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A Red bandwagon

January 29, 2006

IF IT WORKED FOR YELLOW, WHY NOT RED? Those yellow rubber "Livestrong" bracelets created to raise money for cyclist Lance Armstrong's cancer-fighting foundation quickly turned from a social statement to a fashion accessory. Rock star Bono has a similar idea, only bigger (and considerably more chic).

Last week in Davos, Switzerland, the U2 frontman and anti-poverty activist used the occasion of the World Economic Forum, an annual gathering of the global business and political elite, to announce a remarkable new product line. The Gap, Converse, Giorgio Armani and American Express have agreed to offer products under the Red brand, with a share of the proceeds going to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria.

Red products will include shoes, T-shirts, sunglasses and credit cards -- and yes, most will be red (although apparently some of the gear will be available in other colors). American Express promises to donate to the Global Fund an amount equal to the value of 1% of the purchases made on its Red cards, which initially will be available only in Britain. The apparel will be entirely or partially made in Africa, thus boosting the continent's economy and fighting its most pernicious diseases at the same time.

Bono is noted for taking unusual and savvy approaches to tackling Africa's vast poverty and disease problems, and the Red line is no exception. The project simultaneously offers big corporations a valuable "social marketing" opportunity -- generating goodwill for their brands by positioning themselves as do-gooders -- while raising money for one of the most worthwhile organizations on the planet.

The Global Fund supplies money for smart, badly needed projects to fight its three eponymous diseases, which together kill millions annually in the Third World. Most of its money comes from governments rather than philanthropists, but international donors are falling short of their commitments. Red products could help keep the fund in the black.

The Global Fund needs billions every year, and the Red project initially will generate only a tiny fraction of its budget. If it takes off, and more corporations get involved, that could change. As Bono asked last week: If you're trying to decide between two pairs of jeans, and buying one could help save somebody's life, while buying the other wouldn't, which would you choose?

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