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.