Marketing that gives a brand wings, even in space

On October 14th, 2012, in Roswell, New Mexico, Austrian parachutist Felix Baumgartner ascended to the edge of space—and jumped. It was called the Red Bull Stratos project and it was a spectacle like no other in marketing history.

The story was carried on newscasts across the globe to millions of viewers. It was also live-streamed on YouTube to an audience of more than 8 million—dwarfing the previous record set for the London Summer Olympics.  Prior to this event, the artfully-scripted pre-show, “making-of-the-main-show”, had already earned a deeply engaged and faithful audience of millions of visitors to the Red Bull Stratos mission control website. The project was seven years in the making.

For Felix, his new records include:

  • Fastest freefall with a top speed of over 1,000 kph
  • Freefall from the highest altitude of 128, 097 feet­–smashing the previous record of 102,800 feet
  • Highest manned balloon flight

For Red Bull and its competitors it sets a new benchmark in edgy buzz marketing. For marketers seeking to explore the frontiers of strategic marketing communications in the digital age it will provide a leading-edge brand building case study.

Marketing for Red Bull has always lived on the edge

Since its launch in 1984, Red Bull has consistently lived on the frontiers of brand marketing. This is fitting for a brand that invented the Energy Drinks product category and whose slogan is, “Red Bull gives you wings.” It was also an early pioneer in non-traditional marketing methods and quickly built a strong base of zealous brand fanatics—eschewing the more traditional advertising-centered approaches of the day. It focused on buzz marketing that would powerfully communicate and reinforce Red Bull’s brand identity–often being referred to as “speed in a can” and “liquid cocaine.”

The brand’s buzz marketing activities focused on aggressive and selective distribution and promotion in nightclubs, popular with the late-night party crowd because of their celebrity DJ’s, the development of a brand ambassador network on university campuses staffed by student opinion leaders, and the sponsorship of extreme sports and youth culture events.

In fact its efforts were so successful that they are well documented in The London Business School case, Red Bull: The Anti-Brand Brand, still used for the instruction of these techniques at many leading business schools throughout the world today.

In Red Bull: The Anti-Brand Brand, Red Bull finds itself at a crossroads by 2004 because it was challenged:

…with defending its 70% worldwide market share of the £2.5 billion [US $3.325] energy drinks category that it had pioneered…facing the onslaught of copycat, competitive brands, some of them promoted by beverage giants such as Coca-Cola and Pepsi, others promoted by private labels by mass retailers such as Asda in the United Kingdom.

The London Business School case asks the questions:

Was Red Bull outgrowing its anti-establishment status? Did it need to transition to a more traditional marketing approach…Or, would these activities fundamentally destroy Red Bull’s anti-brand mystique?

Strong brands have an indomitable pioneering spirit

Many of Red Bull’s new competitors had launched with cool sounding names like Rhino, Battery, Shark, Venom and Amp. They also attempted to imitate multiple facets of Red Bull’s brand marketing program:

  • The product (caffeinated)
  • The packaging (techno look)
  • Suggested usage (mix with vodka)
  • The imagery (sexual virility associated with energy drinks)
  • The buzz marketing techniques (sponsorship of extreme sports and youth culture events).

These actions helped to position them as viable alternatives to Red Bull.

The launch of new brands such as Powerade into the Sports Drinks product category pioneered by Gatorade, which had been positioned as being formulated to rehydrate and improve the performance of athletes in more traditional sports, effectively ended this potential avenue of expansion for Red Bull.

Red Bull’s response to these challenges has once again forcefully demonstrated that strong brands have an indomitable pioneering spirit.  Instead of turning to more traditional marketing approaches, Red Bull chose to double-down on the buzz marketing that has helped to define and reinforce its identity with its core target market. Since 2004, Red Bull’s buzz marketing activities have continued to defy gravity, providing inspiration for marketers in every industry and imbuing the brand with new sources of energy that competitors cannot emulate. Red Bull continues to innovate and excel in buzz marketing programs that include its own events, shows and even publications that powerfully communicate and reinforce its own vision for the Energy Drinks category and unique brand identity.

Evidence of its success can be validated through information released by Red Bull in 2011 stating it, “sold 4.2 billion cans of its drink, including more than a billion in the U.S. alone. That represents a 7.9 percent increase over the year before, and revenues jumped 15.8 percent to US $5.175 billion. Dietrich Mateschitz [Austrian co-founder and owner] runs an efficient enterprise that has yet to trip on its rapid growth: At the end of 2004, he had just 2,605 employees; in 2010, Red Bull employed 7,758 people—which works out to more than $667,000 in revenue per person.”

Strong brands lead always

What’s next for Red Bull? The amazing exploits of Felix Baumgartner and Red Bull Stratos were the latest example of how buzz marketing for Red Bull continues to expand the frontiers of brand marketing.  What will Dietrich Mateschitz and his team at Red Bull conjure up next? We’ll have to wait and see. One thing I’m sure of though, it will once again extend the frontiers of brand marketing as we know it and keep Red Bull’s competitors scrambling to keep up.

Red Bull has proven the adage that strong brands do not retreat, they do not copy, THEY LEAD. Could the next evolution of the Red Bull slogan be, “Red Bull gives you wings, even in space”?

About ashleykonson

STRATEGY CONSULTING | EXECUTIVE COACHING | CORPORATE TRAINING | KEYNOTE SPEAKING | Ashley Konson is the Managing Partner of Global Brand Leaders Inc., a new kind of brand consulting company dedicated to making brands and their teams leaders across the globe. He is a Brand Leader, Business Consultant and Award-Winning Educator, and a recognized thought leader and fervent advocate of the premise that strong brands and businesses achieve and sustain their market positions because they are strong Inside out™.
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