"What we couldn't figure out was why people said they wanted to do something to help - and then didn't." So says Bobby Shriver who, as a member of the Kennedy clan, is about as near as America gets to an aristocrat. He is the man who, with the singer and activist Bono, dreamt up Product RED to harness the power of the high street in the fight against the greatest threat to health in human history - the Aids pandemic which every day claims the lives of 6,500 men, women and children in Africa alone.
Tomorrow The Independent goes RED. But what does that actually mean? First that half of the money this newspaper earns that day will be given to Global Fund to Fight Aids, Tuberculosis and Malaria. That sounds like a good bit of corporate philanthropy, the kind of idea you might expect a latterday aristo like Shriver to dream up.
But to think in those terms is to under-estimate the potency of the enterprise. What Shriver and Bono are about is a revolution that brings together two of the most powerful forces in the contemporary world - the appetite of consumers and the marketing intelligence of the corporate sector - to open up an entirely new front in the battle against Aids in the continent worst hit by this modern plague.
Concern about Africa has long been the province of activists with a white band around their wrists. In the UK the Make Poverty History movement, which was part of the wider Global Action Against Poverty, last year prompted 157 million people in 75 countries to sign up to commit themselves to action for justice in Africa.
It was a remarkable achievement which wrought from the world's politicians the promise to double aid to Africa and to provide health care to almost everyone living with Aids anywhere on the planet. But, Bono and Shriver concluded, it was not enough. They needed new ways to exert pressure for change. "Lots of people had said they wanted to get involved," says Shriver, who chairs Data (Debt, Aids, Trade, Africa) the lobby group Bono and Bob Geldof set up in Washington and London. People who signed up to join The ONE Campaign, the US equivalent of Make Poverty History, are writing to the President and senators about some aspects of the problem. There are two million of them now. They are changing the game. "But many more who had expressed interest shied away from that kind of activism. They didn't want to write to the President, or march to Washington. Yet they wanted to do something. So we had to come up with something for them to do - something easier."
It was a meeting with the former US treasury secretary Robert Rubin which planted the seed of change in Bono's mind. They were talking about the public's lack of awareness of the depth of the Aids problem when Rubin said: "You need to market this like Nike." Something clicked in Bono's brain.
"We had the churches, the student campuses, the activists," he recalls. "But we didn't have the high street."
When the Global Fund was set up in 2002, the UN secretary general Kofi Annan called for a new public-private partnership with governments and corporations combining to fight the deadly pandemic. But what emerged was considerably one-sided. While the governments of rich nations contributed $4.8bn (£2.5bn) in the years that followed (in itself far too little to turn back the tide of Aids), a measly $2m has come from private-sector corporations.
What was needed, Bono and Shriver concluded, was not a mere spur to the social consciousness of big business, but something more structured - a new brand. And one which iconic companies would fight to join. "Only that way would we be able to bring to bear the marketing muscle and intelligence of these big companies who, above all else," says Shriver, "know how to sell stuff".
They spent two years in conversation with a number of major brands, among whom American Express, Gap, Converse and Giorgio Armani took the lead - all agreeing to give a significant cut of their profits on the new RED products to the Global Fund. NowThe Independent joins that stable by going RED, in what is only the first of a number of RED projects in which the paper will become involved in the months to come.
"Our original idea was to launch it in the States," says Shriver. But Amex deployed some of that marketing intelligence with research into where was the best place to launch the new concept. Britain was the nation where ethical shopping had already established the greatest grip. Consumers here have a history of buying products such as Fairtrade coffee, which pays peasant farmers above-market rates and supports them with advance payments and business training.
In the UK such products have gone beyond the hair-shirt hippie healthfood stores. Purchases of Fairtrade-branded goods rose by 51 per cent between 2003 and 2004, with sales up from £92m to £140m. Green & Black's chocolate saw its market share increase by 70 per cent in 2004. The Co-operative Bank, which refuses to invest in tobacco, fur or countries with repressive regimes, has seen its deposits grow from £1bn to £6bn in just 10 years. Ethical investments now constitute some £1.4bn and the market in ethical products is now worth £25bn in the UK.
Research by American Express indicated this market would grow substantially - from around 1.5 million ethical shoppers now to 3.9 million by 2009. It has conducted surveys which suggest that 33 per cent of British shoppers now consider themselves what Amex is calling "conscience consumers". At the other end of the scale is a group - 35 per cent of the market - whom it calls "value shoppers" or "apolitical shoppers" whose prime concern is price.
