What happened to Red Bull?

It was once held up as the pinnacle of how a brand could connect with culture, but now the rest of the world has caught up. What now for the winged giant?

It has been almost seven years since Felix Baumgartner wowed the world by base-jumping at supersonic speed from space.

It felt like a watershed moment, especially for me. I was working at Channel 4 at the time and it was the first occasion any kind of brand work had even come up in commissioning meetings. 

So much so that BBC Two even acquired and adapted a long-form documentary created by Red Bull. As did many other TV networks across the world. It felt like "branded content" had entered a new stratosphere.

Red Bull was unrivalled – it was easily the most popular brand channel on YouTube, with a groundbreaking international production and distribution network accompanied by high-level sponsorships, live events and a print offering.

For years after the event, Red Bull was probably lauded in thousands of client and commissioning presentations around the globe – "We need to be the next Red Bull", "We need to be the Red Bull of XXXX", "It needs to be more Red Bull". You know the drill.

But while the mighty energy-drink powerhouse soldiered on, the landscape has changed. A new, young generation are consuming entertainment in a different way with different expectations.

And, more importantly, other brands, channels and personalities have started to encroach on Red Bull’s monopoly.

So how did it happen? And what next? 

As the company invested in a costly TV strategy spearheaded by Red Bull TV, a little thing called Netflix exploded and disrupted the whole entertainment marketplace.

Meanwhile, nimble, fast-paced millennial media empires such as Vox, BuzzFeed, Vice and Refinery29 began setting new standards for entertainment on social media.

Extreme sports and their associated subcultures, such as music and fashion, were beginning to find new online homes, such as Kyra, Gurls Talk, Football Whispers and People are Awesome.

Brands such as Patagonia and GoPro found their own ways to tap into the extreme sports space, while Nike ventured into long-form content via its collaboration with the National Geographic on Breaking2.

What made Red Bull so unique before has been imitated and even improved upon.

It would be so easy to write the brand off as growing too big and bulky while younger, leaner competitors have overtaken them, prescribing a slow decay in the decades to come.

But dig a bit deeper and look a little further back through history, and I think this feels way too premature.

Red Bull is at a clear crossroads.

All youth-culture brands need to have cyclical refresh to reconnect with a new generation of young people, with different habits, tastes and codes. MTV arguably failed to do so. Teen Vogue has consistently done this for decades.

As publishers such as Vice and BuzzFeed’s audiences grow older, Generation Z and those even younger offer a real opportunity for Red Bull to take risks and win big again. 

Red Bull has already begun to do so by trying to put its extreme sports lens on the worlds of gaming, social entrepreneurship and even drama, using social innovation as a red thread. Take its drama series The Net, about the world of football. 

Many brands are actively trying to find new, younger faces to drive their shows and attract new audiences. But, in a way, being able to tap into its iconoclastic roots may offer the biggest opportunity for Red Bull to find its mojo again. And I think we all secretly kind of want it to.

Say what you like about the brand now, but it’s a bonkers, iconic name that ultimately changed the playing field when it came to brands, culture and entertainment. Let’s see if it can unclip its wings and soar once more.

Ravi Amaratunga Hitchcock is head of Pi Studios at We Are Pi and a former Channel 4 commissioning editor

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