Bono Is a Superbrand Who Makes the World a Better Place

U2 frontman is our 2014 Brand Visionary

All the world is Bono's stage.

As frontman of U2, he is among the most successful rock musicians in history. As a businessman, he's been party to lucrative investments in fashionable new tech companies like Facebook and Yelp. And as a global statesman, he's had arguably more influence than any other celebrity activist, helping lead international efforts to address extreme crises of poverty and disease.

Photo: Joe Pugliese/August

In other words, Bono has universal clout.

"He's one of these timeless global icons," says Charles Gibb, president of luxury vodka brand Belvedere, a partner of (RED), the charity product label Bono co-founded. "He resonates in every single country around the world. He's an absolute driving force on the political scene, in the music scene and in the cultural scene."

Or, just ask any of the 500 million iTunes users that recently woke up—happy or not—to find the new U2 album in their libraries, courtesy of a pricey Apple advertising campaign.

Born Paul David Hewson, Bono and his band mates formed their rock group in Dublin in 1976. Since then, they have accumulated more than 150 million album sales worldwide and 22 Grammy Awards, placing U2 in the upper echelon of the music industry.

A decade ago, Bono took new strides into the business world, helping establish the venture capital firm Elevation Partners alongside veteran Silicon Valley investors and executives. In 2009 and 2010, the private equity shop spent a reported $210 million on Facebook shares that, by the time the social network went public in 2012, were worth some $1.5 billion. Today, the value of that stake likely exceeds $2.75 billion.

Yet despite all those achievements, there's no question that Bono's most important work has been by way of his high-profile activism.

Building on a long history of collaboration with organizations like Amnesty International and his commitment to public service around the millennium, in the mid-2000s the singer teamed up with activist and Kennedy heir Bobby Shriver to co-found a series of nonprofit groups to address issues such as debt forgiveness for impoverished nations.

Now organized under the umbrella anti-poverty campaign One, the duo's joint ventures for good also include (RED), launched in 2006 to rally corporations in the fight against HIV/AIDS in Africa.

In the years since, the charity has carved out its own place in the pop culture landscape, partnering at different times with countless celebrities, public servants, media companies and, essential to its mission, a slew of zeitgeist-darling brands like Apple, Beats by Dre, Converse and Starbucks as well as top global marketers including the Coca-Cola Co. and Gap. Special edition products and events ultimately generated more than $275 million for the cause and, by (RED)'s estimates, provided assistance to some 55 million people.

Flanked by designers Mark Newson and Jonathan Ive at the (RED) Design Auction in New York, November 2013. | Photo: Getty Images

The label has also pioneered a way to connect the dots on an unprecedented scale between the philanthropic potential of consumerism, the profit motive of giant corporations and the moral imperative of helping some of the global community's neediest citizens.

Prior to (RED), "there was Paul Newman doing one product for good or Ben and Jerry's doing one product for good," as Deborah Dugan, who joined (RED) as CEO in 2011, points out. "But there really wasn't a brand that could culminate a great deal of brands—right now we have 25, for example—to be working in the same way. And it's not in a cookie-cutter way; it's using their creativity to say what's breakthrough, to make a lot of noise to keep a lot of heat under this issue."

The revenues (RED) generates, including up to 50 percent of proceeds from (RED)-branded products and earnings from events like charity auctions, goes to the Global Fund, a public-private partnership that finances health programs addressing HIV/AIDS as well as tuberculosis and malaria. Launched in 2002 and prior to the creation of (RED), the Global Fund, in its first four years, generated a total of just $5 million in global corporate sector contributions. Today, however, (RED) has become its single largest corporate sector contributor, adding $275 million to its coffers.

With Oprah Winfrey at a Chicago (RED) even in October 2006.| Photo: Courtesy of Red

"When Bono and Bobby founded (RED), they were looking through the lens of a critical need," says Mark Dybul, executive director of the Global Fund. "That need was to substantially increase private sector money coming in to fight against AIDS.

"It is working," Dybul adds. "With private sector support, working together with governments and other partners, the Global Fund has been able to make huge strides to the point where we can talk about ending AIDS as an epidemic."

One of 20 special (RED) editions of Vanity Fair edited by Bono,

July 2007 | Photo: Annie Leibovitz

In its early years, (RED) faced criticism about whether its approach focused on commerce at the expense of more direct and efficient forms of philanthropy. But the fact is that the partnerships are not designed to be purely altruistic. They are also meant to be pragmatic, aligning with the skills and the needs of business leaders in order to draw them in for the long haul.

Since 2011, Belvedere, part of the LVMH family, has produced annual campaigns around its Belvedere (RED) product, featuring special edition bottles and tie-ins with music acts like Lady Gaga, Usher and Mary J. Blige. It activates the program in 35 countries. Gibb says (RED) "very much fits with the type of consumer we target: 25-35-year-olds. They live in cities, they're social, they're active. I call them life enthusiasts because these are the type of people that grab life by the horns. They go out and have fun, but equally, they're very interested in culture and art, they care deeply about the environment, they care deeply about global issues."

2013 marked the first time the number of HIV patients beginning antiretroviral drug therapy (2.3 million) exceeded the number of people who recently contracted the virus (2.1 million), according to United Nations data. Gibb says Belvedere (RED) has had the privilege of driving that kind of change, generating funds that helped 12,500 HIV-positive mothers to give birth to healthy babies. "That's the true measure of success: the real impact you're having on the ground," Gibb says.

Meanwhile, Apple, (RED)'s biggest contributor, has since 2006 raised some $75 million for the cause. This year, the mobile payment service Square came on board, as did Bank of America, which, with support from creative agency Hill Holliday, pledged $10 million, including $3 million tied to the number of times a free U2 single was downloaded following a Super Bowl ad promoting the bank's partnership with (RED).

The fight is far from over. The United Nations estimates that some 35 million people worldwide live with HIV/AIDS, and 19 million of them don't know it. Dugan stresses the need to partner with still more brands with global reach, signaling a desire to work with marketers in categories such as fashion, automotive, hotels and tech. "I'd love to see Uber and Airbnb go (RED)," she says. "We're always looking for good ideas."

Bono continues his tireless efforts as ambassador for the cause. This past June he took to the stage at the annual Cannes Lions Festival of Creativity to drum up support.

"We want to unlock everybody's creativity to this problem because it's not going to be solved without everybody on board," he said in a video to promote his appearance at Cannes. "In 2015, we actually might, for the first time ever in about eight countries in the developing world, have the first HIV-free generation. If there is a crescendo and people give us ideas and keep it hot and keep it exciting, then in the next year there'll be another eight countries, and then another. So within a few years we'll have the first HIV-free generation, and this is just a mind-blowing thought."

CORRECTION: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this article stated that (RED) is the largest single contributor to The Global Fund, and that The Global Fund in its first four years raised $5 million. To clarify, (RED) is the largest single contributor to The Global Fund from the corporate sector, which contributed $5 million in the fund's first four years.

@GabrielBeltrone Gabriel Beltrone is a frequent contributor to Adweek.