Oh, no, no mo Bono! (the davos delirium continues)

Bono Brands can do many things.  They can carry many meanings.  They can address many issues.  But should they be asked to do what Bono wants them to?

Yesterday, Bono announced from Davos that his new brand, Product Red, will be partner with brands such as American Express, Gap, Giorgio Armani and Converse.  Proceeds from this partnership will go to the Global Fund to Fight Aids, Tuberculosis and Malaria.

This is consistent with social marketing and what is sometimes called conscience consumerism.  And it is part of Bono’s larger undertaking: to use his celebrity to influence governments and the private sector to create social good.   

I can’t help feeling there is something grandly presumptuous about Bono when he acts like this.  This is a man we have elevated in the larger scheme of things because some believe he is a gifted musician and entertainer.  That he should now appoint himself a moral spokesperson is I think a little dubious.  Nelson Mandela can be a spokesperson.  Bono, not so much.  (I believe we must doubt Bono’s credentials even if we accept the Romantic notion that artists have a special connection to the zeitgeist of the moment and to this extend a special moral authority to speak to us and for us.  I believe that Bono is insisting on a mandate he does not have, that we did not give him.)

Some people will say "what can it hurt?"   Bono may be a nitwit.  The corporations may be ill advised to use their brands in this manner.  Some good will be accomplished and in a zero sum world this is a good that would not otherwise have been accomplished.  Only the hard of heart would interfere with this noble cause.

This is the argument that underpins many liberal causes.  The larger good accomplished eclipses any doubts we might have about the precise logic of the proposition.  Really, what can it hurt?

Here’s an argument.  Why not argue that Product Red permits the individual to believe that their philanthropic work is done.  Indeed, if they $.25 that goes from my purchase to to Global Fund gives me the sense that I am absolved of larger donorship responsiblities, what has been accomplished?  If the consumer believes that he or she "gave at the Gap," Bono branding is a tremendously bad idea. 

What I especially dislike is that when Product Red purchase substitutes for philanthropy, philanthropy loses its transperancy.  I no longer know who I am giving to.  I no longer take responsibility for making this decision in the first place, or for monitoring it in the second. 

But I am also uncomfortable with the brandng mechanics that ensue.  Building and deploying brands is a fabulously complicated business.  As it is, most corporation engage in good works (Timberland happens to be a great case in point here) but the moment they sing their own praises, we look on them askance.  Just do it, we tell them.  Don’t brag about it.  (And this is one of the reasons Timberland has not made a great public fuss about the exemplary generosity.)  There is something about generosity that springs from extrinsic motives that makes the gesture manifestly less generous. 

This raises a nice little "if a tree falls" paradox for the marketer.  If things are done, but no word goes out, what indeed was done…from a marketing point of view.  I leave this problem to nimbler wits than my own.  I wish merely the raise the possibility that Product Red may not be an alloyed good.  Let us look this gift horse in the mouth. 

16 thoughts on “Oh, no, no mo Bono! (the davos delirium continues)

  1. jens

    the whole bono stuff is cool (bono-bashing in a way too).

    why should he not do what he does? just a boy trying to make a difference – that is what i see – may be i need new specs – but what i see is pretty cool (i think rock n roll is what you call it).

    brand red overkill? hardly – it is going to be a couple of products and i doubt that they are going to dance longer than a couple of seasons. the whole idea looks hardly perfect – i doubt that it will stand the test of time – BUT i also doubt that standing the test of time is the intention here.

    with the exception of the amex red may be.
    i want one now.

  2. dilys

    “Only the hard of heart would interfere with this noble cause.” This is the kicker. Anything designed this way has a Big Controller undertone, and is IMO too rigid to ride the waves of the emergent 21st-century world.

    You have also chimed with an interesting meme of the outspoken Mark Shea, in his history of good intentions gone wrong, not just neutral lost-opportunity, but wrong.
    [In chronological order:]
    1. What could it hurt?
    2. How could we have known? [hands over ears, “la-la-la-la…”]
    3. [my addition] Don’t criticize, our objectives are noble, and, in fact, we haven’t tried hard enough. More praise and support, please.

    If brand red sells, more power to him. Oil the wheels, and all that. Others prefer to direct their own purchases for economy and utility, and keep a close eye on how charitable dollars are being used, without, e.g., a blind mandate to pesticide and big pharma in the name of “malaria” and “tuberculosis.”

    Big ideas about intractable problems require minutely-examined, hard-nosed execution to be practical. The customer preening herself on the morality of purchases is an entirely different process, in another universe. Branding, well it’s a new thing to try to meld the first things. Bono’s good intentions should be revisited in a few years, to quantify and evaluate what it was really all about. Let a million celebrity-sponsored values-based brands bloom.

  3. Anonymous

    Why assume that consumers will consider their work “done” after contributing a hypothetical $.25 to charitable causes? Perhaps it will initiate further “conscience consumerism” in a snowball effect as people begin to adjust their shopping preferences accordingly. I think we need empirical evidence to make a claim for either outcome.

  4. Johnnie Moore

    Hmm. I’m no fan of our culture of celebrity.

    But the thing is, who knows what meanings different people will make of Product Red? Maybe for some it will be a way of copping out; for others it might turn out to be a spark that ignites greater awareness.

