Innovator Interviews: American Cancer Society's VP, Global Sports Alliances Sheri Barros

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Brand Innovators caught up with Sheri Barros, VP, Global Sports Alliances for the American Cancer Society, to discuss sports marketing, cause marketing and the importance of mission.

Sheri Barros, VP, Global Sports Alliances for the American Cancer Society, works in the unique position where sports and social impact intersect.

As a sports marketing veteran, Barros applies her insights in the sports marketing world to the 108 year-old American Cancer Society – an organization that is woven into the fabric of our country that has led the way toward breakthroughs in the fight against cancer. 

“Cancer used to have the taboo that we have seen in other diseases in which people are afraid to talk about it,” says Barros. “So not only normalizing that and making it part of the conversation in our country, but also creating opportunities for people to really do something about it.”

When the pandemic hit and sports shut down, the NGO had to be creative about keeping awareness for their cause even at a time when visibility shifted away from big events.

For instance, the organization normally hosts golf tournaments and events to fundraise as part of their NCAA Coaches vs. Cancer partnership, throughout the basketball season. Last year, this had to go online.

“We were fortunate to be able to link up with a third-party golf auction company called Member for a Day, and we pivoted to auctioning off golf outings with our coaches, and this is something that we will look to continue this year,” remarks Barros. “As the pandemic really set in last year a lot of Americans pivoted to outdoor activities like golf, which recovered quickly and really soared last year. Being able to think differently and leverage a third-party partner really helped and we plan to continue to explore these opportunities.”

American Cancer Society also has a longstanding partnership with the NFL. While they had to pivot their efforts, the organization was already working on creative ways to activate fans ahead of the 2020 NFL season. 

“We had enough lead time to pivot ahead of the NFL Draft, so we actually featured one of our celebrity ambassadors in the Draft and planned to do an experience where you could donate for a chance to go and attend the Draft,” explains Barros. “So we pivoted to announcing the Draft pick online and telling the story of why he was working with us because of his grandmother having lost her life at an early age to cancer.” 

Barros has spent her career in sports marketing. Prior to joining American Cancer Society almost four years ago, she worked as a leader for two sports marketing consultancies and has managed marketing for a number of teams including: the San Antonio Spurs, the Oakland Raiders, and the Atlanta Falcons. Brand Innovators caught up with Barros from her home in Atlanta to discuss sports marketing, cause marketing and the importance of mission. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What are the founding pillars of your brand?

We have grown into an organization that is now national and even global in respect to the fact that we partner with several other NGOs including major cancer organizations in different countries to really take the fight against cancer global.

The pillars of our brand, the foundation that we stand on, are our millions of volunteers that we have in every city in this country, working together with us to fight this disease. Our goal is to save lives, celebrate lives and lead the fight for a world without cancer. As a part of that we focus on certain areas. One is research. We are the largest funder of cancer research outside of the federal government.

Advocacy is another major pillar of ours. We have an office in DC to advocate on the federal level in a non-partisan way. Our goal is really to work with both parties to ensure that there are opportunities for cancer patients to survive. Advocacy is a big part of what we do and our volunteers around the country are our advocates. 

And then patient services is our third pillar and that is the work that we are doing in the community both to help prevent and reduce risks of cancer and encourage early detection, because as you know with cancer, the earlier you catch some cancers, the better your chances are of survival and of course we help those currently battling cancer.  We firmly believe that no one should be disadvantaged in their fight against cancer. We have a pillar program in our Hope Lodge program that provides a place to stay near your cancer treatment center if you cannot afford it, we don’t want that to be a barrier to get treatment to save your life. So that program addresses patients and various other patient services programs. It is really about supporting the patient and their families as caregivers. 

What role does cause marketing play for your brand and what does it look like?

One in three people in the US and one in six globally will be diagnosed with cancer at some point in their lifetime. So most people have someone that they know in their life, whether it is a friend or a family member, who have had it, or unfortunately, they experience it themselves. That connection to most people is certainly a big part of why we are able to do what we do, in terms of cause marketing. The first point is that connection. That is really why our volunteers and our partners on the corporate and the sports side align with us and they are passionate about fighting it.  So whether it is a POS campaign at retail, an exclusive merchandise promotion, or sponsored event or content, it all drives funds toward our mission. 

The mission guides our messaging because ultimately our story is based on the millions of people who will either unfortunately experience this disease directly, which is in some cases as devastating as having your family or friends go through it. 

What current sports marketing platforms and campaigns are you working on and how does the connection to sports help support your organization's mission?

This is the fun part of what we get to do. Obviously, a lot of the work that we do is to fight this dreadful disease and help save lives, but the beauty of it and the fun part is that those of us that work for the brand get to take that action. It is very motivating to be able to work with our sports partners to do something, just to know that every day we are doing something to help people either prevent getting this disease or helping them to fight it if they get it. That is really what a lot of our sports partnerships are founded and based on.

Our longest partnership in the sports space is with the National Association of Basketball Coaches. It’s called Coaches versus Cancer. We have this established connection with NCAA basketball coaches for over 20 years and that program operates during basketball season. We do a lot around the Final Four. We do Suits and Sneakers in January every year with our coaches activating at their various schools and institutions to help raise money. There are lots of golf tournaments and different activities that happen through that platform to raise awareness and funds for the cause. 

Our NFL partnership is our next longest standing sports partnership. We are going into our 13th season with the NFL, who truly roll up their sleeves alongside us to be a part of the solution. What we focus on with the NFL is their incredible platform to inspire risk reduction and early detection behavior, like staying up to date with your screening so that you can catch it early. That is really the impetus behind Crucial Catch, which is the name of the NFL’s partnership. We are really focused on messaging and different activities to raise awareness, change behaviors, and save lives. The NFL’s goal is to make sure that people catch cancer early and to make sure that no one is disadvantaged with being able to access screenings and then to encourage people every single day to live healthier lifestyles to reduce their risk of cancer. 

That program started out as a breast cancer-focused program and it has since evolved. In 2017, we expanded to multi-cancers, so now we are prevention- and early detection-focused on all preventable forms of cancer. Our primary activation point is in October and in 2018, we started activating around Super Bowl. We activate now around the Draft and Training Camp, so we now have touchpoints throughout the year for our NFL partnership.

We also have a partnership with the National Hockey League that activates in November and we are growing in several other ways this year.  On the content side we recently launched a partnership with The Players Tribune presented by Amgen.  We have close to 40 players in our player ambassador program, and are working with them to help raise awareness and funds. 

Can you talk about how your past roles on the sports team side has helped you in your current role?

I have spent my entire career in the sports marketing world. What we do at American Cancer Society is obviously about more than sports  – it is to help raise awareness in the fight against cancer– but it is also about building partnerships that can help us raise funds and awareness.

It is very much a cause marketing role and whether it was running a sports marketing program for the Spurs or whether it was consulting at an agency, I am able to understand partnerships and the benefits of partnership for both brands involved. It has certainly helped in my role here at the American Cancer Society, as we want to be as proactive in activating our partnerships with league partners so that we can advance our collective mission to save lives.

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