In 2006, U2 front man Bono started Project (RED) with Bobby Shriver as a way to engage people and companies in the fight against HIV/AIDS. The goal was to provide anti-retroviral drugs to those in need and enable the first AIDS-free generation. The campaign is getting closer to its goal, with the benchmark of eliminating mother-to-child transmission of the deadly disease in eight countries by 2015 nearly met.
In a mere eight years, by partnering with iconic brands such as Apple, Gap, Starbucks, Beats by Dre, Coca-Cola and more, (RED) has itself become an iconic brand that has achieved what many thought was unlikely. In the process, created a new paradigm for philanthropy: one where the benefit of giving was more than just a good feeling, and where contributing to positive change could actually help a company’s bottom line.
Much of that success is owed to great design, both in the visual and conceptual sense. Last week in Cannes, Bono and Apple’s SVP of Design Jonathan Ive had an on-stage chat with Vice co-founder and CEO Shane Smith to talk about the importance of simplicity in building the (RED) brand, Apple’s role in the brand’s creation, the near future for the organization, and why when it comes to doing good on a grand scale, "cause" is a bad word. In the process, they revealed that Bono is a master at impressions—his versions of Steve Jobs and Republican Senator Jesse Helms were uproarious. Here are the best takeaways.
The collaboration between Bono and Apple on Project (RED) started with an iPod. Bono had approached Steve Jobs during the height of the frenzy over the company’s silhouette ads for the iPod. Bono, being one of the biggest rockstars on the planet, rightfully thought he should have one, too. Jobs disagreed.
"I went to Steve and brought him a song for an iPod commercial and he said, 'Thank you, that’s fantastic (delivered with a brilliant Jobs impression).' I said, 'There’s just one problem. We want to be in the commercial.' And he said, 'But we just have silhouettes of music fans. We don’t do commercials with bands in them.' And I said, 'A silhouette of our band would be very nice.' And he agreed. Then we asked for stock in the company. And he said no. We asked for it again, and he said no. And then we said, 'Can we have our own iPod, please.' He was like, 'What do you mean?' We said, 'a colored one, like a black one.' And he said, 'You know, you’ll never like them, we looked at black and it’ll never work. Apple does white.' He showed us one and we’re like, That’s beautiful and he said, 'Maybe Jony Ive can make it beautiful.' And he put a red circle in it. It then it emerged that it wasn’t just U2 fans buying this iPod. People just liked that it was a different color and that did catch on.
When Jobs became involved in building Project (RED), Bono said he had some advice for him.
"Steve was, it’s fair to say, a co-creator of (RED). He was at the end of the phone to discuss it and he just kept saying over and over and over again, "Just keep it simple. Two pills . . . keeps people alive. Get people the pills. Don’t tell them anything else," said Bono, again in the voice of Jobs.
Ive said this is fundamentally the goal Apple has for all of its design: "to create solutions that seem inevitable." It was also applied to Project (RED). "We know that we’re getting there when you get a sense that it almost wasn’t designed at all, that honestly there couldn’t actually be a rational alternative," said Ive. "I think what’s behind that is this idea that you can have extraordinarily complicated problems to solve but that complexity isn’t evident in the solution. Everyone knows how incredibly hard it is to get to that point, where it’s not stylistically simple but truly, truly simple."
The (RED) brand is known for its parenthesis. The purpose was to create a visual language that immediately enveloped a partner brand’s logo within the (RED) logo, thereby instantly associating the two. Jobs was having none of it.
"We had a big fight over the parenthesis, which is the branding of Red," said Bono. "Steve said, 'We’re going to do (RED), but we’re not having the parenthesis.' And I was like, 'That’s going to be a problem, Steve, because that’s the thing that unites all of the companies. That’s our branding.' He said, 'Can’t do it.' 'What’s the problem, Steve?' 'Uh, nothing interferes with the Apple logo.' So we actually had a bit of a fight over it. I wanted to scream back at him, but I didn’t. I was just about to tell him to stick the phone up his ass—and this is before the iPhone—but a friend of mine, John Doerr, had once said when you’re in a situation where you want to smack someone on the head, sleep on it. I said, 'Steve, shall we sleep on it?' He said, okay. I wrote him this long email and he called back the next day and he said, 'Okay, we’re going to do the parenthesis for you, but never in an Apple store.' And to this day, you’ll never see it in an Apple store.
