In 2005, one of the most successful PR stunts began. Red Bull and Austrian skydiver and base jumper Felix Baumgartner began groundwork for a stratospheric freefall planned to exceed human limits. Then, seven years later, on October 14, 2012, Baumgartner rose to 128,000 feet in a stratospheric balloon and completed a freefall jump that had him rushing towards Earth at supersonic speeds before parachuting safely to the ground.
This was incredible, to say the least. He had become the first human to break the sound barrier in a freefall, while creating additional world records. Felix’s feat holds the potential to provide valuable medical and scientific research data for space travel. But why was this jump so important in the world of PR?
One of the most successful brands when it comes to organizational PR stunts is without a doubt Red Bull. For decades they have been creating out of the ordinary, extreme stunts, all while positioning themselves as a brand that “gives you wings.” Instead of the actual flavor of the drink, they chose to focus on the ideals that their drink offers to consumers.
Why did this work so well for Red Bull?
They were brave and aimed high. Stratos was an extremely bold project to take on. Ambitious campaigns can be created for any company, even without massive funds.
“Red Bull has hopefully inspired marketers to demand more from ourselves. Sure, not all companies have the budget to send a man into space, but everyone has the capacity to set themselves a higher standard and not just settle for a mediocre concept,” says We Are Social Global MD, Robin Grant.
They were dedicated to their idea. Red Bull never once wavered from the mission. Even when they were faced with doubt and some slight setbacks, they continued on.
“Stratos demonstrated commitment on an unprecedented scale,” said Grant. “It showed determination and dedication to the idea, even when it didn’t look like it would happen,” adds Taylor Herring Co-Founder, James Herring.
They had a captivating story. All issues that were encountered along the way were used to Red Bull’s advantage. This was done by sharing their experiences along the way with their audience.
“Transparency and honesty are key in modern communications. The reason the Red Bull story was so compelling was because it was so dramatic, and let’s face it, there were many times it looked like it wouldn’t happen… Red Bull had the guts to show it,” said Absolute Radio Communications Director Cat Macdonald.
They brought something of worth. The emphasis during the mission was on the scientific and medical records that could be acquired through the jump. Red Bull provided data that may lead to advancements in space travel in the future.
“It wasn’t just about a quick stunt or clever creative. Red Bull offered something of real value by championing the more “serious” scientific side of Stratos, as well as the extreme sports element. By doing this, Red Bull created a campaign that even captured the imagination of PR cynics,” commented Grant.
They tried a new type of media. Red Bull’s decision to broadcast the jump through a live stream on YouTube was groundbreaking. It was a complete game changer. They realized that YouTube is a perfect channel to target its core audience and they went with it.
“It was the first time we saw a groundbreaking and creative use of YouTube in PR. People usually believe TV is the place where big moments happen,” said Herring.
What was the result?
Sponsoring Felix Baumgartner’s record-breaking jump provided Red Bull with massive global exposure as well as public approval. Red Bull achieved thousands of followers and fans on various social media networks. There were over three million tweets and it was the most talked about topic for days. This buzz created amazing engagement opportunities for the brand.
The campaign not only spread throughout social media, but also received remarkable mainstream media coverage internationally, making the front pages of numerous leading publications. It generated loads of publicity, not only because it was an extreme challenge, but because they were willing to invest in improving society. Like Jonas Feliciana, beverage industry analyst at Euromonitor International, said, “This is taking it to a whole new level. It has turned a PR event into a news event.”
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It was a greater feat than any 30-second spot has ever achieved: skydiver Felix Baumgartner dropped from near-space (23 miles high) back to the Earth’s surface.
It was an astonishing display of the value of human endurance, of adventure, investment and commitment. The fact that this mission to the edge of space was, in fact, funded and created by a brand is, quite simply, remarkable.
Having achieved 8m concurrent views of the spectacle on YouTube, there is no arguing that Red Bull’s Stratos project was an astonishing leap forward in marketing, but it also delivered something far bigger than eyeballs.
The fact is, a brand both created and funded a mission to the edge of space that will create data and insight that could benefit NASA. As one viewer tweeted: ‘That awkward moment when you realise an energy drink has a better space programme than your nation.’
Stratos was not a CSR project, but is far more than a marketing campaign. While commentators have already waxed lyrical about it as the very pinnacle of content, marketing experts believe that this diminishes the scope of the achievement.
James Murphy, editorial director at the Future Foundation, says Stratos shows that Red Bull isn’t solely a provider of content anymore. ‘This is the purest example of the brand as a story; the brand itself has become content,’ he explains. Murphy believes the scientific and technological pay-off of the campaign reflects a level of sophistication that conventional CSR couldn’t reach.
1. Embrace a sense of purpose
‘Do you want to sell sugar water for the rest of your life, or do you want to come with me and change the world?’ Steve Jobs’ pitch to John Sculley – the Pepsi-Cola CEO whom Jobs brought in to run Apple – probably wouldn’t wash with Red Bull founder Dietrich Mateschitz.
