Liquid cocaine

How hype and urban legend made Red Bull into a commercial cocktail juggernaut.

Published February 2, 2001 8:30PM (EST)

Cigarette smoke hangs between the faint house lighting and the crowd that has packed C.T. Peppers in Indianapolis on a busy Saturday night. A brightly lit aquarium behind the bar draws the attention of patrons to a variety of tropical fish circling a 2-foot-tall silver can of Red Bull energy drink. Plastic table tents on the bar hawk Red Bull and Seagram's 7 for $4.95. Decals on the cash register and the front door alert clubgoers that Visa, MasterCard and Discover are accepted; another sticker announces that Red Bull is available. Bottles of domestic beer are still the most common order, but it's never very long before drinkers ask the bartender to open the logo-embossed display case on the bar and pull out a can of the energy drink to use as a mixer. As the night goes on, the distinctly syrupy scent of Red Bull begins to overwhelm the smell of stale beer.

In the annals of marketing, Red Bull holds the distinction of having created an unusual and highly effective sales strategy. Here is a product -- nonalcoholic, about as caffeinated as a cup of coffee -- that's managed to acquire a reputation as an over-the-counter amphetamine, a surefire wild-times elixir, all the while squirming its way into bars as if it were the latest offering from Anheuser-Busch. If Gatorade is sold to us as a "sports drink" with its promises of replenished electrolytes, Red Bull's marketers will have us believe that their product is a party drink, a stimulant, an aphrodisiac, a raver's "smart drink" gone mainstream.

The strategy is working: Red Bull had $1 billion in worldwide sales last year. According to Red Bull, sales in the U.S. have doubled every year since 1997, when the product was first brought over from Austria (where the drink originated). If Red Bull is increasingly popular here, it's a phenomenon in Europe, where the drink has been on store shelves and in pubs for nearly a decade longer than it has been available here. As has happened here, much of Red Bull's European success has to do with its association with alcohol and its use as a brand-name mixer.

The London Times recently reported on the Pitcher and Piano, a new bar in London's Bishopsgate financial district. The Pitcher and Piano serves Red Bull mixed drinks almost exclusively to a jet-setting class of Londoners the Times calls the "Red Bull and Champagne set." Stockbrokers who frequent the bar have nicknamed the Red Bull drinks "legal cocaine." Even the Times has bought into the hype: "The volatile combination of vodka and Red Bull tastes like alcoholic fruit juice but it gives drinkers such a euphoric high that many are losing control during the traditional Friday night drinking sessions around Bishopsgate." The Times story goes on to report that since the Pitcher and Piano opened a year ago, police have reported a sharp rise in violent incidents and have set up a special Bishopsgate patrol to deal with stockbrokers crazed by Red Bull and vodka.

The flip side of fame is notoriety, and in some cases, Red Bull's reputation has gotten it in trouble. The Irish prime minister recently called for an inquiry into Red Bull after a student who had been drinking the beverage at a sporting event suddenly died. Just this year, John Burroughs High School in Burbank, Calif., made news when the school banned energy drinks, including Red Bull, from its campus. Jay Gudzin, an assistant principal at the school, explained that two students became ill after ingesting an energy drink before football practice: "They became dizzy and disoriented. It was a very hot day, but these two weren't sweating at all. At first we were concerned that they may have been suffering from concussions, but practice hadn't started yet. When we took their pulse rates, one of the students had a pulse of 190."

The more rumors of Red Bull's potentially dangerous, overstimulating effects spread, the more the drink sells. Marketing geared toward nightclubs and adult drinkers and the extreme-sports events that Red Bull produces (including downhill mountain-bike racing in underground salt mines) work to cement the association between Red Bull, danger and drug highs.

The strategy is rumor by omission and, only when absolutely necessary, denial: Red Bull has carefully and intentionally cultivated the mystery surrounding its product; the public has filled in the blanks with speculation and innuendo. Meanwhile, Red Bull sells and sells.