"What I loved about Jony," said Bono, "is that he saw these pills, these anti-retroviral drugs, as beautiful designs because they solved this problem. What’s particularly important about this AIDS emergency is that there are lots of people going through difficult times with illness, cancer, all sorts of things, but it’s presented a moral crisis for us in the west, which is to say an accident of longitude and latitude. Where you lived would decide whether you lived. And if you have this disease, in Dublin or Cannes or New York, would get these pills. But if you lived in Malawi, you wouldn’t and it would become a death sentence. It inflamed a sense of injustice in us. So we stopped calling it a cause. People would say, I love your cause and people would have their own pet causes—sometimes their cause was their pets—and that’s great. But we’re saying it’s not a cause. Eight thousand people dying every day is an emergency. So (RED) became the color of emergency."
When U2 first got involved in helping eradicate HIV/AIDS, the band’s manager, Paul McInnis joked, "Is this rock against bad things?" This flippant comment helped them develop a razor sharp focus.
"I see HIV/AIDS as a single protagonist in a bigger story, which is to try and take people out of the despair and deprivation of extreme poverty. But what’s interesting about HIV/AIDS, it’s not one of a lot of bad things. It’s one bad thing. I love the specificity of this. It’s one corner; we know what to do. That’s what’s exciting—to see something through. There will be other things that we care about but to take one thing and deal with it while we can, while it’s there, it’s at a tipping point."
Added Ive: "One of the things we found that I felt was conspicuous was, on the one hand, there was a really ugly problem, but there was an incredible beauty in the simplicity and the singular nature of the solution. That’s why we work so well together."
With Apple being so instrumental to the success of (RED), it’s interesting to know how the project managed to capture the attention of the notoriously focused team at Apple.
"One of the enemies of getting that done is distraction, and the worst distractions are those that feel (like) a really good idea, and ones that you’re personally intrigued by," said Ive. "What really struck us, what seemed really conspicuous about this potential partnership was it didn’t involve us losing our focus. It didn’t mean we had to have this thing over here at the side. For (RED) to work our products had to be good and we had to communicate their value. If our products were bad and we couldn’t communicate their value, the whole idea would fail. It really struck us that our goals were completely aligned and if anything it increased our focus. That’s been fundamental to the relationship."
While much of (RED)’s efforts have been focused on getting brand partners to create and sell branded products—such as iPods, headphones and coffee cups—the real high stakes money is with governments, which Bono said to date is upwards of $19 billion. And the way to move politicians to action, he says, is to create heat; to make them feel it in their jurisdictions.
"Politicians would often say to me, ‘I’m not feeling it in my district, at the pig roast, I’m not feeling it," said Bono, putting on his best broad American accent. "But when Gap did those big ads and when (RED) started showing up in shopping malls, suddenly they cared.
Bono said that a good way to move people and get heat is to get unexpected people hanging out together. "Get people who normally loathe each other in the same room because people say, ‘they don’t agree on anything, these two, why are they together?’ Hanging out with George Bush was an interesting one. I’m very fond of him and he did incredible stuff, but my band wanted to fire me for that association. That was an unexpected thing."
Jesse Helms also posed a bit of a problem for Bono. "Edge said this particularly about Jesse Helms, a stalwart Republican from the south. He had spoken about HIV/AIDS as retribution and we met. I took him through the disease and what was going on, and he publicly repented for what he had said. Then I said to Edge, this guy is really changing. But Edge said, ‘Promise you won’t invite him to our show.’ I invited him to the show. After the show I asked him what he thought and he said ‘People were out there with their hands up in the air. They looked like a field of corn blowing in the wind.’ I said to Edge, "See, this poetry!!"
(RED) has made significant advancements in the past eight years. The Apple partnership has quietly raised $75 million (about which Bono said, "They’re so fucking annoyingly quiet about the fact that they’d raised $75M. Nobody fucking knows. We need apple to be more vocal—it' like modesty run amok!") and overall the initiative has raised nearly a quarter of a billion dollars. Still, even though the goal of ending mother-to-child transmission is so close, keeping people interested is a challenge.
"We were recently in a meeting with a top-of-the-line British newspaper and we were told, ‘We’re not doing World AIDS Day, Bono.’ And you think, wow, not doing it . . . what’s that about? If an accident of geography can decide if you live or die, so it is also true that a trend can do the same. That’s kind of offensive, actually. That’s what [the advertising industry] understands—you’re heat-seeking missiles."
At this point, Bono animated the crowd, soliciting ways to bring (RED)’s efforts to a crescendo before 2015, illustrating that even one of the world’s most famous people with a goal near completion needs to keep pushing to the end.
"The idea that we might get close to an AIDS-free generation but not actually get there because the heat is off the issue . . . well, I want to implore you all to help us with this. How do we keep it at the forefront of people’s mind? It’s within our remit. We can do this. Certainly the (incidence of) children born with HIV can be stopped within the next three years—if people concentrate."
[Illustration by Joel Arbaje for Fast Company, Bono Image: Flickr user David Shankbone]