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From Red Bull to Bull Shit: strategies in energy drink branding

December 31, 2009

First came Redbull. (I’m going to overlook Lucozade, in its traditional form, and Irn-Bru because they pre-date the energy drink boom by many years. By the way, Scotland is the only place in the world in which Coca Cola is outsold by a local soft drink, that soft drink being Irn-Bru, of course. First brewed in 1902, and so named “Irn-Bru” in 1946, decades before txt spk was invented, the popular orange beverage contains o.oo2% Ammonium Ferric Citrate, a food additive that contains iron
…okay, so. First came Red Bull. Based on a Thai drink named Krating Daeng, Red Bull is a vile-tasting drink in a small can, that contains caffeine and taurine, which is famously an derived extract from bull’s testicles (it’s not really from bull’s testicles). Red Bull was marketed in a small can. The small can is important here, it serves the practical purpose of administering a smaller dose of these mind-altering chemicals, but also signals to the consumer that Red Bull is not just another soft drink. The small can says “I am a serious proposition. I am full of good stuff, that will make you feel amazing, but you have to be careful with me, for I am also powerful.” And maybe it signals exclusivity as well. Or it used to, until the rest of these suckers got in on the energy drink market and ruined everything.
After the other drinks that looked just like Red Bull, came the BIG CANS. The big cans refused to play by the rules. They forever moved the goal posts by repositioning the concept of “energy drink” as something that could be chugged indiscriminately, perhaps by extreme sports enthusiasts looking to take it to the next level, or perhaps by builders on their way to work, instead of breakfast.Also aimed at the extreme sports fans (not necessarily the participants) were beverages packaged in the mould of industrial floor cleaners, because industrial floor cleaners and protein shakes have basically the same packaging anyway, and are pretty much interchangeable.
Brands like Monster the appeal to the meatheads too, but also seem to go after teenage heavy metal fans. Check out this seriously horrible section of their website if you’re having trouble imagining what I mean by this. Mouse over the guitar and it plays a riff! Shiiiiiiit!
…this brings us conveniently on to the tattoo drinks, as represented here by Relentless, Rubyy, and Full Throttle. Relentless have actually gone so far as to create/sponsor/hijack a film, Lives Of The Artists, which features, in three segments, profiles of a surfer, a mountaineer (not like the bearded union jack touting mountaineers of old, but the contemporary x-treme kind, who like to leap off their mountains after climbing them), and Watford’s finest hardcore punk band, Gallows. The band’s insanely tattooed front-man Frank Carter is about as close as Relentless could come to a living, breathing advert for the goop they’re pedalling – he looks just like a can of the stuff, and, oh yes, he’s mental.
With a more spiritually aware take on a similar aesthetic, are the herbally-flavoured, mist-swathed brands like Mana and Gloji. Both have vaguely mystical-sounding names and secret ingredients derived from various kinds of rare tropical vegetation. The manufacturers of Mana even refer to their product as a “potion”. Gloji at least has an award-winning bottle design on its side. In fact, I’m being a bit unfair lumping them together like this. Gloji probably has more in common with other more (and I’m using the term loosely) sophisticated beverages, such as Purdeys.
Then there are the drinks endorsed by celebrity muscle-cubes Hulk Hogan and Steven Segal. One Amazon reviewer of Segal’s Asian Experience, describes the drink as “so horrible it brought tears to my eyes”, while another boldly admits how “my penis got smaller but it really helped with midterms”. 1 in 3 Trinity goes a step further though, as the only energy drink to be endorsed by Jesus! Low in calories, and containing a “special blend handed down from the flourishing vines and trees of the Holy Land”, the brand appears to be cynically aimed squarely at Christian fundamentalists and confused teenagers (I see a pattern emerging here with the confused teenagers).
novelty drinks like Cocaine, Battery, and Bomba, which comes in abottle shaped like a grenade and has a ring-pull top. Bomba has an odd website with a homepage that plays funk bass, and a picture of a naked couple locked in some kind of wrestling embrace. By the way, Cocaine does not actually contain any real cocaine, however it does have 350% more caffine than Red Bull, and, according to its manufacturers “tastes like a fireball, a carbonated atomic fireball”.
So that brings us back to the issue of can size and to the latest development – the shot. In a pleasingly symmetrical fashion, the drink that began with the stuff Thai lorry drivers consume to help them stay up all night, has returned to its original format. The idea that less is more, that if Red Bull which comes in a small can is powerful, then Red Bull which comes in a tincture the size of a baby’s fist must be really powerful. Plus the new packaging is of a convenient size to secrete within your utility belt and the myriad pockets of your extreme sports jumpsuit.
What will be next, I can’t say. Perhaps consumers will get tire of being so juiced-up the whole time, and want a drink that will help them have a nice lie down instead. There’ll probably be a product called Heroine within six months.

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