Red Bull Stratos has not only underlined the brand’s authentic link to extreme sport and innovation, it has also provided its employees with a motivation bigger than selling sugar water (or energy drinks for that matter) for the rest of their lives.
James Whitehead, executive partner at JWT – the agency that, in a clever bit of marketing, sent a Kit Kat bar 22 miles into space to celebrate fearless Felix – says people want more of a relationship with brands. ‘They want to be involved with them and share them, so [brands] need to have a bigger purpose and a conscience that extends beyond sales,’ he says.
2. Beyond Big Society: do more than grow your bottom line
Consumers may have expressed discomfort at David Cameron’s vision of Big Society, but Red Bull Stratos raises difficult questions about marketing taking off where government funding ends. ‘Red Bull has taken science forward and no one is questioning it. Whether you agree that this will benefit NASA or not, there is no doubt that it is fuelling a passion for science,’ says Sav Evangelou, executive creative director at Kitcatt Nohr Digitas. He believes there is a huge opportunity for brands to carry this shift forward if they can share knowledge or deliver progress to society, whether it is through education or investment.
Sean Kinmont, managing partner, creative director at 23red, says the main thing marketers can learn from Red Bull Stratos is that ‘higher order’ benefits can be generated by things other than charitable links or associations with good causes. ‘People can be equally inspired by feats like this one, which take them vicariously into self-realisation, courtesy of the brand,’ he says.
3. Move beyond ROI: pitch for emotional impact
Space exploration appeals to noble human interests: the desire for adventure and a belief in the power of science. James Kirkham, managing partner at Holler, says that for a certain generation Stratos has become an ‘I was there moment’, which has created ‘almost an unfair benchmark’ for marketers.
While media coverage has focused on the volume of You Tube hits, the true scope of Stratos’s achievement reverberates far beyond the marketing fishbowl. In fact, Red Bull itself has blocked agencies involved in the project from talking to the press because it doesn’t want the event to be viewed as a marketing stunt.
‘The industry is obsessed with media coverage, but the real opportunity is earning the right to speak to consumers. Red Bull did this by capturing the imagination of millions of people,’ says Evangelou.
The message is clear: to be truly great, brands must transcend ROI.
4. Embrace ‘extreme marketing’
Of course, not every brand has a fearless Felix to deliver moments of greatness, but you cannot ignore the pace of change in the market. Rewind to 2008, when Honda secured reams of coverage with its live sky-diving ad on Channel 4. However, chances are you probably cannot remember the ad, and it is unlikely to grace the pages of history for delivering anything other than PR for Honda.
Russ Lidstone, chief executive of Havas Worldwide London, says that with Stratos, Red Bull has in effect created a school of Œextreme marketing¹.
Red Bull has built credibility through its support for extreme-sports athletes, the creation of current F1 champions Red Bull Racing and through building a range of events from the ground up. In short, Red Bull could never be accused of simply badging events.
5. Behaviour trumps brand values
The Stratos project also hints at a wider shift in marketing in the digital age: it is no longer enough to obsess over brand valuation and image. Consumers are increasingly demanding that brands prove their worth, a shift that has huge implications for marketers.
Patricia McDonald, executive planning director at Glue Isobar, says that in an age of participation, brands are facing up to a fundamental shift. ‘Brands need to ask themselves what they do for people. It is bigger than marketing: from supply chain to distribution, it’s the fundamentals of how a business behaves,’ she says.
The world’s greatest brands have changed consumer behaviour not just to boost their own bottom line, but to actively improve people’s lives. This is typified by Nike, which created Run London and has invested in giving people greater access to sport, in an effort to tackle the growing problem of sedentary behaviour, arguably one of the biggest challenges of our time.
Lisa MacCullum Carter, managing director of Access to Sport at Nike, says: ‘Underpinning the London Olympic Games was a commitment to ‘inspire a generation’. Although elite and professional sport can inspire and encourage young people, it cannot on its own increase participation levels and access. Funding is crucial, but effective change will require unprecedented collaboration and action from governments, communities, corporations and civil society.’ Many analysts believe this collaborative approach will underpin the future of marketing for good.
6. Place commitment above all things
Back on Earth, there will doubtless be marketers rolling their eyes at the notion that they should ‘pull a Red Bull’. So here is the killer fact to empower each and every marketer: experts estimate that Red Bull’s investment in marketing is 30% to 40% of its revenues. It is a marketing-driven business model in the truest sense. If you won’t invest in your products and services, staff and brand, why would you expect your consumers to? You can’t use the struggling economy as a one-size-fits-all explanation for failing to commit and perform.
In an age of slash-and-burn marketing, where failure to commit and endlessly delaying big decisions is the norm, Red Bull’s investment and scope is noteworthy. Not every brand has the inclination or budget to invest in something bigger than itself, but the best marketers should at least have the ambition to try.