In between, however, are 31 per cent whom it calls "middle- path realists" - who want to effect change without spending much money or time. These are the initial target for RED. "Amex said that instead of trying to get the idea off the ground in America it made far more sense to launch first in the UK, where the awareness of the issue is gigantic by comparison," says Shriver. But he is hoping it will also attract the kind of shoppers who look for the cheapest chicken on the supermarket shelf. "We're saying to the cheapest chicken people: 'You have a credit card, right? Well, here's a RED one. You want a T shirt - here's a RED one. You want a cellphone - here's a RED one. And they are no more expensive than the one you were going to buy. On top of that they are products that are aspirational, cool and look good. Where's the downside?'"
A few critics have not been slow to point it out. Some sections of the activist world - the idealists who would rather maintain their ideological purity than get their hands dirty in the real world - have condemned RED, alleging that it allows big business to make money from the misery of Aids.
At other end of the spectrum, one marketing expert lamented that the impact of RED on its partners had so far been "as flat as a pancake", with the British public not reacting much.
But Shriver and Bono are impatient with such criticism. "The 'flat as a pancake' verdict came just six weeks after we launched the first RED product on 1 March," says Shriver. It was a somewhat premature verdict since only four products were then available - the RED Amex card, one Gap T-shirt, one pair of Converse trainers and a single pair of Armani sunglasses. The full product range - see box - will not be available until Christmas.
Bono reaches for a musical analogy to respond to his idealist critics. "It's like the difference between indie music and hip hop. The indie bands were embarrassed by ambition. Post-Nirvana they didn't want anything to do with the main commercial infrastructure. They were garage bands, but they were middle-class kids and their father owned the garage. They would rather do nothing than be uncool.
"By contrast, hip-hop kids used music to get out of the ghetto in Compton and the Bronx. They were poor kids who wanted to take on the world and their hip hop embraced commercialism. OK, sometimes it went too far and was crass but it had an entrepreneurial side that has rescued them from the mess that they were in."
The critics of RED, he is saying, are affluent idealists, whereas the poor will embrace anything that helps them out of their difficulties. "Two of the big problems facing Africa are a lack of commercial capacity and Aids," he continues. "RED brings these together. What will change things in Africa is Africans paying their own way and coming off the nipple of aid."
The point of RED is that it is win-win-win - consumers, corporate business and the world's poorest people all benefit. And RED's structure locks the benefits in. "How could a company signed up to RED now consider moving from a factory in Africa where they provide anti-retrovirals for workers who have Aids - and move production to a cheaper factory in China?" asks Bono. "It would be a PR disaster," adds Shriver.
It will take 18 months - two Christmas business cycles - before they know how successful RED will be, says Shriver. But already other firms are approaching him to join in. He is in conversation with a number of internet service providers and with Apple computers.
But already, he feels, it is a success. "I got a phone call the other day from someone who works for the Global Fund. She happened to be in Cardiff and saw the RED window display in Gap and went in to see the T-shirts. As she was looking, one of the sales girls came up and described to her what the Global Fund is and what it does. The woman came out of the shop in tears of joy and called me.
"The first time I saw that great iconic Amex card with the words, 'This card is designed to help eliminate Aids in Africa' I cried too and, let me tell you, I'm no pussy." The message is out there. And that's the beginning of change.
A major new RED product is to be launched this morning. The U2 frontman Bono, and his partner, Bobby Shriver, will unveil a RED Motorola mobile phone. The deal will significantly raise the contribution by the private sector for the Global Fund to Fight Aids. Motorola joins American Express, Gap, Converse and Armani in creating new products for the RED brand. Part of the profits of each will go direct to the Global Fund.
* AMERICAN EXPRESS
The first of the products, the American Express RED card, launched on 1 March, will send 1 per cent of all spending on the card to the fight against Aids.
By October, Gap, which has a RED T-shirt at present, will have 50 items in its range including a bomber jacket, jeans, khakis, purses, belts and hats. At a private viewing in San Francisco last week even Bono, who is no slouch on fashion matters, was impressed with the prototypes.
Converse has two styles of RED sports shoes, some made with African mud-cloth, but 14 other styles are in the pipeline.
Giorgio Armani, who has a single wraparound Emporio Armani sunglasses design embossed with a RED logo, will have a full range of items in his autumn collection.Reuse content