The RED campaign, is this what happened?

Red The early results are in.  On a "massive" investment, the RED campaign recently returned a mere $11 million. 

You could argue that these are early days, that it’s too soon to judge the Red campaign.  On the other hand, you could say that this much firepower, publicity and currency should have produced a bigger effect. 

It would be a lovely case study.  There are lots of bits and pieces here for scrutinizing.  Does the fault lay with any or all of the following factors:

1. Bono fatigue

2. the association with big brands

3. the association these big brands (the Gap, American Express, Motorola, iPod)

4. using a color as the thread

5. using this particular color

6. something about the marketing execution

I think none of these is the culprit.  I think the RED campaign was killed by the skeptics, the ones who insisted that RED was too little, a distraction from real problems and real solutions, and/or a way of disguising or obscuring personal and corporate responsibility.  These arguments established a shadow of doubt and this did the rest. 

After the skeptics, the RED project carried a secret message, one that suggested that the bearer of a Motorola was perhaps a poor, clueness dope who didn’t get a) how serious are the problems of this world, b) how little corporations care, c) now little this particular campaign could hope to do.  Now the consumer has to worry that the RED campaign positions him or her as someone who "just doesn’t get it."  And let’s face it, in certain circles, on these issues particularly, no one wants to look like someone who just doesn’t get it.  In a flash, all one’s credibility as a social actor disappears. 

Now, when someone wears a Gap t-shirt in hostile circumstances (a particularly hip coffee house, say), there is always the outside chance that he is doing so ironically, that it was a gift from a girlfriend, or that he got it as a give-away.  When the product is a simple t-shirt, the consumer is not obliged to "own" the brand.  And even if he IS obliged to own the brand ("but we have pictures of you buying it!)", it’s finally just a t-shirt , no real harm, no real foul. 

But if the consumer is seen packing an American Express credit card, after the skeptics have spoken, he really has to own the card, and its new shadow, the imputation that the bearer really has no idea of the larger, most pressing issues of the day.  Not so good. 

Now, I am betting that most of the skeptics lodged their skepticism reflexively.  On the grounds that you just can’t let the corporations get away with this act of white wash, green wash, red wash.  I mean you have to say something, if only because you don’t get a chance to state the position often enough.  We know the drill here.

But if the effect is the killing of the RED initiative and if funding is denied AIDS prevention in Africa, yikes, the skeptics have a lot to answer for.  There is suffering in the world that can be put at their doorstep. 

The larger marketing issue is also clear.  People build personal identities out of the meanings accessed from the branded world.  In this case, the intended meanings of the RED brand were subverted so that now RED adoption must necessarily  diminish the consumer’s claim to intelligence, sensitivity, worldliness.  People will pay any number prices to aid in the amelioration of social problems.  Participating in the ritual destruction of the social self is probably not one of them.  And we would be naive to expect otherwise. 

The take-away for RED, take it down and start again.  This campaign is truly cooked. 


Join the Red campaign here.

Fawkes, Piers.  2007.  After Huge Marketing Effort, RED only Delivers $11.3 M.
PSFK.  February 19, 2007.  here

15 thoughts on “The RED campaign, is this what happened?

  1. Adam Richardson

    Grant, didn’t you write about T-shirt slogans in Flock and Flow? My copy is buried behind moving boxes at the moment, but I seem to remember a section in there about people wearing T-shirts with logos of obscure diners on them as ironic statements. It’s reached a point where nothing on a T-shirt is taken sincerely any more, espcially if it’s well-designed. I have a t-shirt I got as part of a cancer walk, and it’s hideous, but no-one would take it as other than heartfelt. Perhaps the problem with (Red) was that it was *too* well designed (or just too designed, period), it didn’t have that grassroots rough-around-the-edges feel. The pretentious typography on the name is one-turn off right away for (me).

  2. jens

    you just killed the RED brand for me, grant.
    – shame on you. – it had been such a wonderful idea.

  3. Charles Edward Frith

    There’s more than a whiff of triumphalism in this post. The question was asked elsewhere on the net but this post feels like a nail in the coffin. Any suggestions for what the new Red is going to be. Black??

  4. Anonymous

    The problem was there was too much overhead for a supposedly philanthropic product. Non-profits know how to make money for others, GAP doesn’t. Some people knew that it wasn’t a “charity”, they didn’t shop; but most people did. Some people didn’t know that GAP kept half of the profits and donated the half; some people did. People are not that jaded to be skeptic about real initiatives, but they get angry when help is mixed with profit. This thing didn’t happen because GAP was uncool, it just happened because many people thought what GAP did was uncool. For most, what GAP and others did was pure exploitation: the AIDS epidemic and those who were naive enough to think that capitalist institutions are evolved enough to solve world problems.

