Red Bull’s approach to marketing: then and now
The story about the energy drink giant we know today as Red Bull starts back in 1984 when an Austrian entrepreneur, Dietrich Mateschitz, went to Thailand and heard about an energy tonic created by Chaleo Yoovidhya. The tonic was supposed to help keep drinkers awake and alert. After recognizing market potential, they partnered to bring the drink in Europe.
The rest, as they say, is history.
Red Bull’s brand milestones over the years show how the company has grown and evolved over the years. We’ll get into more specifics on their journey, but this timeline serves as an overview of the progress they’ve made since the late 1980s.
- 1987: Introduced to the market
- 1994: Signed first two international athlete partners
- 1995: Entered the UK market
- 1997: Entered the USA market
- 1999: Created the first international kiteboarding competition
- 2001: Sold its billionth can
- 2005: Debuted as a Formula One team
- 2006: Founded NASCAR Red Bull racing team
- 2007: Founded Red Bull Records
- 2009: First win for Red Bull Racing
- 2012: Red Bull Stratos
- 2015: Earned 43% of market share for energy drinks
- 2016: Exclusive broadcaster for six major music festivals
- 2018: Launched a new line of organic sodas
- 2019: Sales soared to a record 7.5 billion cans worldwide
The early days of Red Bull
In the 80s, there was no “energy drink” category in the market—and competing with soft drinks and sodas was like jumping into a sea full of hungry sharks. The competition was cutthroat, and the market was already saturated. The odds were against them as newcomers to a vertical already teeming with competition.
Mateschitz knew that if Red Bull was to be measured against expectations and criteria for soft drinks, the product stood no chance compared with the big players. So instead, he decided to play by his own rules.
By establishing the “energy drink” category, Red Bull avoided being compared with other soda brands. This was one of many maverick moves the brand would make over the years and served as a stepping stone toward building a unique brand that will change the world of marketing forever.
Creating buzz with viral marketing
Red Bull didn’t launch with a large budget for traditional marketing. So instead, they went guerilla-style—targeting men in the 18-35 age range at college parties and bars and offered up free samples.
This tactic, paired with a seeding program focused on getting Red Bull products into trendy shops, clubs, and bars, drove word of mouth and helped the brand become viral—long before social media made this a more common occurrence. And unlike other big brands at the time that were spending their marketing budgets on print, billboards, banner ads, and Super Bowl commercials, Red Bull used “anti-branding” and “anti-marketing” strategies (like placing empty cans in clubs.)
As time passed, the approach of avoiding traditional advertising and relying on unconventional tactics was no longer a question of marketing budget, but rather a marketing strategy (as it has become their trademark.)
Focus on product
When it comes to product strategy, for years, Red Bull’s offering was singular: It offered one 8.4-ounce can, one taste, and one color.
At a time when brands like Coca-Cola, Pepsi, and Starbucks were in a race to introduce new flavors and packaging, Red Bull stayed focused on one product. Aside from this, Red Bull insisted on a unique cylindrical can and a premium pricing strategy that helped them differentiate the product from other drinks so they further stood out within the beverage vertical.
“We do what we do best,” said Emmy Kasten, Red Bull’s director of corporate communications at the time.
Building brand recognition: The 2000s
Red Bull was on a quest to build a unique brand that would eventually become iconic. From the start, Mateschitz’s business philosophy was not to bring product to the consumer, but rather bring consumers to the product.
The Red Bull team was aware they had a product that could be easily copied; there was no secret formula. All the ingredients were listed on the can.
If they wanted to create a competitive advantage that competitors couldn’t recreate overnight, they needed an extraordinary marketing strategy.
Avoiding mass media
Building a beverage brand without relying on mass-marketing campaigns was unimaginable at the time. Even so, Red Bull made it possible.
The only types of television ads they used were the ones with the cartoon characters that were positioned more to amuse than to entice consumers. Their first cartoon was the Leonardo Da Vinci ad, made in 1992.
Since then, Red Bull hasn’t changed it visual style, and their consistent messaging centers around the well-known slogan "Red Bull gives you wiiings."
More than an energy drink: A way of life
Consumers love brands that are built around a story, and the Red Bull team knew this more than three decades ago. Because of this, they view their marketing efforts through a unique lens: They aren’t selling an energy drink. They’re selling a way of life.
Instead of long ads with an inspirational manifesto and brand promises, they focus on things their audience can relate to. After all, consumers want authenticity.
Knowing that young people often don’t connect with long commercials from big corporations, Red Bull decided instead to spread the word through brand evangelists—students that would get free samples of the energy drink that they share with their community. This was an easy, cheap, and credible way to reach more consumers (because students believed in those brand evangelists far more than they believed traditional advertisements.)
They didn’t stop there, however. They ventured into extreme sports as well. In 1995, Red Bull partnered with the Sauber team, which was the first time Red Bull’s now famous logo with two charging bulls showed up in Formula One.
About ten years later, Red Bull Racing made an official debut in the worlds of NASCAR and Formula One. In 2009, Sebastian Vettel earned the first win in Formula One for the Red Bull team.
Slowly, Red Bull became famous for sponsoring and investing heavily in sports. Aside from regularly supporting extreme sporting events, Red Bull also has football clubs in New York, Leipzig, and Salzburg, as well as ice hockey teams in Munich and Salzburg.
