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A profitable approach to fighting AIDS

If you want to fund causes like fighting AIDS in Africa, Bobby Shriver says, you need to hook corporate donors by offering more than just a chance to do the right thing. Contribute magazine reports.
Image: Product (Red) co-founders Bobby Shriver and Bono
Bobby Shriver, left, and singer Bono launch Motorola's Product (RED) phone at a London event in May 2006. In this interview with Contribute Magazine, Shriver defends their new model to keep funds flowing to fight AIDS in Africa.Daniel Berehulak / Getty Images file
/ Source: Contribute Magazine

Bobby Shriver, 53, a former journalist and the son of the founder of the Peace Corps, met Bono when the U2 lead singer created a song for a Special Olympics fundraising album being organized by Shriver in 1987. The two became friends, but it wasn’t until 2002 that Bono contacted Shriver to help him create DATA, for Debt, AIDS, Trade, Africa, which works to eradicate extreme poverty and AIDS in Africa. Stymied in their efforts to get corporations to contribute money to keep HIV-positive mothers in Africa from passing the virus to newborns, the pair then organized Product (RED) to engage mainstream consumers and major brands to give more at the cash register to stamp out AIDS. Is it working one year out? CONTRIBUTE Editor-in-Chief Marcia Stepanek caught up with Shriver — a Yale-educated lawyer and the nephew of U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy — to talk about the evolution of the (RED) project since it was unveiled at the World Economic Forum in Davos in January 2006. What follows is an edited transcript of that conversation.

Why (RED)?
After a couple of years of DATA, we got the feeling that we weren’t getting to the soccer moms; we weren’t really getting into the pig roasts. Somebody said one day to Bono that what we needed to do was become more like the GAP — they’re in the malls. They advertise all day long and they tell a story to (mainstream) consumers. That’s how stories get out in America — via advertising. We realized that if we were going to convince any company to work with us, the only way we could make it sustainable is to enable companies to make money on it. So we had to make up a brand. We had the idea of (RED), which is the idea of an emergency. The fact that there are 5,500 people dying a day (of AIDS) is an emergency. We came up with a brand and a logo and a marketing program, and that’s how it all came about.

Then it took off.
SHRIVER: Well, I wouldn’t go that far. You’re talking about a start-up with no capital. After two years of work, we launched the first single product, an American Express card in the U.K. Then, in the fall of last year — God bless Oprah Winfrey — all the products launched in America. And then, due to her genius and Bono’s great reputation, (RED) finally did take off, yes.

How does it work?
SHRIVER: Every relationship with our partner companies is a five-year contractual relationship — which includes auditing, business relationship contracts that cover rights, non-rights, and so forth. So all of that is very specific. And the trademarks are registered all over the world and defended all over the world. And each partner relationship is a sort of startup in and of itself. GAP (RED) would be a startup. Armani (RED) would be a startup. Converse (RED) would be a startup. And each company, depending on its business model — Motorola (RED) would be a startup — would have to figure out how this project would work into its business. A cell phone is a very different business than scarves, and scarves are a very different business than shoes.

   We knew there would be hiccups, as there are in any startup. We only wanted people to stay the course a little bit on this. We didn’t want the thing to be a one-off promotion, something people would do for just a week or a month. People, once they start to take AIDS medicine, can’t really stop. It has to be steady. You have to have companies that are steady.

What’s been the reaction from companies so far?
SHRIVER: I think some have been ecstatic, while for some it’s been pretty good — and some have struggled, which is exactly what you’d expect of something new. But I think, at the end of the day, the $47 million speaks for itself. It’s way beyond what I ever would have thought possible. Overall, (RED) products have gone over $100 million in profit. The companies are keeping part of that.

So it’s been a win-win for companies and cause?
SHRIVER: Yeah. I’m a little nervous about that phrase, win-win. I know it’s shorthand, and I even say it myself sometimes, but I think people get sort of nervous because nobody ever really believes there is such a thing as a win-win. Do you know what I mean? It’s true that companies are making money (from their participation) but that’s an idea that needs to be defended. (RED) is not a charity. There’s this thinking out there that if you’re a charity, you have to fly in the back of the bus and go to church three times a week. It’s not the perception that we’re here to make money, to demand performance, to work hard — you know what I’m saying? That kind of thinking is new in philanthropy. We at (RED) are people who are trying to do pro-social things while holding our colleagues to what I would call private sector standards. That’s a new idea.
   The companies that joined us as partners made a hard decision because they knew, and it has been borne out, that they would be criticized. And we also knew that if you were to do a poll on the issues that Americans care about, AIDS in Africa at the time would come in almost last. We weren’t (Hurricane) Katrina. It wasn’t, "Hi, we’re going to do T-shirts for Katrina. It wasn’t that."

What was your reaction to the piece earlier this year in Ad Age that said companies were spending far more money on marketing — some $100 million — than on eradicating AIDS in Africa?
SHRIVER: It’s a fundamentally inaccurate point. That marketing money is being spent all the time. How many ads have you seen for a cell phone in today’s paper? That marketing money is being spent any day, regardless—whether the phone is red or black. What (RED) does is take the money a company is already spending on marketing and turn that money — and that ad — (RED). That’s all we’re doing. Another assertion in Ad Age was that if people buy the (RED) T-shirt, then they won’t contribute money to charity. That’s like saying you bought ten bottles of Paul Newman salad dressing this year, so now you’re not going to give money to a cancer charity. One has nothing to do with the other. People are smarter than that. You bought the salad dressing because you wanted to have salad dressing on your salad.

What about criticism that companies may partner with (RED) to patch over their reputations for being a sweatshop, and so forth?
SHRIVER: We really feel that we’re at war, you know, because getting this money out of governments and companies to fight AIDS is hard work. At any moment they could take it from you. And we have seen people dying as our critics have, and when you’ve seen that and you realize the money can go at any moment, I don’t really think too much about whether a company is taking advantage of me. You’re giving me 50 percent of your profits? Nice to meet you. Congratulations. Have a nice day. And you’re going to run all that advertising that says there’s an issue called AIDS in Africa? God bless you.