A few years ago, when I was a naive writer at a very different publication, I decided to do a story about an energy drink that also happened to be a respected patron of the arts.
Around the summer of 2013 every humid, incomprehensible gallery show and warehouse party I went to seemed to be funded by Red Bull. The brand was picking up dozens of music writers for its in-house publications. Its month-long Red Bull Music Academy lecture series, then in its first years, selected and archived roundtable conversations among artists that read as a convincing history of important scenes. D’Angelo was there. Giorgio Moroder, the legendary producer who worked with Donna Summer, came to the States for the first time on Red Bull’s dime. He was in his seventies. It ruled.
One branch or another of Red Bull’s content marketing arm was always paying someone I knew excellent money for a softball interview with a young producer, or to edit a documentary short. A friend in town from California, a PR professional herself, made me bring her to a Red Bull event so she could “check out the branding.” It was a soul party in a rented castle, and in terms of branding, there was nearly none: just a table in the antechamber selling Red Bull and vodka, no banners or signs or human-sized cans. She was shocked at the minimalist approach.
Around the same time, on another assignment, I spoke to a NASA historian who told me the Felix Baumgartner space jump—a Red Bull-funded endeavor—was the most significant mass spectacle of its kind since the moon landing.
Not that groveling at the knees of a patron was anything new for these industries, and New York’s arts and music scenes are pretty comfortable with the idea that making “the culture” requires hard cash. At a hip pop-up gallery show in midtown a few years ago, some new media-type artists explained to a skeptical Art Forum writer that Red Bull was “actually a media company.” The energy drink stuff is essentially a side hustle, they said. But the blithe adoption of Red Bull’s own position—that the soft drink company is kind of a doting, supercool rich uncle, reimagined for a generation that doesn’t think in terms of “selling out”—struck me as being willfully blind to the circumstances. As if everyone in the city had colluded, out of financial desperation, to agree the brand actually was our friend.
Red Bull’s marketing model, honed in the decades since founder Dietrich Mateschitz wrested most of the control of the company from his Thai partner and took up racing sponsorships, is to identify influential people within hyper-targeted subcultures and loosely congregate them around your brand. It’s a tactic that Red Bull perfected in the ‘90s and one that nearly every other company has sought to imitate since: the ultimate sponsored content campaign. To get the good talent and keep them, you don’t make them do TV spots or shout out your beverage—just give them cash to do what they already do and align their personal brand with your own. When you identify talented enough pseudo-shills and position yourself as an unobtrusive force, you don’t even have to make the content yourself.
Red Bull started with some racing teams, of which it now owns several, having purchased and entirely rebranded them. In the early 2000s, it moved into more general athletics. It owns at least 10 sports leagues and sponsors more than 500 individual athletes. There is a Red Bull-sponsored festival in Germany where, for more than a decade, people have competed in the art of riding flying home-made contraptions off ramps. The energy drink holds a double-dutch tournament, a paper airplane-flying championship, and most recently, a handful of eSports teams.
It’s been credited with singlehandedly creating the extreme sports industry in the States, having poured an estimated $300 million into BASE jumping and other activities best suited to strapping a GoPro to your face. Red Bull has its own music label, Red Bull Records, which puts out mostly rock and punk records (not to be confused with the more electronically oriented Red Bull Music Academy, which is responsible for the lectures and parties and radio stations that reach more than half a million listeners a month, as well as an extremely competitive yearly program for emerging musicians).
The brand curates stages at nearly every major festival in the world. It makes documentaries. It publishes several magazines and runs a visual art fellowship called the “Red Bull House of Art” in Detroit and São Paulo. Red Bull Photography licenses content created by its various artists and athletes, and then sells it back to other media companies, like the AP. It’s a massive operation, with satellite programs nearly everywhere in the world, tailored to any subculture a future Red Bull consumer might find appealing.
Mateschitz is quite particular about what gets to be affiliated with his fizzy orange soft drink, itself a rebranding of a popular Thai soda. For years, the only other beverage allowed to carry the company’s eponymous bull was a special water bottled during the full moon, which was then sold at Red Bull parties, but only when the moon was actually full. The brand is still particular, which accounts for its success. The Red Bull Music Academy has been helmed by the German consultancy firm Yadastar since 1998. Now they do Red Bull “community branding” work in more than 60 countries, where they reach the world’s young and influential people, mostly by pretending they aren’t involved at all.
Back in New York, Red Bull sponsors the kinds of projects that might not be able to get funding elsewhere. The Bodega Boys podcast is brought to you by Red Bull, for instance, and in a perfect inversion of the traditional marketing strategy. While the hosts definitely don’t hawk Red Bull on the show the brand partnership has inspired at least one piece of Red Bull-Bodega Boys advertising fan art.
And it’s true that the Music Academy is known for absorbing diverse outfits who might not be getting money elsewhere, and that they do fund work where there would otherwise be a vacuum. I would have never seen Giorgio Moroder that summer a few years ago if the energy drink didn’t need to, in the words of its founder, “get a new generation of 16-year-olds on board every year.” It’s not like Moroder said anything about the drink onstage.
For the artists who get funding from Red Bull, the vast amounts of money it provides are a way to make stuff in industries without viable business models. And in return, Red Bull gets exposure to a crucial demographic each time it sweeps into a scene: a future Red Bull enthusiast who’s into punk records, or disco, or windboarding, or soccer. Or kids of color who look up to guys like Mero.
In the years when Red Bull parachuted into the extreme sports industry and gave people like Will Gadd, an ice climber, a way to make his hobby a job, he told Outside magazine that “it’s like having a rich uncle who believes in you even if the whole world thinks you’re crazy.”
The problem is when the lines between patronage and content marketing gets blurry, which is exactly what the brand wants: “A few hundred years ago, artists and writers had patrons that would support their economically unviable efforts,” Gadd said. “Red Bull is the modern patron—no, saint—of action sports.”
Making any brand your patron saint, especially when funding could dry up, puts entire scenes in vulnerable positions. Red Bull has deleted at least one article written by a journalist who found one of the brand’s favored nephews underwhelming, and there was a minor scandal recently when it turned out Mateschitz had some viscerally nasty thoughts about immigrants, in addition to being a big fan of President Trump. (He has said he’d like to start his own right wing news site; whether it will gently suggest that Red Bull should be the drink giving neo-Nazis wings is the subject of some debate.)
When I decided to write that story back in 2013 about how the company created the world’s most successful sponsored content campaign, it was because I couldn’t imagine entire sections of my city without it.
The rep I interviewed was absolutely no help. “I really don’t think of myself as working for an energy drink,” she told me repeatedly during an hour-long interview. It was all just about the music, she said. But when we shook hands at the end of the meeting, she asked if I’d tried the new limited-edition tropical flavor. I had not: Red Bull is gross. A week later, a can of the drink showed up at my office, packed in a box of hot pink confetti. It was a great troll, and the drink was disgusting, and I was so fucking mad. Then I switched jobs again, and no editor wanted my story about Red Bull. Maybe they’re all getting some of the brand’s money, too.