Bono’s Urgent Call for Brand Partnerships Energizes Cannes to Combat AIDS

(Red) needs big marketing ideas more than ever, singer says

Headshot of David Griner

CANNES, France—A packed crowd of the world's top marketers thought they were turning out today to see Bono. What they didn't realize was that he was actually there to see them.

The U2 frontman spent much of his Cannes Lions presentation urging brands and agencies to help create an AIDS-free generation by supporting the ambitious—and largely stalled—goals of his global nonprofit, (Red). 

"The idea that we might get close to an AIDS-free generation, and then not get there, and for what? Because the heat isn't on the issue," Bono told attendees in the closing hours of the annual festival.

"You're about heat. You're a sort of thermostat for the world."

In an odd bit of on-stage irony, Bono gave broad praise to an audience of strangers and reserved his most pointed criticism for the old friend seated nearby: Apple design guru Jony Ive.

Although Apple was one of (Red)'s earliest supporters and largely helped launch the branded product program, Bono said the tech brand has always downplayed its involvement, beginning with Steve Jobs' refusal to put the nonprofit's signature parentheses on any Apple products or in any Apple stores.

"One of the reasons it's such a credit to have Jony Ive on the stage," Bono told panel moderator and Vice CEO Shane Smith, "is because Apple is so fucking annoyingly quiet about the fact they've raised $75 million. Nobody knows!"

Bono went so far as to stand up, pull out an official (Red) iPad cover and remove the device, illustrating to the audience that the only actual nod to the nonprofit was inside the cover and therefore always obscured by the tablet.

"Where's the (Red) branding?" he asked Ive. "Nobody can see that. This is modesty run amok. This is the Apple way. They're like a religious cult."

Taking the jabs in stride, Ive stopped short of apologizing for the corporation's understated approach, but he did say that Apple's longstanding alliance with the nonprofit is a strong one.

"We started in 2006 with one (Red) product, a Nano, and now we've got well over half a dozen," Ive said. "It's been really, really special for us."

Now Bono is looking for new partners—ones not afraid to make some noise and get some attention with their (Red)-branded products and initiatives.

"The people in this room could really figure this shit out," Bono said.

But he wasn't content to stop there. Bono and (Red) representatives passed around large red glasses as a sort of collection plate. They weren't collecting money, though. They were collecting business cards.

"If somebody has one product they make that they could just rebrand next year for (Red)," Bono said, "that would be really great outcome for us."

Cannes attendees didn't even need to wait for a phone call. As the business cards were collected, Bono asked the crowd of top-tier creatives to begin shouting out ideas.

"Are there any ideas, by the way?" he asked. "Has anyone got one straight off?"  

As you might expect, this audience didn't waste its chance to pitch Bono. Attendees suggested everything from pop-up stores and debit cards to power cords that contribute every time you charge a device. Another suggested marathoners worldwide should stop one meter before their finish lines "to call attention for governments and not finish their marathons until we raise the money we need." 

One audience member (UPDATE: Michael Trautmann, co-founder of German agency thjnk, whom you can see in a tweet below) might have even secured the ultimate PR coup for his startup. He said he was planning to launch a new website top-level domain (think .com or .net) called .hiv, with registration fees going to AIDS charities. He offered Bono the first-ever website on the domain,

"If you'd like," he told Bono, " would become the first domain ever, and you will get it for free for the next 100 years." The suggestion sparked energetic applause from the audience and left Bono visibly excited about the idea.

The reason for Bono's urgency lies in (Red)'s goal to fuel the research and distribute the medicines needed to protect HIV-positive parents from passing the virus along to their unborn children. Doing so could create an AIDS-free generation as early as 2015, but the effort has been stymied by sluggish fundraising.

Bono praised Bank of America for its huge contribution in this year's Super Bowl, when the company helped raise $3 million for (Red) with its Super Bowl ad promoting downloads of U2's new single. He also singled out Gap as one of the first brands to support (Red) on a large scale through a strong marketing campaign.

Now Bono is hoping to see more brands step forward and help reinvigorate (Red) through high-profile campaigns and product partnerships.

The end result isn't just money raised from branded product sales. When mainstream brands get involved, Bono said, even the most skeptical politicians begin to take notice and consider supporting the cause through public funding.

"Politicians would be saying, 'I'm not feeling it in my district. Why should we care about this?'," Bono recalled. "When Red started turning up in shopping malls, they cared."

@griner David Griner is creative and innovation editor at Adweek and host of Adweek's podcast, "Yeah, That's Probably an Ad."