Net Impact Soap Box

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Product Red: More than Cause Marketing

Tamsin Smith of Product Red came to our Social Enterprise class tonight. As you may have seen from all those Gap ads, Product Red partners with businesses like Gap, Apple, and American Express to produce and sell a line of products whose profits help fund health projects in Africa. 

I have to admit - I came in a little skeptical of Product Red, less from any facts that I had - which were few - and more from the flurry of ads I had seen of celebrities wearing Gap clothing and talking cursorily about helping people in Africa. Wasn't this just another cause marketing effort that tried to make serious issues "sexy" and whose impact on the company's brand was bigger than on those whom it purported to help? 

The impression I left with after hearing Smith was, no, Product Red is for real, and is a really interesting model for harnessing the power of business for social good. On what observations/facts do I base this? 

1. The model: Product Red has created a meta brand that isn't tied to the specific products sold under its label but rather to a set of values and a perception of caring. Sure, it's taken Bono, Bobby Shriver, Oprah and a host of other celebrities (which makes it not very replicable) but it's working. Brands are now coming to them seeking partnership. 

2. The leader: Tamsin Smith is an impressive woman. She has a multi-sector background, having worked on Capitol Hill, at Gap, and now at Product Red. She wowed the class with her thoughtfulness, humility, and quiet strength. 

3. The results: No arguing with the numbers. Product Red has generated a staggering 115 million in profits in less than two years, all of which have been given to the Global Fund, a highly regarded, highly transparent organization that disburses grants to health initiatives in Africa. 

Bottom Line: fascinating model, doing great work, and continuing to expand into new product categories. Check out their blog here. But is this replicable? Can a different meta brand be created for other pressing issues (like climate change)? Without someone like Bono, it isn't likely. 

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