On 14 October 2012, Felix Baumgartner climbed out of his balloon capsule at an altitude of 39km and jumped. He hurtled towards the ground, breaking the sound barrier in the process for nearly four minutes before opening his parachute. Written on it in a large, red font were two words: Red Bull.
Mr Baumgartner’s descent to earth was just one of myriad heart-stopping ways that Red Bull promotes its brand. The Austrian drinks company sponsors everything from the Red Bull Air Race World Championship, in which highly trained pilots fly aerobatic planes round a course, to the Red Bull Flugtag, in which foolhardy men and women jump off piers in homemade gliders. It also has a Formula One team.
When it comes to building a brand, buying a full-page ad in a newspaper and a few slots on prime time, or even just sponsoring a football team, do not cut it any more.
Ian Stephens, principal at Saffron, a brand consultancy, says: “It has reached a tipping point, where it is a legitimate strategy to create things that get talked about”. When the then 43-year-old Austrian Mr Baumgartner made his jump, he was watched by 8m people on YouTube – at the time, the biggest live online audience ever.
None of Red Bull’s sponsorship deals have much to do with creating a short-term fillip in sales of its sugary, caffeinated drinks. Instead, the company is investing heavily to give its brands a longer-term boost.
Other brands are starting to use the same tactic. “It is not done purely for profit,” says Peter Walshe, a retail analyst at Millward Brown Optimor, a brand consultancy. “It is done for a differentiation aspect.”
Other brands have used more prosaic methods to boost their standing. Dove, the personal care brand, has run a decade-long campaign based around “real beauty”, putting out videos to stimulate debate about what beauty is and how the cosmetics industry portrays it.
In one Dove advert, women are drawn by a police sketch artist based first on a self description and then on the description of strangers who have just seen them for the first time (the second version turns out to be more attractive than the first). These adverts have been viewed tens of millions of times on YouTube, providing a longer promotional shelf life than a standard advertising campaign.
Meanwhile, Gillette, the shaving brand owned by US consumer goods giant Procter & Gamble, has sponsored Movember, the prostate cancer awareness drive in which men do not shave their moustaches for a month.
But differentiation has its risks. In Red Bull’s case, extreme sports are by their nature very dangerous. When Mr Baumgartner did his jump, for a few stomach churning seconds the Austrian seemed to lose control and started to spin uncontrollably.
Thankfully, he landed successfully. But other Red Bull-sponsored athletes have not. Shane McConkey, a skier and base jumper paid by the drinks company, died in 2009 while base-jumping in Italy.
In general, though, when branding goes wrong it does not have lethal consequences.
Some online ribbing is a risk, as Dove found with its “real beauty” campaign, which included an advert in which ordinary-looking women were told to wear a beauty patch that was actually a placebo. One spoof mocking the revelatory tone of Dove’s adverts ended: “You fell for our weird psychology experiment and it showed you you’re not actually a hideous monster, so where’s our Nobel peace prize or whatever?”
Any effort to stand out must be coherent and complement a brand’s day-to-day work. Brands can look clumsy when they try to change how they are perceived, says Mr Stephens, who cites the efforts of confectionery maker Cadbury, fast-food company McDonald’s and drinks maker Coca-Cola to sponsor sports in an attempt to divert attention from the high calorie count of their products.
“What’s an antidote to fatness? Sports days! Let’s sponsor sports day! It looks a bit guilty,” says Mr Stephens.
The day job can overshadow other efforts. “McDonald’s did some lovely work,” says Rita Clifton, chairman of BrandCap, an international branding firm. “But it was divorced in people’s minds from its main work.”
Likewise, corporate owners of brands have to make sure the ethos of separate brands do not overlap or jar too sharply.
Some have criticised Unilever for double standards because it owns both Dove, with its wholesome “real beauty” campaign, and Lynx, which advertises via the more traditional device of scantily clad models throwing themselves at teenagers.
This is an important consideration for large consumer goods groups, such as P&G and Unilever, that have tried to build more visible corporate brands.
Case study: Gillette helps charity raise £75m
Gillette spends the bulk of its time trying to persuade men to be clean shaven. To this end it has signed up smoothly shaved sportsmen such as tennis player Roger Federer and former England footballer Peter Crouch.
But for one month a year, the razor blade maker switches its aims and encourages men to grow a full moustache. Why?
Movember, when men forgo shaving their tashes for November to raise money to fight prostate cancer has grown to be a popular feature of office life.
It has ballooned in popularity since it began in Australia a decade ago.
Gillette has been involved since 2012, becoming a global partner last year. Procter & Gamble, which owns Gillette, sends senior marketing executives to work with the charity, helping raise its profile.
“P&G has a longstanding commitment to corporate social responsibility,” says a senior P&G executive who was seconded to the scheme last year.
“So, it is not unusual for people to invest time in these causes.”
Last year, the charity raised more than £75m.
But Gillette has not received much corporate karma for its good deeds. In fact, Movember has come at a cost to the company. This year, P&G executives blamed the charity drive for a decline in sales of Gillette razors.
Pampers’ marketing coup
Dirty nappies are big business. In 2012, Pampers became the first brand in Procter & Gamble’s stable to reach $10bn in annual sales. To reach that point, it had to win over lots of mums and dads.
It achieved this not just through heavy marketing but via other methods, such as offering new parents advice and becoming involved in children’s charities.
Pampers has also launched charity drives with organisations such as Unicef, for example, donating a tetanus vaccine to a developing country whenever a pack of Pampers was sold.
Pampers has also tried to make itself a source of parenting advice with its Pampers Village website.
Not all the advice is welcome. One user of Mumsnet, the online parenting forum, was critical of a free magazine.
“Yes, I know that disposable nappies are an eco-nightmare, but at least they serve a useful purpose,” the user said. “However, if anyone can tell me about a bigger waste of trees than the ... Pampers magazine, I want to know about it.”
But overall, offering advice is a net benefit to Pampers, says Peter Walshe, a retail analyst at Millward Brown Optimor, the branding consultancy.
“A brand like that – with genuine information that is useful and a mission to make motherhood and babies safer – reflects well on the product.”