But one or two are about specific brands, and I’ve dusted off this one today. Not that Red Bull needs any dusting - the velocity of this brand is something else. Still.
Here I was in April 2005, musing over the unlikely success of Red Bull.
Was it just another Austrian oddity, like Germknödel or DJ Ötzi?
How much design, how much luck?
Should Dieter Mateschitz sell-off at this point, take the money and run? (I was definitely underestimating him here.)
In Forbes’ list of European billionaires, somewhere between the Russian oil barons and the heads of French luxury goods dynasties is Dietrich Mateschitz, an Austrian who has made most of his rapidly growing $2bn from one of the unlikeliest brand successes of the last twenty years. Herr Mateschitz is the father of Red Bull. Red Bull has grown from an unlikely-sounding proposition launched on the Austrian market in 1987 to a 1.9 billion can brand last year.
For those of us who first came across Red Bull in an Austrian ski resort in the late 80s or early 90s, the success of this strange beverage continues to surprise. Some of us who may have first encountered Red Bull in these days may well have written it off as a strange rather kitsch Austrian phenomenon along with vibrant turquoise toilet-cleaner coloured Schnapps, Germknödel or D.J Otzi. After all, here was something that tasted at best like melted boiled sweets, appeared to be full of all nasties known to man and seemed to defy any code of “food values” with its packaging. But Red Bull has remained a success in its native market and in Germany, as well as building up a firm following in other notoriously hard to penetrate markets such as the US, where it commands a 47% share in the $1.7 billion energy drinks market.
The secret of Red Bull and Herr Mateschitz’ success seems to be this: start with something of substance and integrity, certainly, but then break every rule in the marketing text book. This, of course is completely the opposite formula to most other new brand launches, be it the new breakfast cereal with added cranberry wholewheat yoghurt or the latest Popstars incarnation with its carefully balanced pre-teen, Mum and Dad appeal. For all its seeming artificiality, Red Bull is actually based on a real product. In his job as international marketing director for Blendax, Mateschitz discovered a syrupy tonic drink sold as a revitalizing agent in Thai pharmacies. He found this stuff really helped to overcome jet lag and decided to make a go of transplanting the idea of a tonic drink in Europe with the help of a Thai-based Blendax colleague who also owned a tonic drink company.
The main substance of the idea was kept intact: the key ingredients taurine, caffeine and glucuronolactone and the name, more-or-less. The original Thai name actually means red water buffalo, so Mateschitz kept within the genus! As a concession to Western tastes the drink was carbonated but the positioning was uncompromisingly clear and based on Red Bull’s key reason for being- “The Energy Drink”. An advertising slogan was dreamed up by Mateschitz and his friends, if the story is to be believed: “Red Bull gives you wings.”
The next part of the story is rather interesting. Apparently, Mateschitz put his proposition to test via market research. The results were, according to legend, a complete disaster. One does wonder why someone with the strength of conviction that Mateschitz otherwise seems to exude should have had what seems like a moment of doubt about his idea and it’s not difficult to imagine that perhaps this was a set-up, maybe the first stepping-stone in Red Bull’s uncompromisingly anti-marketing position, in the same way that ageing creatives relish all those urban myths about such-and-such a now legendary advertising campaign “bombing in research”. After all, what could possibly be more appealing to a young target audience than hearing (on the grapevine) that a new product was considered totally unacceptable to the general population?
It is also questionable whether Red Bull’s marketing success was achieved by design or luck. It could be that we’ll never know as Mateschitz seems to be something of a master of post-rationalisation in interviews. What is certain is that it is one of the first brands to achieve global status via non-traditional, “grassroots”-up marketing. From the start, classical mass-media were all-but-excluded in favour of a program of steady and subtle infiltration into the desired group of people’s lives. In the early 1990s, Red Bull was never something you came across through TV advertising; it was discovered in off-beat bars and alongside alternative sport and music events. What would be considered as negative PR by many traditional brands simply fuelled the interest to add to the Red Bull mystique and aura of being dangerous, from rumours that it was made from bulls’ testicles, the lack of availability in certain markets through to some pretty serious stories about deaths associated with Red Bull.
Interestingly, while Red Bull claims it never actively encouraged promotion as a mixer for vodka, it seems that this was never discouraged in the way that it might have been for a drink with a bigger and more child-orientated parent brand. Again, it is interesting to speculate whether use as a mixer was pushed in a subtle way. There was certainly a base of existing behaviour in Germany and Austria for caffeine/alcohol mixes where brandy and Coke is a staple of any student party or local Fest. In the early stages, Red Bull’s distribution was mainly through bars where beverages other than milkshakes were consumed, rather than the sports clubs one would expect if one was positioning strictly along an energy-giving route.
The question now is: has Red Bull gone mainstream? Is it part of the establishment? More recent introductions such as a “Lite” version seem a bit against the character of the brand. If Red Bull is really selling out, maybe Herr Mateschitz may really be best off selling off now to one of real big boys and get going on his next odd idea.
Although my account covered the “grassroots”-up approach - and the importance of mystery in the story, there’s zero mention of racing, Flugtag or extreme sports. Further research shows Red Bull Racing was only established in 2005, and by 2012, I’d found that piece of the jigsaw.
Dieter Mateschitz got his own wings in Oct 2022, but the legend lives on. Here is my tribute to a big, bold, bullish brand.
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