(Product) RED is one of the most successful case studies of cause marketing in today’s market. Co-founded by U2 singer and activist Bono and Bobby Shriver, (Product) RED joins with “iconic” brands to develop special RED versions of existing products (Apple iPods, Converse sneakers, etc). When the specialty-branded products are sold, a percentage of the profits are donated to The Global Fund to Fight AIDS. The campaign has already earned $36 million for The Global Fund, with more and more companies signing up to “go RED” every day. Much of this success can be attributed to the shrewd business plan at the base of (Product) RED. Bono and Shriver’s motivation wasn’t to form a new charity, but to create a steady flow of cash from the private sector. In order to ensure a sustainable income from for-profit businesses was to make certain that they would receive direct financial benefit from (Product) RED sales. Choosing to sell already popular items with a “cause” attached guaranteed increased purchases for participating companies.
Instead of attempting to revolutionize the playing field of a consumer culture, Bono and Shriver are simply playing the game. Assuming that cause marketing will be successful, they are in essence creating a win-win situation wherein the consumer’s emotional response results in a purchase that benefits both large corporations and The Global Fund. But what’s made (Product) RED so successful amidst a sea of other cause marketing agencies is the masterful branding of the (Product) RED brand. With appealing (RED) logos and a traffic-stopping color scheme, a (RED) product is easily identifiable by the contemporary shopper as a symbol of smart, charitable, and trendy spending. The most well-known RED ad campaign is for GAP, which features celebrities wearing t-shirts with prints such as DESI (RED) and EMPOWE (RED).
The choice of celebrity endorsement is initially confusing. Why not show pictures of AIDS patients in Africa? What do celebrities, whose spending habits are even more extravagant than the average American consumer, have to do with providing medical care to an impoverished nation? The answer is reasonably simple. For one thing, the average American consumer doesn’t want to look at AIDS patients dying in Africa. It’s depressing, and it makes them feel guilty. Celebrities have the opposite effect–they make consumers feel envious. So when America’s favorite faces are smiling from the covers of glossy magazines wearing Gap (RED) t-shirts, it solves two problems; consumer guilt is alleviated because they feel their luxury spending is making a difference, and superstar envy disappears because shoppers feel unified with celebrities in the fight against AIDS. The message is resoundingly positive–Famous people are talking to you! And they’re saying “You are a good person! Your life makes a difference, and you can make this this difference by spending your money! On products you’d be buying anyway!”
Congratulations, consumer. Stephen Spielberg has just let you off the hook.