Bono: a marketing genius and the world’s greatest popular communicator

Bono’s (RED) has raised $300m the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. Its mix of celebrities and corporations redefined corporate social responsibility

Bono gestures launches the Red Product Line to Help the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland in 2006. Photograph: AP Photo/Michel Euler

As U2 prepare for their first indoor tour for a decade, and the first live action since Bono’s serious bike accident in New York a year ago, is it time to finally recognise the Dublin-born front man as one of the world’s great campaigners?

It could be argued that the Product (RED) campaign, launched in 2006, is one of only a dozen or so marketing campaigns that have genuinely "shaken the world" over the past four decades. Indeed Team Bono, which includes PR adviser Matthew Freud, displays most of the core characteristics of any great modern campaign.

To date (RED), founded by Bono and the US philanthropist Bobby Shriver, has raised more than $300 million for The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. Moreover, the intriguing mix of celebrities and corporations in ambitious coalition has created a new model for corporate social responsibility (CSR) campaigns.

Prior to the creation of (RED), the vast majority of the money contributed to The Global Fund – set up as a public-private partnership in 2002 – had come from governments such as the US, Britain, France and Germany. The great achievement of (RED) was to bring corporates and brands fully into the war against these devastating diseases, particularly in Africa, both in terms of funding and public awareness.


The campaign is best known for Bono's ability to galvanise A-list celebrities and politicians worldwide – from Oprah Winfrey and Kate Moss to Desmond Tutu – to contribute their time and image rights to raising public awareness of these issues. However, (RED) is truly groundbreaking because it provides a solution to the tricky conundrum of matching corporate capitalism with civic causes via the charity sector. Freud explains this in typically colourful terms: "(RED) invented a condom that allowed safe sex between companies and charities; a completely transparent relationship between product purchase and charity donation to a particular cause".

(RED) encourages consumers to buy certain products on the basis that a percentage of their purchase fee would go directly to a specified good cause. The mechanics are upfront and honest and the charity delivery process is set up to be transparent and first class. It was this complex coalition between brands, celebrities, politicians and consumers that has changed the thinking of marketing departments around the globe, both within corporations and NGOs.

(RED) is actually a culmination of a 20-year movement that Microsoft founder Bill Gates coined "conscious consumerism" and whose corporate incarnation can be described as "cause marketing". Of course, Bono participated in the seminal Band Aid charity single back in 1984, and U2 were central to the Live Aid event the following year. Two decades later it was Bono's vision, open-mindedness and relentless energy – alongside that of (RED)'s co-founder the attorney and journalist Bobby Shriver – that came up with a consumer marketing solution for this movement.

Between them Bono, U2 and Freud demonstrate the key elements of successful modern campaigns. The first of these – authenticity, clarity of vision and purpose – were apparent from the start.

Despite Bono’s huge wealth and array of business interests, those close to him say that his campaigning around global health remains second only to U2 in his list of personal priorities. Freud describes him as “one of the great global marketeers and the world’s greatest popular communicator”.

“Two pills: magical, astonishing pills, they cost 40 cents and if you have HIV, they will keep you alive,” said Bono in early 2005. “I remember going to Lilongwe, Malawi where there were up to four people to a bed, waiting to be diagnosed… but the diagnosis was basically a death sentence because there was no treatment available; drugs that you could get in any pharmacy in Europe or America. It was an assault on the whole idea of equality, that where you live can decide whether you live or whether you die.” Bono was already working with Aids activists from Africa, and was clearly hell-bent on using his celebrity as currency to get people in Europe and America to take action.

But when it came to the next key element – the strategic creation of a marketing “movement” – Freud’s input was crucial. Indeed during one live performance, when Freud was in the audience, Bono thanked his valued PR man in front of tens of thousands of envious fans. Bono explains: “Matthew’s company not only specialised in corporate PR but his connections and history with Comic Relief and Make Poverty History put him and Freuds in a unique position to understand the complexities around launching a pro-social brand like (RED) in the UK market.”

The final vital element of any great campaign is the presence of big powerful ideas, executed with creativity. And in a masterstroke in 2007, Freud arranged for Bono to guest-edit the Independent newspaper. The cover, designed by Damien Hirst, simply said "NO NEWS TODAY*" and in very small letters at the bottom "*Just 6,500 Africans died today as a result of a preventable, treatable disease". Based on this success, and Mark Dowley's introduction to Vanity Fair editor, Graydon Carter, the following year Bono guest-edited the June issue of Vanity Fair, branded "The Africa Issue" and with 20 different covers, photographed by Annie Leibovitz. It featured celebrities dedicated to issues in Africa including Barack Obama, Muhammad Ali and Desmond Tutu. Several such guest-edited issues of newspapers and magazines around the world followed.

Subsequently a raft of new corporate partners signed up. Apple alone now sells half a dozen (RED) products and has contributed more than $100million via the campaign. And this is not to mention American Express, Gap, Armani and Converse.

Strangely, despite their huge fan base and enduring sales, Bono and U2 continue to divide opinion around the world. Overblown, ubiquitous and arrogant are adjectives often attached.

Perhaps it will still take a few decades for Bono’s campaigning work to be fully appreciated and Product (RED) recognised as having truly broken the mould.

Danny Rogers’ new book Campaigns that Shook the World: The Evolution of Public Relations (Kogan Page) is out now