Red - the charity that channels revenue from sales of branded products to the Global Fund to Fight Aids, Tuberculosis and Malaria - is in the dock.
Its commercial partners have spent millions on promoting the brand and getting it recognised as a ‘positive consumer force'. But detractors are starting to mutter that the style is overwhelming the substance.
Last week, US media title Advertising Age published a scathing attack, accusing the campaign of spending £50m on marketing while only giving £9m to good causes.
In a letter to the magazine's editor, Red CEO Bobby Shriver defended his corner. He argued that the figure raised was closer to £13m, and that the money spent on marketing would have been spent by Red's consumer partners anyway.
Shriver also stressed Red's awareness-raising credentials, claiming the campaign had managed to focus people's attention on the Aids problem in Africa. But if you read the Red Manifesto, it makes no mention of an awareness-raising agenda.
‘Red is not a charity. It is simply a business model,' it states. ‘You buy Red stuff, we get the money, buy the pills and distribute them.'
A tactical switch?
So, has the attack on its fundraising potential forced Red into a difficult corner?
Joe Saxton, fundraising expert at voluntary sector think-tank NFP Synergy, believes this is the case. ‘My impression of Red is that it is a fundraising exercise, not an awareness initiative,' he says. ‘I'm pretty sure you can't switch horses in the middle of a race.'
As any PRO knows, awareness raising is a perfectly good objective, but it should always be measured. Helen Ashley, MD of ethical comms agency Upward Curve PR, says: ‘If you can't value it properly, you shouldn't be doing it. There should always be valid objectives built into any campaign.'
Meanwhile, Amazon PR MD Louise Morriss says PR professionals would be genuinely interested to hear hard facts about Red's achievements. ‘It has raised awareness? What does that mean?' she asks. ‘Awareness of Red? Aids in Africa? The Global Fund? Does it mean more young people are now giving to charity? All these things would be brilliant, but people need to know about them before they can get behind the project.'
Elsewhere, supporters of Red argue that the grand CSR venture is still in its early days. So, how would CSR experts rate its first 12 months? Munro & Forster head of corporate responsibility Jayanti Durai says: ‘The initiative is interesting but it could be more effective and could have asked more from companies.'
She adds: ‘Not-for-profit lines, for instance, rather than ones that donate a share of profits, would have raised more money and sent out a far more powerful message.'
There are, however, some positive messages for Red in all of this. A January update on the project's website claimed the campaign has generated £16m worth of positive editorial coverage in the UK over the past year.
The Forster Company director Ed Gyde accepts that while the Global Fund has announced an increase in donations since the launch of Red, but still points to a lack of quantifiable objectives on which Red can hang its achievements.
A ‘great concept'
Clearly, Red has some work to do in communicating its objectives.
Although he calls Red a ‘great concept', Superbrands Council chairman Stephen Cheliotis says he is not convinced the brand is as powerful as it should be.
‘If you get a collection of powerful brands together, you should magnify the effect,' he argues. ‘Red should set the world alight, but it hasn't.'
Cheliotis suggests the problem could be Red's choice of top-end partner brands (see below): ‘What about an up-and-coming brand with sound ethical principles?'
More importantly, he argues that the messages behind Red itself are not clear enough: ‘Do people think of Red first, or the brands associated with it? Work needs to be done on communicating what this actually stands for.'
Cheliotis adds: ‘If you look at The Fairtrade Foundation, that has a powerful and simple message.'
The overriding opinion around Red, then, is ‘must do better'. And unless the project simplifies its messaging and makes a concerted effort to shout about its tangible business objectives, it will spend more time defending its raison d'être than raising cash.
Timeline to saving the world…
January 2006 Red is launched at the World Economic Forum in Davos by Bono and Bobby Shriver. It sets out a goal to ‘raise awareness and money for The Global Fund by teaming up with the world’s most iconic brands’.
March 2006 American Express launches its Red Card (promoted by Freud Communications, which also worked on the Red campaign itself), and Gap unveils a Red range. Amex donates one per cent of spend on the card to Red, with Gap giving 50 per cent of profits made from Red range.
May 2006 Bono edits The Independent for a day. Half of the edition’s revenues are donated to Red.
September 2006 The Independent prints its second Product Red special edition, guest-designed by Giorgio Armani. This time the paper includes articles from George Clooney, Bill Gates, Leonardo DiCaprio and Beyoncé. Emporio Armani donates 40 per cent of profits from Red range.
October 2006 Apple launches a Red iPod Nano. The 4Gb model is joined later by an 8Gb version. £5 from the sale of each one goes to Red.
November 2006 Motorola launches the Red RAZR mobile phone in the US.
July 2007 Bono is to step into another editorial hotseat – this time at US mag Vanity Fair. The U2 frontman is already plotting changes at the 500-page glossy celeb bible with veteran editor Graydon Carter, including renaming it Fair Vanity for the special issue.