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September 7, 2011 / Lisa & Stefano

Product RED, Brand Aid and Celebrity-driven development

Bono’s Product RED is ‘a business model to raise awareness and money for The Global Fund by team­ing up with the world’s most iconic brands to produce RED-branded products.’ A proportion of the profits from the sale of RED products is donated to the Global Fund to Fight HIV/AIDS, TB and Malaria.  The Irish singer from the world famous rock band U2 is the front man for the first attempt to fund one of the largest providers of global AIDS treatment through the purchasing power of Western consumers.

In its first five years of operation, RED donated $160 million to the Fund. RED grants are made through the Fund’s standard disbursement processes and have been dedicated to the best-performing programs for AIDS in Africa–so far, RED funds have gone to Ghana, Lesotho, Rwanda, Swaziland, South Africa and Zambia.

Product RED is an innovative modality of international development financing, and one that is likely to spawn a variety of similar interventions of what we call ‘Brand Aid’. Brand Aid is the combined meaning of ‘aid to brands’ and ‘brands that provide aid’. It is ‘aid to brands’ because it helps sell branded products and improve a brand’s ethical profile and value. It is ‘brands that provide aid’ because, like other cause-related marketing initiatives, a proportion of the profit or sales is devoted to helping others. As a response to the crisis of legitimacy in international aid to Africa, Brand Aid also helps to re-brand aid itself and aid to Africa in particular.

Brand+Celebrity+Cause=Brand Aid

Branding is about conveying a mark to consumers. It is a commitment to consistently delivering a material and symbolic experience of a certain quality. Brand Aid can be an attractive vector for building the ethical component of brand reputation and for turning brands into icons. It does not ask companies to improve their social, labour and environmental conditions of production. Thus, it does not question the fundamentals of ‘hard commerce’. At the same time, Brand Aid can help increase sales, visibility and brand equity. It also helps to shift attention from the product to a cause—a win-win solution to the world’s most pressing problems.

Celebrities are fundamental in selling products to the masses, and with Brand Aid, international development assistance becomes another marketable product. When the RED website advertises that ‘There are hundreds of ways to support the elimination of AIDS in Africa’,they are not referring to the provision of condoms or legal reforms to uphold women’s rights, nor are they referring to improving communication between spouses or one-stop shopping for all kinds of reproductive health services; they are not referring to effective microbicides or reducing socio-economic inequality. The ‘hundreds of ways’, represented by small, colorful pictures that move onto the screen of the RED website one after the other, are consumer products–greeting cards, take-away lattes, fancy computers and stylish sunglasses. Product promotion and aid fundraising are united in RED.

We are accustomed to celebrities who sell cars and songs; celebrities who sell development interventions are both familiar and new. In RED we see celebrities who sell the possibility of saving someone else’s life.

Philanthrocapitalism, ‘creative capitalism’ (as termed by Bill Gates), social entrepreneurship, and Brand Aid all work on solving existing problems–how ‘we’ (in the West) mobilize resources to solve a problem instead of asking questions about how the problem came to exist in the first place. Brand Aid enacts the myth of ‘just capitalism’ to reconcile the contradictions of global wealth and poverty. It does so by portraying the idea that capitalism can be fixed to rein in its excesses and target its creativity and resources to help groups of ‘deserving others’ (Africans suffering from AIDS). And in a period of economic crisis and financial insecurity, RED can still exploit the myth of ‘just capitalism’ by portraying itself as a workable alternative to ‘casino capitalism’, and as a modality where consumption and cool can be channelled towards a good cause.

Brand Aid provides an easy solution to current crises in international development— one that enables corporations to raise their corporate social responsibility (CSR) profile without substantially changing their normal business practices while consumers engage in low-cost heroism without meaningfully increasing their awareness of global production-consumption relations or the struggles of people who are living with HIV/AIDS.  In this form of Brand Aid, the problems and the people who experience them, are branded and marketed to Western consumers just as effectively as the products that will ‘save’ them.

[This text was originally posted at]


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