The ethical dilemma of Product Red

In case you missed it, World Aids Day came and went on the 1st December 2009.  Established by Product Red, a brand created by U2 front man Bono and Bobby Shriver of DATA, World Aids Day aims to raise money for the global fund to fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Mararia.  Product Red partners with big players including Twitter, NIKE, Microsoft, Motorola, Starbucks and Apple, among others, all of which create their own ‘red product’ which features the red logo.  For example Gap created a line of clothing, Motorola announced special editions of its SLVR, KRSR and RAZR mobile phones and Apple released three generations of the iPod Nano and iPod shuffle with a red theme.

All good results from a good idea, I hear you say.  But perhaps the issue is not quite as clear as that.  Some people will be surprised to hear that Product Red has come under fire recently. Starbucks recently joined the campaign, and in support of the cause pledged to donate 5p to the global fund for every payment made with a Product Red Loyalty Card.  This fuelled Yuvraj Joshi at The Guardian to write this interesting blog on Product Red, asking whether 5p of your daily latte really would make a difference to the global problems we face. And perhaps more importantly do these kind of tie ups distract consumers from the seriousness of the problems many charities and NFP organisation?

Joshi highlights an extremely valid point.  Whilst any initiative implemented to try and help those less fortunate than us gets a big thumbs up from me, deciding to buy my coffee from Starbucks, or my clothes from Gap, or buy a Motorola over a Nokia, arguably doesn’t make me any more socially or ethically responsible, and it doesn’t really make me feel any more connected to the daily challenges and real life issues that people face all over the world.

So is this a flawed idea?

These brands are giving more to charitable issues than they would otherwise, but they also need to be aware of sceptical consumers looking closely at what the partnership actually entails.  I think it’s important that brands try and give something back, just as I think it’s important for everyone to try and give something back.  Anything from helping out with local initiatives, investing in global charities, to reducing carbon footprint – it is processes like this that in my view, really do make a difference and encourage awareness and understanding of global, and indeed local, problems.

One brilliant example of this comes from Innocent, who with the Buy One Get One Tree promotion, and The Big Knit 2009 initiative, consistently strive to give back to the community and environment in an entertaining and innovative way.  Associating with a good cause, just for appearances sake, perhaps can do much more harm than good, and brand’s need to remember that consumers are more aware than ever of a brands ethics, and often will base their purchasing decisions on whether these ethics reflect their own core values and principles.