  5. Stephen Denny


    I wouldn’t write this off just yet. Sure, there are many in the holier-than-RED camp who have dismissed anything that smells of “capitalism” (shudder), but if we can refocus for a moment on what has actually happened, the picture is good. RED has put $25M on the boards in five months.

    For comparison’s sake, if Newman’s Own (who is pure of spirit, with 100% of profits disbursed to charities) donates, on average, $12.5m a year… tell me again why RED, with $25M in five months, is bad?

    We agree that the eco-socio-snarky-trenderati occupying the top 5% of potential “givers” may feel this RED thing has gone (gasp) mainstream — which would make it as un-cool as saving the rainforests or something — but going mainstream may be the exact thing that makes RED work.

    What matters is the awareness and the cash that this throws off. Judged by this criteria, RED is GOOD. Thanks!

  6. Stephen Denny

    Sorry — one more thing —

    It sounds like many, many people have confused RED with a charity. Not sure why this is. RED is a cause-related promotion. A promotion.

    Like, “Buy this red iPod and get 25 free music downloads”, except the hook is “we’ll donate $20 to The Global Fund to fight AIDS, TB and malaria in Africa”.

    Different things, both putting money where it needs to go. Not a charity. A promotion!

  7. steve

    The problem Grant identifies is related to a market segment gap. Those people who do think capitalism is great often suspect that marketing efforts like RED are scams. These are the kind of people who apologize about shopping at Whole Foods because of what they see as its holier-than-thou organic BS. They aren’t taken in by that BS, they just like Whole Foods’s product selection. RED is a loser for them.

    Then there are the people who think capitalism is a dirty word. They apologize for shopping at Whole Foods because it doesn’t go far enough with its organic commitment. This group is never going to embrace RED, even if it were proven to save thousands of lives, because oppositon to “the system” is a core part of their identity. It’s like being against DDT–the actual consequences are as nothing compared to the identity maintained by the attitude. These are Grant’s “skeptics.”

    Finally, there are the unself-conscious types who aren’t sure what they think about capitalism but who feel virtuous for shopping at Whole Foods. They are the natural targets for RED, but they are highly susceptible to attacks on their virtue by the other two groups, because their desire to be a good person isn’t tightly bound to an ideological point of view. Here is where denunciation by the hipsters takes its toll as Grant describes.

    I think a campaign like this would work better if it were not associated with visible paraphernaila, were clearly marketed as a promotion (as Stephen Denny suggests), and were pushed hard in the more religious parts of the country. Those folks don’t see anything wrong with doing well while doing good, unlike the poster at 10:17:34

  8. Charles Edward Frith

    Good grief is that the smell of burning dollar bill incense billowing in the direction of stained glass windows? Are those derivative trading acolytes around the altar of capitalism for early mass?

    I thought RED was an idea. Maybe it just got killed off by the free markets that are neither free or markets… sigh.

  9. Joe

    The whole RED thing was DOA for me. I think it was a matter of not enough information being provided to make me aware of what the effort was all about before the product saturation began and then not clear enough referencing to the connection with the cause when the products came out.

    When I saw the Motorola ads, I thought it was just a promotion for a phone design like the Razer.

    My first clue that it might be something bigger was at a U2 concert where people were wearing Inspi(red) and Desi(red) shirts all over the place. Since it seemed 1) a pretty narcissistic message and 2) like people were jumping on a bandwagon to prove how cool they were, I was immediately soured on the whole thing.

    It wasn’t until I researched the whole thing that I understood that the GAP shirts and Motorola phones were actually related to each other and to something I might actually support. It might have been better if they made up shirts saying Ca(red) and Sha(red)to start with instead. (Or if they did, no one wanted to buy more sincere sounding shirts)

    Eventually, I probably would have still be turned off by people trying to prove how socially conscious they were. But I wouldn’t have been as poorly disposed toward the effort before I had a chance to investigate.

  10. Virginia Postrel

    There’s also a noise/competition problem. The exact shade of red was simultaneously being used to promote awareness of heart disease in women and was enjoying a purely aesthetics-driven fashion moment. Maybe the RED merchandise just wasn’t the best way of either buying red or supporting AIDS relief. Or maybe it was just confusing.

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  12. Drew Neisser

    (RED) is far from dead. Since when did raising $25 million for a worthy cause become a failure? The Global Fund is thrilled with the results and (RED) represents its largest funding raising success by a high margin. The (RED) business partners are not complaining–even the struggling GAP is selling out its (RED) tees. The consumers buying (RED) are not regretting their purchases. Everyone wins except the skeptics who are struggling with the concept that a socially responsible joint venture between non-profits and the private sector could actually work. All I ask is that we give (RED) a chance.

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