The Lessons of the Guest Star

It was surprising, we certainly hadn’t planned it, heck, they’d supplied a speaker for the event we’d held in December, not June, — but the unannounced star of our latest conference’s first day – of both days, really – was Red Bull.

From avowed fanboy Darren Rovell’s speech on how Red Bull was a still-evolving lesson in branding, to keynote speaker Rohan Oza’s admission that a lot of the Vitaminwater marketing playbook came from watching Red Bull, to the lessons shared by brand consultant Andy Steele when discussing how he became the first retailer in Boston to carry Red Bull, the brand was everywhere. It was even discussed as the perfect model of a foreign brand being imported into and adapted for the U.S. market.

From forming an independent distribution network to creating a high-energy sales force, the imprint of Red Bull was everywhere. (It was even, at one point, in Rovell’s hand as a quick thinking Red Bull marketing executive ran up from the audience to give him one.) While we attempt to build a community of beverage entrepreneurs who share their own lessons and experiences, it appeared that this company was supplying many of the key lessons.

So should the marketing techniques best exemplified by Red Bull, which have helped usher hundreds of sub-cultural sports and entertainment phenomena into the mainstream, also help serve as the template for the dreams of hundreds of small beverage companies as well?

Rovell talked a lot about those marketing techniques, so I’ll leave you to look at his presentation on our web site to write your own playbook on that account. But there’s more to the company’s success than simple marketing: Red Bull has also executed behind its brand better than any company in recent memory. From ironclad distribution contracts that force wholesalers to pay extra-close attention to the product (mostly by keeping Red Bull as the only energy drink in their portfolio) to the grooming of high-energy sales talent, to the deliberate approach the company takes to any kind of change or addition to the core product, Red Bull has become a substantial player, indeed.

So as we looked at energy drinks this issue, and saw an overriding move toward variations on the standard energy theme as a way of growing the category, Red Bull stood out as the exception. Here was a brand that grew for years before it even went sugar-free, and the products around it are mixing in every available trendy ingredient and flavor as a way to create a point of difference and grab some shelf space.

In some cases, the variations have worked: certainly, Monster and Rockstar have built highly successful franchises by first creating their own versions of the energy drink and their own solid brand messaging. Monster’s success in creating alliances with Coke and Budweiser has even put it in the running with Red Bull for category leadership. And that has led to calls in from some quarters for Red Bull to vary its product suite, roll out mixes with coffee and different flavors.

But those people making those demands should think about this: asking a brand or a company to be something that it isn’t is almost always the wrong approach. Red Bull shouldn’t try to be Monster any more than Monster should try to be Red Bull: there is more than one way to build a brand, and what has kept the energy space so exciting for consumers and the industry alike is that these different methods are all on display at once, from Xyience’s focus on MMA to Rockstar’s ability to appeal to women and the L.A. mindset to NOS’ ability to harness packaging innovation.

The point is, when evaluating new or emerging brands, the key isn’t thinking about how well they may do against the competition, it is how they will do when they match up against the goals they set for themselves. Can they identify their consumer and activate them? Can they then provide consistent product and messaging? Can they keep from betraying their core users, and bring them along for the ride? Are they, in other words, balancing the idea against the execution? And are they maniacally devoted to making the argument that the product demands? If the answers are all “yes,” there could be something there.