According to Red Bull North America spokeswoman Emmy Cortes, Red Bull doesn't promote the idea of the energy drink as a mixer (despite the logo stickers, cross-promotions and contests with trips and prizes for bartenders and cocktail servers). "The idea is to place Red Bull where people need a lift," Cortes explains. "Dance clubs and nightspots are a perfect fit, but we don't encourage drinking Red Bull and alcohol. The idea is that Red Bull is an alternative to alcoholic beverages." But if a bartender wants to use the product as a mixer, Cortes and her company won't discourage the practice. "We don't try to control how people use Red Bull. We are no more concerned about it than Minute Maid is that orange juice is mixed in a screwdriver."

(It's a false comparison, of course. When's the last time you saw goldfish swimming around an oversize Minute Maid juice bottle in a tank hanging over a bar?)

Another Red Bull urban legend will have us believe that the drink takes its potency from bull urine or bull semen, depending on which version you hear. Rumors that the energy drink's signature ingredient, "taurine," is produced from bull testes have created a stir around the product. If it's got bull semen in it, the logic goes, then it must bring virility, strength, bullishness, right? A nonprescription Viagra for under $2.50. In fact, taurine is an amino acid that was first discovered in bulls (hence the name) but is found in many mammals and fish. The enzyme -- a synthetic version of which is found in many energy drinks, including Red Bull -- has become the drink's most celebrated feature, and though Cortes won't identify the exact source of the name "Red Bull," it's not hard to imagine that taurine was at least part of the inspiration.

Again, the rumor isn't one that Red Bull is overly concerned with dispelling. "That's one of our favorite rumors," Cortes says. "It's kind of fun."

If Red Bull can make you virile, can make your Saturday nights more wild, then it can also make your mind sharper, right? Consider this description from the site of a Red Bull distributor:

"Red Bull contributes not only to a noticeable prevention against a drop in mental performance but it also leads to a measurable improvement in physical performance."

But wait a second -- isn't this stuff just caffeinated sugar water?

According to Eddie Hogan, a spokesman for the American Dietetic Association, there's no scientific evidence at all to show that enzymes found in energy drinks such as Red Bull have restorative effects on tired minds and bodies. "These products claim to provide a lift," Hogan explains. "They are usually very high in simple sugars and contain at least some caffeine. Those are two things that your body will use right away. So these drinks do provide quick energy. Unfortunately caffeine and sugar are used up by the body very quickly as well, so the lift doesn't last very long. You could probably accomplish the same thing with a glass of juice and a cup of coffee."

The one thing you won't find much of in Red Bull marketing is hype about how the stuff tastes; there is practically no mention in any of the advertising or labeling as to the product's appealing flavor or even what that flavor is. With a taste often described as "medicinal" or "tinny," Red Bull ranked a D+ from BevNet, an e-commerce site that analyzes beverage sales. But when rumors of a euphoric high are to be had, taste isn't really a big issue, is it?

Red Bull is harmless, but its competitors often aren't. Thanks in part to Red Bull's success, a whole new genre of energy drinks has sprouted up in 7-Elevens across the country. The students in the John Burroughs High School case, it turns out, weren't drinking Red Bull at all.

Cortes contacted the school when Red Bull was mentioned by the local news in accounts of the ban on energy drinks. "They were very apologetic," Cortes says, and "Red Bull wasn't involved in the incident at all." The students were drinking Speed Stack, one of its imitators. Warnings on the label of Speed Stack caution: "Not intended for those under age 18. Do not exceed more than one dose per day. Exceeding more than one dose will not increase effectiveness and can lead to risk of heart attack, stroke, seizure or death. Keep out of reach of children. In case of accidental ingestion call poison control."

Products attempting to capture Red Bull's reputation as a trendy energy drink hope to ride the tide of rumors and misconceptions that have helped Red Bull's popularity explode worldwide. These products -- many of them in silver 250-milliliter cans similar to Red Bull's -- don't have quite the same buzz of producing a euphoric high, curing impotence or deriving from the nether regions of a bull, but they carry the same vague whiff of the narcotic, the potential of danger. Borrowing a page from Red Bull, these products have found a new way to let urban legend do the selling for them. And it's working.

By Jeff Edwards

Jeff Edwards is a freelance writer.

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