globes and many other NBCF partners including Arnott’s, Willow and GlaxoSmithKline Consumer Healthcare, maker of analgesic Panafen Plus. The NBCF also runs the “Fashion Targets Breast Cancer” program with the support of clothing retailer Target.

Third, there’s the McGrath Foundation, established by cricketer Glenn and his wife, Jane, which raises funds for breast care nursing services. This is the preferred cause of the food giant Mars, incorporated through its M&M’s and MasterFoods brands. Once more, their marketing tie-ins take the form of limited-edition pink variants of the usual products.

And then there’s the National Breast Cancer Centre whose supporters include fashion brand Polo Ralph Lauren, via its “Pink Pony” campaign and merchandise and Balance Water for Women, who have a special “pink ribbon” product variant.

The corporate partners of all four organisations are contributing very large sums of money, but it’s not pure philanthropy. It’s called “cause-related marketing” and it’s popularly perceived as “win-win-win”, especially for brands in so-called “low involvement” consumer categories.

The breast cancer organisations are winners because they get a boost in terms of both funding and awareness, with virtually no risk of harm to their reputations or credibility.

Consumers, who were going to buy water or soap or tomato sauce anyway, are very happy to support the cause by switching brands, perhaps for one or two purchase occasions if not permanently, while paying little or nothing extra.

And the marketers are winners because sponsorship of a worthy and very visible cause not only adds to their “corporate social responsibility” kudos, but may also help them influence consumer decision-making, especially in categories where choice of brand matters relatively little to consumers.

Take Coca-Cola’s Mount Franklin, for example, which has pledged $100,000 per year to the NBCF. With sales of bottled water in Australia exceeding $600 million annually, even a marginal influence on consumer preference at the fridge door could be worth millions to Mount Franklin. And the distinctive pink bottle cap that Mount Franklin used for several months is very likely to have given them just that kind of edge.

But can these consumer effects be sustained as more and more companies and brands get involved in breast cancer-related marketing? The need for breast cancer awareness, research and resources isn’t going to go away, but will the novelty and the goodwill wear off, especially if we have numerous pink promotions, back-to-back, all year round, in overlapping categories and sometimes with direct competitors each claiming the breast cancer “high ground” (e.g. Mount Franklin versus Balance Water for Women)?

As the different organisations continue to “train” consumers to respond automatically and positively to pink in the marketplace, how long will it be before ambush marketers try to take a free ride on the consumer equity in the colour, either blatantly or by more subtle “borrowing” of pink’s associations with positive consumer sentiment?

According to the IP Australia database, the NBCF is already opposing attempts by a commercial operator to register several trademarks for beverages under names including “Pink Ribbon Spring Water”, “Pink Ribbon Smoothie” and “Pink Ribbon Products With A Purpose”.

Downes writes about marketing issues at QBrand blog.