An Empire with Wings: Red Bull Pumps Energy into the Sporting World
The Red Bull energy drink company has built up its very own sporting empire. It organizes aerobatics competitions, sponsors snowboarders and runs a soccer team in New York. However, its greatest coup to date has been winning the Formula One motor racing world championship with driver Sebastian Vettel.
A woman in a black pants-suit guards the frontier between a cold November evening and the cozy world of Red Bull. Guest list in hand, she greets visitors and controls who can enter Hangar 7, a steel-and-glass domed construction brightly lit on the inside. Some people she rejects with a brusque gesture, others she greets with a peck on the cheek and the words, "Welcome to our family get-together!" Only a lucky few are permitted to joint the festivities at Salzburg Airport -- though in this case "few" means more than a thousand people.
At the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix the previous day, 23-year-old Sebastian Vettel had become the youngest ever Formula One world champion. Now he's back, though not in his home town of Heppenheim in Hesse nor anywhere else in Germany. Instead he's in Austria, the home of Red Bull. The beverage manufacturer helped make Vettel a champion. The company financed Vettel's career from the tender age of 11. It even built his winning sports car, the Red Bull RB6. That's why Vettel's first stop is in Austria.
A jazz band plays amid artificial palm trees, polished old fighter aircraft and racing cars. When the world champion makes his entry, the audience parts like the Red Sea, leaving a path to a group of leather armchairs encircled by five cameras. Cradling his trophy in his arm, Sebastian Vettel slowly makes his way through the crowd. People cheer, he beams. His check shirt is hanging out of his jeans. Vettel sits down next to the presenter, next to Austrian motor racing legends including Niki Lauda and Gerhard Berger.
For an hour-and-a-half they chat live and exclusively for the 'Sport and Talk' show on Servus TV, Red Bull's television station. The audience is made up of company employees and athletes from other sports in which Red Bull has invested. Nearly every sentence Vettel utters is applauded, and occasionally the studio manager yanks a spectator up out of his seat when he wants everyone to give the young hero a standing ovation.
At the end, Vettel modestly says, "I still have a lot to learn. I don't want to let victory go to my head." It's impossible not to like him.
Vettel's triumph is the triumph of the Red Bull strategy, which focuses on total marketing. This isn't restricted to putting the company logo all over the place. "It has always been our philosophy not to be on the outside buying a fender that we can put stickers on, but rather to be integrated into the relevant sport and to carry the responsibility for success and failure," says Red Bull founder Dietrich Mateschitz.
Red Bull spends half a billion dollars a year on sport. Only Nike, Adidas and Coca-Cola are more generous. And the company wants more than to merely bask in the glory that encircles successful people and teams. Red Bull wants to create success and be noticed.
No other sponsor has committed itself as broadly to sport worldwide over the last 20 years. Red Bull is involved in more than 100 sports and currently sponsors 456 athletes around the globe. They include snowboarders, motocross riders, beach volleyball players, hang gliders and entire ice hockey and soccer teams. Red Bull has invented sports such as air racing, in which aerobatic pilots fly around a course, as well as competitions for cliff divers, trick skiers and even soapbox buggy drivers. All must exude a daredevil attitude and youthful energy. The objective is to create spectacular images.
Before Red Bull became a globe-spanning brand, it was happy simply to open up and occupy niche markets. Today, some 4 billion cans of the drink are sold every year, generating turnover of 3.3 billion ($4.3 billion). That means the company can now run no fewer than two Formula One teams as well as soccer clubs from Salzburg and Leipzig to Sao Paolo and New York. Although it is spending more and more, the principle remains unchanged. All the clubs were renamed or re-founded when Red Bull came on board, and their management boards were replaced. The empire always wants to be in control.
Red Bull is based in Fuschl am See, a village of 1,500 people east of Salzburg. There's a bank, a pharmacy and a bakery. The local tourist office offers a romantic horse-and-cart ride, and on Fridays there's liqueur-tasting at the monastery shop. A public bus service halts at the Brunnerwirt stop once every hour.
The Red Bull global headquarters lie at the entrance to the village. This looks as if a couple of UFOs have landed in the Austrian countryside. Over the years the small white office building that was the original headquarters has been increasingly encircled by round, angular and arched architectural compositions in glass. Of a total workforce of 6,900, 500 work in Fuschl am See. Yet there is nothing to suggest that Red Bull is based there; no signpost, no sign, no logo. Although if you peek through the office window you may recognize some distinctive blue-and-red fridges.
The woman at the entrance apologizes that there's nobody to speak to. That's exclusively Mr. Mateschitz's responsibility, and he only visits twice a month. "We take great care with our public relations," she says.
Dietrich Mateschitz discovered the sweet drink in Hong Kong in the early 1980s, and decided it was his path to global success. 66-year-old Mateschitz is a large man with a winning smile. He will only talk to a few reporters whom he knows very well, who are permitted to call him "Didi" and are, of course, fellow Austrians. Everyone else must make do with replies by e-mail. Mateschitz avoids the media spotlight. Firstly he doesn't like it. Secondly, at least officially, he doesn't want to deflect interest away from the brand -- his brand.
When Mateschitz brought his energy drink onto the market in 1987, there wasn't any demand for it. So he set about creating some. Before founding Red Bull, Mateschitz worked as a marketing manager at toothpaste manufacturer Blendax. So he certainly knew his way around the ad business. Classic advertising for an unusual product seemed contradictory. Rather than copying other campaigns, he took a much cleverer tack. Just as the first cans were hitting the shelves in Austria, TV broadcaster ORF screened a portrait of Ferrari's young Formula One pilot Gerhard Berger, a friend of Mateschitz. Berger was shown jogging on the beach in Brazil, and drinking Red Bull. The next day, sales of the beverage skyrocketed.
To this day, Mateschitz runs his company with a lot of gut feeling and a passion for vision. He's no longer satisfied with being able to sell his drink. In addition to Servus TV, Red Bull has spawned many other media products, mainly print magazines about soccer, motor racing, celebrity gossip, and lifestyle. The company even runs its own mobile telephony service in Austria, Hungary and Switzerland. Whenever an idea grabs Mateschitz, he almost stubbornly holds onto it.
- Part 1: Red Bull Pumps Energy into the Sporting World
- Part 2: 'Generation Red Bull'
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