From Pink Shirt Day to Bell's 'Let's Talk': Can corporate sponsors make a difference?

You may have seen the pink shirts and hashtags, but when it comes to social justice movements, do companies really help the cause?

Marketing experts say the situation is win-win if companies don't hijack the message for ad space

A student in B.C. dons his anti-bullying weapon in a "flash mob" on Tuesday. (Peter So Photography)

Logos emblazoned on charity T-shirts. Hashtag bombardment. Good press.

All are elements of a new breed of activism — one that sees corporate sponsors teaming up with rabble-rousers to package a movement and sell it to the masses.

It happened to Travis Price, the 28-year-old co-founder of Wednesday's annual Pink Shirt Day, an anti-bullying campaign now operating in 30 countries. 

What started off as a grassroots teenaged revolt against harassment in schools has evolved into a polished non-profit that, for the last decade, has generated millions of dollars for education programs across the country and beyond.

Price says Pink Shirt Day "caught like wildfire" of its own merit, with people reaching out to seed campaigns in their own communities. "It grew legs and ran on its own," he said.

Young anti-bullying advocates support a campaign that's supported by a wealth of corporate sponsors. (Peter So Photography)

The charity sells it own pink shirts online and has raised over $1.8 million for various youth programs in B.C. since its inception. Hundreds of schools, workplaces and communities participate every year, donning the iconic shirts and forming "flash mobs" in a bid to end bullying.

Conspicuously present among the activists? Corporate donors, who, says Price, helped prod the movement toward international fame.

"We have no problem at all throwing their logo on the front of our shirts and making sure they get that recognition," Price said of year's B.C. sponsor, pointing out that more awareness leads to more donations, which in turn mean more education for kids.

Stealing the spotlight a risk

Marketing consultant Joanne Turner says big business can play a vital role in spreading a movement's message — if the company's brand doesn't obscure it completely.

"The corporate sponsor can overtake the non-profit or movement in terms of brand awareness because they get so powerful," Turner said, pointing to the CIBC Run for the Cure campaign as a case in which the sponsor eclipsed the charity.

Logos on shirts and corporate-backed hashtags can lead to a win-win campaign, Turner says, so long as a movement makes sure their own brand isn't overshadowed. (Peter So Photography)

Although the campaign generates an annual income for the Canadian Cancer Society, the non-profit behind the event, "nobody knew who was actually running the Run for the Cure campaign."

"That's a major problem," Turner said, warning that the sponsor should never pop to mind before the charity itself.

But, wary of that risk, a movement can leverage corporate capital to their benefit, spreading their message through a company's well-established marketing channels.

Halo effect good for business

Of course, adds Turner, charity partnerships tend to boost a business' bottom line.

A donation, and in some cases sponsorship, can sometimes warrant a tax break, but in the case of a hefty social-responsibility campaign, the real kickback comes from something marketers call the "halo effect."

"It's a smart business decision" to back a movement like Pink Shirt Day, says Turner, especially when a company's brand image aligns with a movement's values, creating a long-term partnership that resonates with a customer base.

"It's reasonable to assume that positive brand attributes result in a positive effect on sales," she said.

As such an obvious boon to profit margins, some might say a movement has "sold out" when activists cozy up to corporations, said David Tindall, a sociology professor at UBC.

"It's always a bit of a trade-off," Tindall said, a negotiation in which companies might make sacrifices for a better image and activists could lose their street cred.

And corporate sponsorships, he adds, aren't always the answer for a social movement in search of exposure and resources.

"In some instances corporations are part of the problem," he said. "Sometimes it's win-win. Other times, there are costs."

With files from Clare Hennig

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