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In Forbes’ list of European billionaires, somewhere between the Russian oil barons andthe heads of French luxury goods dynasties is Dietrich Mateschitz, an Austrian who hasmade most of his rapidly growing $2bn from one of the unlikeliest brand successes of thelast twenty years. Herr Mateschitz is the father of Red Bull. Red Bull has grown from anunlikely-sounding proposition launched on the Austrian market in 1987 to a 1.9 billioncan brand last year.
For those of us who first came across Red Bull in an Austrian ski resort in the late 80s orearly 90s, the success of this strange beverage continues to surprise. Some of us who mayhave first encountered Red Bull in these days may well have written it off as a strangerather kitsch Austrian phenomenon along with vibrant turquoise toilet-cleaner colouredSchnapps, Germknödel or D.J Otzi. After all, here was something that tasted at best likemelted boiled sweets, appeared to be full of all nasties known to man and seemed to defyany code of “food values” with its packaging. But Red Bull has remained a success in itsnative market and in Germany, as well as building up a firm following in othernotoriously hard to penetrate markets such as the US, where it commands a 47% share inthe $1.7 billion energy drinks market.
The secret of Red Bull and Herr Mateschitz’ success seems to be: start with something ofsubstance 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, beit the new breakfast cereal with added cranberry wholewheat yoghurt or the latestPopstars incarnation with its carefully balanced pre-teen, Mum and Dad appeal. For all itsseeming artificiality, Red Bull is actually based on a real product. In his job asinternational marketing director for Blendax, Mateschitz discovered a syrupy tonic drinksold as a revitalizing agent in Thai pharmacies. He found this stuff really helped toovercome jet lag and decided to make a go of transplanting the idea of a tonic drink inEurope with the help of a Thai-based Blendax colleague who also owned a tonic drinkcompany.
The main substance of the idea was kept intact: the key ingredients taurine, caffeine andglucuronolactone and the name, more-or-less. The original Thai name actually means redwater buffalo so Mateschitz kept within the genus! As a concession to Western tastes thedrink was carbonated but the positioning was uncompromisingly clear and based on RedBull’s key reason for being- “The Energy Drink”. An advertising slogan was dreamed upby 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 propositionto 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 otherwiseseems to exude should have had what seems like a moment of doubt about his idea andits not difficult to imagine that perhaps this was a set-up, maybe the first stepping-stonein Red Bull’s uncompromisingly anti-marketing position, in the same way that ageingcreatives 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 ayoung target audience than hearing (on the grapevine) that a new product was consideredtotally unacceptable to the general population? It is also questionable whether Red Bull’s marketing success was achieved by design orluck. It could be that we’ll never know as Mateschitz seems to be something of a masterof post-rationalisation in interviews. What is certain is that it is one of the first brands toachieve global status via non- traditional, “grass-roots” up marketing. From the start,classical mass-media were all-but-excluded in favour of a program of steady and subtleinfiltration into the desired group of people’s lives. In the early 1990s, Red Bull wasnever something you came across through TV advertising; it was discovered in off-beatbars and alongside alternative sport and music events. What would be considered asnegative PR by many traditional brands simply fuelled the interest to add to the Red Bullmystique 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 storiesabout deaths associated with Red Bull.
Interestingly, while Red Bull claims it never actively encouraged promotion as a mixerfor vodka, it seems that this was never discouraged in the way that it might have been fora drink with a bigger and more child-orientated parent brand. Again, it is interesting tospeculate whether use as a mixer was pushed in a subtle way. There was certainly a baseof existing behaviour in Germany and Austria for caffeine/alcohol mixes where brandyand Coke is a staple of any student party or local Fest. In the early stages, Red Bull’sdistribution was mainly through bars where beverages other than milkshakes wereconsumed, rather than the sports clubs one would expect if one was positioning strictlyalong 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 thebrand. If Red Bull is really selling out, maybe Herr Mateschitz may really be best offselling off now to one of real big boys and get going on his next odd idea.


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