3 marketing lessons I learned from Red Bull that apply to your startup or small company

During the day, I’m the Head of Growth at Reflectly. At night (and on weekends) however, I’m an adrenaline junkie. Motorcycles, mountain climbing, bungee-jumping…you get the idea. Earlier this year I was trying to figure out what is the craziest, most difficult things I can do.

I stumbled upon Polar Circle Marathon – the most northern marathon on the planet that takes place in October in Greenland. Temperatures are so cold that spilled water freezes before it hits the ground. Yes! That’s what I need.

I got the idea in April 2019 and started training. The distance is not an issue, I’ve done a marathon, but it’s the cold. As you can imagine, it’s hard to simulate marathon running in freezing cold temperatures in Europe with recording-breaking heat during the summer. Luckily, there are plenty of mountains. My first training session was to climb to the top of Mount Olympus in Greece. Almost 3.000 meters and sub-zero (Celsius) temperatures. Perfect.

I posted a few pictures from the climb on Insta. A friend of mine that has been doing a few projects with Red Bull saw them and suggested I pitch the idea to Red Bull. I did. They loved it and agreed to sponsor me. First of all, holy shit! The only dream I’ve ever given up on in my life was becoming a professional athlete. I played ice-hockey since I could walk but at 25 I was nowhere near the NHL so I decided to quit. If I can’t compete with the best, why do it at all…Now, at age 30, Red Bull is sponsoring my crazy athletic ideas.

Red Bull: “Take as much as you want”. Me: “You just made a huge mistake” 😀

After working with Red Bull for a little bit, I’ve learned a couple of things about the company’s branding and marketing that I didn’t notice, or understand before I got insider’s look. The following are 3 main lessons I’ve learned from them so far.

At the top of Mount Olympus


1. Show, don’t tell
Red Bull doesn’t talk about itself. They don’t post ads about the energy drink. They don’t create content about cans of liquid and talk about how great it is. No, no. They show you how the greatest athletes (and crazy people) in the world are drinking Red Bull right before or after that crazy stunt they just pulled off.

Red Bull did have that massive campaign of “Red Bull gives you wings” which worked well for the TV era, but things are different now. I don’t think I’ve seen a Red Bull commercial in 5 years. However, I see content about their athletes almost daily. Red Bull will let customers and influencers do the talking. They are happy to highlight, repost or share what others say.

Remember these old Red Bull commercials?

1.5 Benefits, not features
This is a subset of the previous lesson so I called it 1.5. Look at Red Bull’s Instagram. Watch carefully. The type of content they repost is not about the drink. The athletes they repost aren’t talking about:

  • cool design of the can
  • how the drink gives them energy for hours
  • how great it tastes
  • what are all the new flavors

No, they’re talking about the “benefits”. They show the athletes’ lifestyle. They are saying: “Look, if you drink Red Bull like these crazy bastards, your life might also have exciting life” It’s not true, but that’s what we associate. Of course, they are not saying it directly, but that’s what we humans associate Red Bull with it. Our pattern-matching brain is easily influenced to draw conclusions, mostly subconsciously.

Indoor sky-diver Maja Kuczynska casually drinking Red Bull

In your small business, don’t talk about the features, tech specs, etc. Instead, show your potential customers how their lives will be better after they use your product. How they can save money or time and go on that amazing vacation, or spend time with their kids…whatever your target audience values the most. Features speak to the rational mind. Benefits speak to the emotional heart.

People are not rational, we make emotional purchases and decisions and then justify them with our brain…pretending we’re logical beings. You know you should exercise daily, eat nutritious food, drink alcohol in moderation, sleep 8 hours, meditate, drink 6 cups of water, save 10% of your income, go to the dentist twice a year, etc. Your logical brain understands your life would be so much better if you did….but do you? Or do you justify to yourself why you don’t have to do it now?

2. Exclusivity
Becoming a Red Bull athlete is a stamp of approval. Only the top athletes around the world get sponsorship. However, it’s not always the best athletes, purely performance-wise. Red Bull looks for interesting characters, people that bring something new to the sport, something creative. They are looking for the most interesting athletes in the world, not just the best ones.

only the most interesting athletes get to work with Red Bull

Exclusivity is the obvious choice for luxury and premium brands. You need to be selective of who presents, promotes, distributes your product if you want to be perceived as a premium brand.

Exclusivity as a marketing principle also works for non-luxury companies. When Facebook first launched you needed to have a @harvard.edu email address to sign up. One of the most prestigious and hard-to-get email addresses in the world. It was exclusive to that group of individuals. They then started to open up to broader audiences. Other universities, then all universities, then all high-schools and finally the whole world.

The trick is to appear exclusive, but still attracting a big-enough audience to feed your business.

3. Influencers at scale

Red Bull doesn’t create ads and talk about itself, but it needs someone to spread the word. Obviously, you should build a great product so your customers will be spreading the word, like Tesla for example. Using influencers however, can supercharge that process when done right.

Instafamous people and influencers are definitely buzzwords in 2019. Most companies don’t know how to effectively execute an influencer strategy. The market is so new and uncontrolled that influencer prices are as volatile as bitcoin.

Red Bull is making it work with influencers (athletes) at scale. The scale part of this is important. You can’t give your product to 2 – 3 influencers, let them talk about it, post it on Insta, make YouTube videos and hope for amazing results. It doesn’t work. However, doing influencers at scale for branding is a brilliant strategy.

As a small company, you probably don’t have the budget to pay 100 professional athletes to show off your product, but fear not. Micro-influencers at scale are actually more effective. As a small company, you have an advantage over the giant companies that need to make a big splash to notice a difference on their bottom line.

Example of interesting athletes on Red Bull Slovakia

Who is a micro-influencer? Anyone active on social media that has some following. The exact number doesn’t matter. It could be 5.000 Instagram followers, it could be 800 YouTube subscribers…What matters is how engaged they are. What’s the relationship between the creator and the followers. This is infinitely more important than the total number.

You should look at influencers in your niche space and find the ones that have highly engaged audiences. Are people commenting on their posts? Are they sharing it? Are they having an actual conversation, or is the influencer just posting pretty pictures on Instagram and that’s it? The engagement is everything because engagement = trust. When we trust somebody, we will listen to their recommendations. We will buy the things they suggest.

It’s fairly easy to find micro-influencers. There are many platforms, my favorite is Heepsy. The trick is finding the ones that are actually influencing their audience. It will require manual work and digging into each influencer’s online presence to figure out if their followers trust them. To do this at scale, it’ll take even more time, yes, but it’s worth it.

My personal favorite strategy for micro-influencers isn’t about letting them post about the product on Instagram, but buying the content they create and using it as ads. For example, I’d let somebody use my product. Do a YouTube video and I’ll buy the rights to that video from them. I’ll then run that video as ads. With micro-influencers, this is very affordable. For example, Instagram influencers with 5.000 followers might want between $20 – $50 for the rights to use their Instagram Story videos in ads.

Instead of creating content from scratch, I will just run their content as ads. It always performs better than anything I could create myself (or anybody else could create), because it doesn’t look like an ad. It looks like a normal post from somebody that could be a friend. Of course, the influencer has to be in your target demographic so the content is relatable.

Conclusion

Now you know that Red Bull is using Show-Don’t-Tell, Exclusivity and Influencers as a secret marketing weapon. You as a small business can apply those same principles. Let me know what kind of results you got with these strategies. I’m always curious to hear.

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