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Red Bull’s high flier

Red Bull Media House, the energy drink brand’s production arm, is one of the biggest players in the world of branded entertainment. But is there such a thing anymore, asks Nico Franks.

Red Bull Stratos

Red Bull Stratos

The ads for Red Bull may claim a taste of the energy drink will give you wings, but what will watching the output of its media production house give you?

If you were one of the 52 million people who viewed YouTube’s live stream of Felix Baumgartner’s record-breaking sky dive from the edge of space last year, you’d be tempted to say a heart attack.

The spectacular feat, dubbed Red Bull Stratos and seven years in the making, confirmed Red Bull’s reputation as a brand capable of pulling off the most ambitious of stunts unlikely to be equalled in scale anytime soon. Not only that, the enormous viewing figures also highlighted the huge promotional capabilities of Salzburg-based Red Bull Media House marketing, according to its MD for North America, Werner Brell.

Werner Brell

Werner Brell

“The success of Red Bull Stratos was only possible because of the communications and marketing efforts put into it, involving a unique syndicated model of the YouTube player streamed to 280 partners across the world,” Brell says.

Brands muscling in on the patch of traditional content producers is no new thing – remember how the word ‘soap’ became part of the TV lexicon – but, as Baumgartner’s space jump shows, it is becoming increasingly more sophisticated.

Marketing executives have now got wise to the business of television production, with ‘branded storytelling’ now an integral part of any consumer brand’s foray into original content. “I’m not sure what’s branded and what’s non-branded entertainment anymore,” Brell admits. “At the end of the day, it’s entertainment. You have to play by the rules of the audience, and they want to watch something engaging on an emotional level.”

The vital part of branded entertainment, Brell asserts, is authenticity. Red Bull has always been an energy drink, so it follows it should align itself with such things as coverage of mountain bike competition Rampage.

“Authenticity is the key because if it isn’t there, the consumer will call you on it. But the more brands that are playing in this space the better, because competition is good for the marketplace and good for the audience,” Brell says.

The company now plans to take the kind of programming it is known for, aimed at those who seek adrenaline highs, and make it appeal to a much wider audience. “We’re approaching this by injecting compelling storytelling into our television series or films,” Brell says, name-checking 2011 snowboarding documentary The Art of Flight as one film that found a mainstream audience. Wild Ones: Young Heroes (10×30′) is another Red Bull doc series, this time for German broadcaster ProSieben Fun. US lifestyle network Outside Television has also entered into a programming partnership with the Austrian prodco.

“But the Red Bull brand is a global brand, not just an action sports brand. We’re venturing out into other areas in culture and lifestyle, especially music,” he adds. The company also owns fellow Austrian prodco Terra Mater Factual Studios, which makes natural history and science documentaries.

As well as the potential to make Red Bull’s content much more palatable to those who don’t necessarily own a snowboard, skateboard or mountain bike, Brell also appears intrigued by the potential that YouTube offers companies like his to go more niche.

“Because of the nature of the internet and the platform itself, YouTube offers a much more diversified variety of programming than television ever could. If YouTube started to resemble what already exists then I don’t think it would be doing its job right.”

So what is the role of branded entertainment in the digital age? Red Bull’s partnerships so far have suggested the company is happy to work with wherever the eyeballs are likely to be. “The audience is king, so we have a flexible, platform-agnostic approach,” Brell says. “Certain things we do fit really well with linear television, while others are suited to YouTube.

“At the moment in the US we have a strategy to work with the most suitable partners in the industry. In terms of video-on-demand, we have launched with Netflix and continue to work with Hulu and Crackle.”

Red Bull tries and often succeeds to own 100% of the programming it creates – something Brell believes marks the company out as being “ahead of the curve” in terms of distribution. And when asked about the possibility of a Red Bull-branded VoD service in the future, Brell says it’s “definitely a possibility.”

Brell also hints that future event programming at Red Bull, although unlikely to reach the heights, both literally and metaphorically, of its Stratos project, will continue to push boundaries.

“Stratos was in a league of its own, but we’ll have some projects in the pipeline that can rival it, or attempt to achieve something close. It’s in the DNA of the company to break new ground,” he says.

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