Weathering a recession
One of the biggest shocks that companies faced in the 2000s was the global financial crisis of 2007. As a result, many businesses failed, there was a downturn in economic activity, and a subsequent recession ensued.
The global crisis affected Red Bull as well: The brand’s 2008 sales increased by less than half of what it had the previous year at 16.6%. Yet despite everything that was happening with the global economy, the brand still managed to sell more cans in 2008 than they ever had before—providing further proof that brands who go against the grain can still manage to stimulate demand and drive sales.
They pushed forward, too: In 2009, Red Bull’s CEO Dietrich Mateschitz said that regardless of the challenging economic climate, the company still had ambitious plans for expansion.
Red Bull today
Red Bull sold a record 7.5 billion cans worldwide last year, with strong growth in emerging markets like Brazil, India, and Africa. According to Bloomberg, Red Bull’s revenue increased by 9.5% to $6.6 billion dollars in 2019. If we look at the Forbes list for the World's Most Valuable Brands 2019, Red Bull was number 71.
Expansion continues as well: The brand recently launched a new line of organic sodas with three of the four new beverages containing zero caffeine and natural ingredients (a shocking pivot away from their core product’s remarkably high caffeine content, vibrant red color, and synthetic-on-purpose taste.)
But how do you reach the point where you sell more than 20 million cans every day?
Over the years, Red Bull’s marketing strategy has evolved, but it remains unconventional and original—centered around unique content, extreme sports sponsorships, and events. Today, their strategy is founded on five key pillars: Content creation, publicity stunts, sponsoring events, user-generated content, and influencer marketing.
Let’s look at each in more detail
1. Content creation
Red Bull is a shining example of how brands can leverage content marketing to create a world-famous brand.
It’s no wonder many actually consider them a media production company that sells energy drinks: Their social media game is next-level with 9 million subscribers on YouTube, over 13 million followers on Instagram, 48 million likes on Facebook, and 2 million followers on Twitter.
Aside from this, journalists and media can access the Red Bull Content Pool, where they’ll find news, exclusive interviews, more than 300,000 high-quality photos, and over 22,000 HD videos they can use free of charge for editorial and news purposes.
2. Publicity stunts
The idea behind the Red Bull’s trademark slogan “Red Bull gives you wiiings” conveys a message that nothing is impossible. What better way to show customers they truly believe this than sponsoring and creating events that push the limits?
In 2012, Felix Baumgartner and Red Bull Stratos' Mission made history when Baumgartner fell to Earth from a helium balloon in the stratosphere, breaking a 50-year-old record. The supersonic freefall from 128,000 feet lasted four minutes and 20 seconds (and the video has been viewed almost 46 million times.)
Red Bull is also well-known for some of the most unbelievable daredevil stunts in history, like the Red Bull Akte Blanix 2, Robbie Maddison's 2008 New Year's Eve jump, and Wing Suit Jumping (all of which align with their focus on extreme...well...everything.)
3. Creating Extreme Sport Events
Over the last 30 years, Red Bull played a significant role in supporting extreme sports, giving them the media attention they were often lacking. Doing so allowed the brand to connect with adrenaline lovers and to reach their target audience at the same time.
Aside from sponsorships, Red Bull also invested heavily in hosting their own events to raise brand awareness and generate hype. All of their events like the SoapBox Race, the Ice Cross Championship, and the Air Race are focused on specific sports, but one thing they have in common is that they are packed with action and excitement.
Kitesurfing, skydiving, snowboarding, cliff-diving are just a few of the many extreme sports that are a core element of Red Bull’s content strategy. These aren’t one-offs, either: all the photos and videos they create during these events help them create unparalleled, ongoing social media content that their audience loves and shares.
4. User-generated content
Another pillar of Red Bull’s marketing strategy is stimulating user-generated content (UGC). The brand encourages consumers to share content, which gives them an endless library of authentic content that they can use across social media. Beyond social media hashtags, Red Bull also creates different contests to encourage consumers to participate.
The Red Bull Illume Special Image Quest 2020, for example, is focused on passion and dedication of photographers and videographers pushing the boundaries of content creation.
Years of hard work, engagement, and unique positioning have helped the brand build an unparalleled community of “adrenaline junkies” that gather around Red Bull.
5. Influencer marketing
When you think about it, everything that Red Bull has been doing in the past is close to the concept of influencer marketing—natural collaborations with brand evangelists and events that are supporting the overall brand story (instead of aggressive mass-media commercials.)
Red Bull is an excellent example of how a brand works with world-wide sports stars such as Max Verstappen, Marc Márquez, Neymar, and Letícia Bufoni, but at the same time feature extraordinary athletes that are famous in their field.
The combination of micro, macro, and celebrity influencers helps Red Bull build a strong brand identity and still stay close to their target audience, building a community that young people can relate to and emulate.
Red Bull: Unparalleled in marketing
Building an iconic brand that’s resilient to global recessions and pandemics requires creativity, authenticity, and courage to break patterns.
Red Bull had an unconventional approach from the start. Instead of entering a soft drink market where it was doomed to fail, Red Bull was a trailblazer in the energy drinks category. Unlike many big-name brands that were betting on mass-media, they created a story, and each of their moves was a puzzle piece toward creating a larger picture.
Today, Red Bull has created an unparalleled content marketing strategy centered around extreme sports, user-generated content, and influencer marketing, and is a shining example of how you evolve your marketing strategy without changing the focus and mission of your brand.