The global market in energy drinks has increased over five-fold in the last decade. Between invented sports, student brand managers, and precedent-setting media stunts, Red Bull, a company that leads the energy drink industry in terms of market share, has drawn new boundaries in its experimentation with new media and human branding.
By tailoring its market schemes to various specific national tastes in different countries around the world, the image of athleticism coupled with a devil-may-care attitude has found a global audience.
What this means in the case of Canada and Europe is a sport called Crashed Ice. The sport’s first-ever world championship was held in Quebec City on March 20.
The idea behind the game is that four athletes at a time – each clad in skates, helmets, and promotional jerseys – race through the course’s jumps, turns, and ramps as quickly as possible. According to an athlete with a broken wrist I met after the event, Crashed Ice had resulted in eight separated shoulders and two broken legs that day. It’s a sport that, in the words of one of its press releases, “certainly isn’t for ice princesses!”
The four-day occupation of the province’s capital that accompanied the world championship saw 120,000 spectators heaped into the old city’s streets, the installation of nine jumbo LED screens and 2,000 spotlights, two million watts of energy expended, several thousand cans of Red Bull consumed, and a massive private security contingent on site. The event’s centrepiece was a half-kilometre-long downhill ice track that started at the Chateau Frontenac and wound down toward the port.
The crowds of people who flocked to the event should not have come as much of a surprise. Few other marketing ploys in history have been quite so appealing to Quebeckers as one that turns hockey into an extreme sport, gets hosted in the downtown core of their capital, and abandons any enforcement of open-container laws whatsoever.
Quebeckers, in fact, were so enthusiastic about the event that a few months prior, when it looked like Red Bull might actually make good on its pledge that the event would never visit the same city twice, Quebec’s mayor endorsed an idea that had been floated by a local DJ and held an official buy-a-Red Bull day, which cleared three weeks’ worth of product, and obviously achieved its intended effect at Red Bull HQ.
The first spot I visited was the media centre at the Chateau Frontenac. The woman at the desk there didn’t seem to mind that I hadn’t been placed on her list of accredited media, and handed me a generic lanyard with nothing but the words “media/medias” on it. Throughout the rest of the night, I found that I could bypass virtually any security guard, line up, or entrance fee just by flashing this thing.
There was a lot of Blur’s “Song 2” (“Woo Hoo”), Limp Bizkit, spotlights, crane cams, and here and there a sign reminding me that “your face and/or voice might end up in the media (especially if you’re good looking)… [and be] used for commercial purposes.” Red Bull’s logo was projected onto the sides of buildings, silkscreened onto most of the drinking tents, and shaved into the heads of athletes and bartenders. Hot Hot Heat played a few sets live onstage during intermissions, though they struggled to captivate the audience the way the sport itself did.
I wound up at the event after being approached by Dave Gourlay, the student brand manager (SBM) for Red Bull at McGill. His job description – and that of his female counterparts, the wing team members (WTMs) – is a relatively loose one: “to bring the Red Bull brand to life in the world of all things college. It can be as simple as providing Red Bull for a party or…it can go a whole lot further,” according to the web site of “Red Bull University.” The WTMs, he said, in particular are expected to show up at parties with free Red Bull and their good looks.
“It’s just a bunch of fun people doing cool things,” said Gourlay. “If people have good ideas for crazy events – since that’s what Red Bull’s image is, they just go ahead and they do a good job.”
Extreme stunts, extreme altitudes, extreme poverty
Decadent though it was, the Crashed Ice World Championship is just one of dozens of events staged worldwide each year by the Thai- and Austrian-owned company, events that are simply too big, too absurd, and too expensive for the news media to overlook.
Other sports invented and operated by Red Bull include, among many others, the air race, which involves one-person aircraft being flown through slalom courses; the “favela flyers,” a mountain bike race through some of Rio de Janeiro’s poorest neighbourhoods; and “stratos,” an attempt to drop skydiver Felix Baumgartner from a space pod in the stratosphere, while wearing a spacesuit and parachute both emblazoned – naturally – with the Red Bull logo. If the stunt succeeds, Baumgartner will be the first person to break the sound barrier in freefall in what is slated to be the highest skydive of all time.
The company’s fixation on bionic athleticism, coupled with the quasi-spiritual attitude of some of its online videos – a number of which feature aerial shots of the Christ the Redeemer statue – all communicate the message that Red Bull is on a mission to advance the human race to a state that is harder, better, faster, and stronger than it was before.
A small but manageable controversy erupted last year when it was discovered that Red Bull Cola contains trace amounts of cocaine; the drink was subsequently banned in Taiwan and six German states.
Once the race had ended and the finalists doused each other in champagne, I returned to the Chateau Frontenac for a press conference with the four top-ranking male and female athletes.
“Can I have a Red Bull?” asked one of the men to an attendant WTM.
The fragrance of sweat and energy drink permeated the room.
Most of the athletes didn’t know exactly what to say in response to the host’s repeated question, “So what do you have to tell us about this whole experience?”
When she came to Martin Niefnecker, a 19-year-old Bavarian water engineer who had come in second that day, but first in a previous round held in Munich, the host asked him how it felt to be the first-ever Red Bull Crashed Ice world champion and wished him good luck with his “future career as a Red Bull crasher.”
“For me this is an event just like an ice hockey game,” said Niefnecker when I approached him afterward. “I have to do my best and I want to win; it doesn’t matter if it’s marketing or not.”
The streets had emptied rapidly outside of the Chateau Frontenac, as the fans poured out of the old city toward the bars and clubs along Grande Allée. The security guards for the most part were absent too, leaving a few cops lackadaisically sweeping up the broken glass with their feet.