    It’s an offer, it’ll be interesting to see what people do with it.

  5. Grant

    Jens, but he isn’t “just a boy” he trades on his celebrity and builds it. Thanks, Grant

    Dilys, Thanks! Well said. Grant

    Anonymous, sure, we can hope that consumers will engage in their own philanthropy. (But personally I am a little astonished to think that some people will be moved to do so only because Bono encouraged them to.) Thanks, Grant

    Tom, and she would have been so much better dress. Thanks, Grant

    Johnnie, thanks! yeah, we can’t know what the other motives are and how Red might inspire new generosity in other ways. I just come back to that sense of unease that we should need a rock star to encourage us to do something that is…well, clearly important, urgent, necessary. I mean really if we can’t figure this out for ourselves… kind of thing. But I take your point. If it works as a incitement to philanthropy, it really is a good thing. Thanks, Grant

    MEL, great point, and somehow I am favorably disposed to Newman than to Bono, perhaps because the former really is delivering things of value in the marketplace. Plus, you don’t see Newman lecturing Devos, or visiting with Blair, or presuming to appoint himself a moral authority. There is a modesty to Newman that I’m not sure we see in Bono. And maybe that’s what it comes down to, philanthropy should be “all about” the people who are its recipients. I am nervous when someone else appears to be cutting themselves in on the action. Thanks, Grant

  6. Peter

    In your last comment, Grant, I think you have put your finger on what angered me (and many others) about last year’s Live8 concert — the arrogance of the organizers: a concert purporting to help Africa had to be shamed, kicking, protesting and screaming, into including any musical artists from said Africa.

  7. jens

    hi grant.

    i do – however – not see this difference. “celebrity” to me is not a category on its own.
    just like “brand” is not.

    with both “brand” and “celebrity” – imo – it is essentially about personality as a sense building offer.

    if one overestimates this, one can easily be on the path of the most overrated publication in recent years: naomi klein’s “no logo” … and that simply would be a shame…

  8. Ennis

    I can’t help feeling there is something grandly presumptuous about Bono when he acts like this. This is a man we have elevated in the larger scheme of things because some believe he is a gifted musician and entertainer. That he should now appoint himself a moral spokesperson is I think a little dubious. Nelson Mandela can be a spokesperson. Bono, not so much.

    I think you misunderstand Bono. I don’t think he’s posing as superior. Instead, I think he sees himself as everyman, a concerned citizen who uses the resources at his disposal (i.e. fame) to try to bring attention to what most people would agree are bad problems. But he’s not uninformed. He’s been talking to Jeffrey Sachs for over 5 years now, he went to Africa with the then US secretary of the treasury, and has managed to speak convincingly to both Jesse Helms and the Pope.

    Somebody like that, with a years of asking about a question and an effective track record of communication with powerful people, is somebody with some credibility.

    Let’s turn this around – why should we believe Bill Gates when he talks about trying to solve the world’s problems? After all, he’s an executive and a computer guy – not a public health expert or an economist. Isn’t he just using his fame (and money) in a similar way?

  9. Renee

    Commenter Ennis said, “I think you misunderstand Bono. I don’t think he’s posing as superior.”

    The fact that some people see him this way tends to negate any intention he might have to the contrary. He’s riding a wave of perception, and if it turns wrong, he falls, and so perhaps does the associated brand.

  10. Ennis

    Renee – the question is what percentage of people think that Bono’s putting on airs. He’s a successful musician despite his detractors, and I’ve heard more criticism of his musical abilities than his fitness as a policy wonk. We’d have to run the numbers.

    In general though, this is a risk that most do gooders face, they get accused of arrogance. Seeing that Bono started down this road years ago, and he’s still going strong, the criticism doesn’t seem to be slowing him down any.

    BTW, Richard Branson has also stepped into similar do gooding, joining Bono and Bill Gates. Do we think that this is a bad idea for all three? If it is a worse idea for some than others, why?

  11. Colin

    I have to agree with you on this one, Grant. It’s rubbish and it has well established historic roots. They were called indulgences; pay money to the Church and gain remittance from sin. Martin Luther denounced the Catholic Church for growing rich on guilt as morally bankrupt. This too is morally bankrupt, as you can’t confuse doing good works with consumer choice. Let’s remember, the only guaranteed empirical outcome in this exercise is that Bono gets richer. Nothing sells better than guilt, and every good conman knows it, otherwise most of the televangelists would be on the unemployment lines where they belong.

  12. NELSON

    EVERY BODY HAS A GOOD POINT !!!.

    Perhaps Mr McCracken’s way of setting his ideas about Bono or other celebrities in relation with good works, may not be seen fair or right for some of us (this is an statment that deppends a lot of our particular values, tendencies and information about the topic in play)

    It is well sustained to say that behind this social marketing there are capitalist interests, mostly when within the concept of a “red card” there has to be an associate like amex. That is a good example of entrepreneurship, a way of becoming rich most times. BUT…

    …in a way, Mr Hewson (Bono) as many other celebrities are sending -maybe in the form of consciense consumerism- signals to make us continuosly aware of our social problems, and this strategy works for many people that need that to open their eyes to others problems not only their own issues. NOW…

    …Grant is also telling us to open our minds in order to see the other face -side- of the coin.
    Nelson Lara.

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