Shubranshu Singh
Guest Article

U2's Bono and the passion for purpose beyond profits

Here's a look at the work that U2 frontman Bono has done, outside the music world; most notably, his charitable work...

So, folks, in case you hadn’t heard, weren’t there or simply didn’t know – U2 was in town! The frenzy it provoked amongst the swish set was quite unprecedented. I think it is a fit occasion to recognise the work that Bono has done besides his work as an entertainer.

In my opinion, he has advanced the agenda of Public-Private Partnership in the area of actionable cause marketing more than any other celebrity or entertainer. His initiative (RED) launched in 2006 has raised hundreds of millions of dollars for ‘The global fund to fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria’ - a public private partnership set up in 2002. Launched at the World Economic Forum, its purpose was to engage the private sector and its marketing prowess in order to raise funds for the fight against AIDS in Africa. On the back of a napkin, the idea for a unique union of brands and consumers was outlined. Wolff Olins conceptualised the visual identity and gave the communication formal shape.

The global fund had received a paltry USD five million between 2002-06. Bono’s staggering achievement is to bring corporations and brands fully into the battle against disease and poverty. (RED) became the canalising entity for massive private inflow to ‘The global fund to fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria’.

The biggest beneficiaries have been the poorest of the poor in Africa. Going beyond funding, he help created awareness like never before. The global glitterati, top of the rung influencers and world stage politicians were roped in. Be it Oprah Winfrey or Desmond Tutu, Kate Moss or Alicia Keys, Drogba to Lady Gaga, Penelope Cruz to Steve Jobs – a whole galaxy has been associated with and supportive of the initiative. The PR guru Matthew Freud recognised Bono as “one of the great global marketers and the world’s greatest popular communicator “. This may be hyperbole but not false.

Shubranshu Singh
Shubranshu Singh

To understand Bono and (RED), one has to zoom out a little and consider the emergence of popular movements from the early 1980s. Bob Geldof and Midge Ure (Boomtown Rats and Ultravox) organised Band Aid (1984) and Live Aid (1985) concerts in the US and the UK in aid of Ethiopian famine victims.

Comedian Lenny Henry and script writer Richard Curtis set up a British charity – Comic Relief. Almost two decades after Live Aid - Geldof, Curtis and Bono started the Live8 concerts under the ‘Make Poverty History’ MPH campaign. Madonna, Robbie Williams and many more performed in London, Berlin, Rome and Paris. Therefore , we see that much before 2006 (RED ) was inaugurated , Bono had commenced on a programme of committed coalition building between NGOs, celebrities and governments.

In April 2005, Bono and Bobby Shriver launched a black-and-white TV commercial . It was for a pledge towards the American ONE campaign ,the US version of ‘Make Poverty History’ . This commercial featured 33 celebrities including P Diddy, Brad Pitt, Susan Sarandon and Tom Hanks, and it was funded by sponsors Oxfam America and world vision.

Once (RED) was launched, global brands such as Apple, Nike, Dell, American Express, and The Gap vigorously supported the mission. (RED) allowed them to tap into a purpose beyond their own profit. Partner brands created special (RED) versions of products and a portion of the profits from the sales would contribute to the Global Fund to fight malaria, tuberculosis, and AIDS. It represents the simple idea that brands can be a force for good in the world. Being in the (Red) can be very profitable too.

All has not been celebratory - there has been criticism as well. (RED) has been criticised for not having an effect proportional to the marketing investment and for being much less efficient than direct philanthropy. It has been accused of trying to create a retail middleman between the donors and recipients. Others have criticised initiatives such as (RED) for being diversionary noise or, worse, attempts at concealing the central profiteering purpose of corporations under a patina of philanthropy.

However, one has to give credit for the fact that Bono’s endeavour has changed the marketing of causes and brought it into the popular cultural mainstream. He has also managed to link the efforts of a diverse group of people into a single branded movement with momentum. The reason why (RED) is special is because it relies on co-branding rather than initiatives under one brand. In a sense, (RED) is an umbrella brand built on the platform of continuity of support. It is representative of a ‘coalition of the willing’.

Well done, Bono….. Play on!

Shubhranshu Singh is global head for brand and marketing at Royal Enfield. He writes regularly on brand building, content, business, politics and sociology. Views expressed are personal.