Amy Erickson was once among the most coffee-focused employees at Caribou Coffee. In fact, her passion for good coffee and her penchant for taste and quality arguably helped define the brand’s flavor characteristics.

When she passed away from breast cancer in 1995, Erickson left behind a legacy of authenticity and cheerfulness, but also a palpable void that extended far beyond the grief of her loved ones. After losing one of its own to the second-leading cause of death among women, Caribou decided to get involved.

For the last 20 years, Caribou has served Amy’s Blend—a sweet, vibrant blend of coffees that Erickson had created herself—from National Coffee Day in September through the end of Breast Cancer Awareness Month in October. This perennial special sheds light on Erickson’s life and breast-cancer awareness, but more importantly, says Bri Bauer, spokeswoman for Caribou, it supports foundations committed to helping those affected by cancer. In the past decade, the company has donated $1.6 million to the cause.

Raising awareness in the fight against breast cancer has become a popular cause for restaurant brands. Some have partnered with organizations like the Susan G. Komen Foundation, while others have conducted in-house campaigns.

Caribou wanted to find a way to honor Erickson and her contribution to the brand in a way that connected with guests and tangibly helped others fight breast cancer. “We lost someone really special,” Bauer says. “This isn’t about a brand attaching a name to a charitable organization. We lost one of our own.”

Hungry Howie’s Pizza was not as directly affected by breast cancer, but the brand still joined the cause by launching its “Love, Hope, & Pizza” initiative.

“Who hasn’t been affected by breast cancer?” says Jeff Rinke, vice president of marketing of the Michigan-based brand. “The best cure is still early detection, and for a full month, we get to bring a huge amount of attention to that fact.”

During October, stores turn completely pink, packed with stacks of pre-folded pizza takeout boxes emblazoned with #LoveHope&Pizza. For every pizza sold, every story shared, and every new Facebook fan, Hungry Howie’s makes a donation to the National Breast Cancer Foundation. Over the course of six years, the brand has contributed more than $1 million.

Rinke says the initiative became more personal when the company asked employees to share their stories of strength and survival. These videos include a team member talking about the mom he lost and a brand officer explaining her drive to beat breast cancer for the sake of her son. In the last two years, customers have shared their stories, too.

Erica Johnson, executive director or iGoPink Campaign and the Breast Cancer Charities of America, says the most successful programs are a result of companies spending the time to create the “why.”

“It can’t be just, ‘Guess what, we have something pink,’” she says. “Brands need to invest in creating a culture. Explain the importance of what you’re doing and why. Everyone—employees, sales people, customers—needs to be part of this bigger thing.”

After 20 years, one might wonder how those who didn’t know Erickson still connect with Caribou’s annual push in her name. But Bauer says engaging teams is part of what the company does well in general. This year, the brand will promote an additional “20 Ways to Care” campaign that features pink cup clutches with slogans such as “Be Present,” “Be Patient,” and “Be Vibrant.”

At the end of the campaign, 20 nominated caregivers will receive a year’s supply of coffee and a $1,000 grant to help them support someone battling cancer. “We don’t pretend we know much about cancer, but we know coffee, and we can care for those who might not know they need a little care in this cycle,” Bauer says.

Hungry Howie’s keeps teams engaged by sending “Love, Hope, & Pizza” kits to franchisees. Kits include T-shirts and bracelets for employees, as well as instructional posters to show employees how they can help share the message in person and on social media.

“It all works because we get our franchisees and team members involved. We’re on TV, radio, billboards—all our advertising is focused on this cause for the entire month,” Rinke says.

As with many other causes, finding the right charitable partner in raising awareness for breast cancer is an important first step toward running a successful program. Bauer says being fully onboard with a partner’s mission makes a tremendous difference.

“We partnered with CancerCare because they care for people with all types of cancer, and we completely believe in what they do,” she says.

But passion is one thing and vetting is a completely separate matter. Brands should establish some process in their search for a charitable partner. Making expectations clear is important because, while promoting a cause is well intended, it can backfire if the partner comes under negative scrutiny—fair or not, Rinke says. Brands need to show their stakeholders that they have done their due diligence.

Johnson also recommends searching beyond the best-known foundations for smaller charitable partners, as they may be more willing to work with smaller-scale or regional efforts. She says that any brand that takes the time and energy to support and promote a cause makes a big difference, whether it brings in $10,000 or $1 million.

As Rinke says, “None of this is about increasing sales. We’d do this even if it didn’t benefit us. Giving back into communities is the best thing any company can do.”

Charitable Giving, Customer Experience, Marketing & Promotions, Story, Caribou Coffee, Hungry Howie's