Bullish on Content: 5 Enduring Lessons From Red Bull Content Marketing

Dietrich Mateschitz, founder of Red Bull, is one of the greatest content marketers in the world, not merely because he and his team were among the very, very first to realize how important content is to a brand.

In fact, it's because they realized how, in their case, content is the brand.

What they sell in those little cans? Not ephemera, but it's close. When the experience surrounding the brand is as powerful as that stocking the Red Bull content universe, do we bother drilling too deep on how the product "gives you wings"? What matters is the promise, not the payload.

There was an excellent report on content marketing some years ago by Rebecca Lieb at the Altimeter Group that defined the "maturity" of content marketing as having five stages: standing, stretching, walking, jogging and running.

Red Bull, they pointed out, was running - but I'd say they're more than running, they've been marathoning at a sprinter's pace by leveraging their own content and that of their user community. 

Maturity Model

Red Bull adds thousands of videos and other content elements yearly to their already staggering, oceanic inventory, monetizing that content by generating buzz and purchase intent by making the brand synonymous with the basic human urge to excel, exceed, take chances and imagine we're living a life where we're pegging the needle at the outer limit.

I've used Red Bull as a benchmark study in more categories than I can remember, from their ingenious early guerrilla marketing efforts on college campuses through how they've perfectly integrated experiential, digital and social into seamless awareness engines. GoPro is also cited as a modern apogee of content marketing, but even with their native advantages, they've taken huge leaves out of Red Bull's book. No wonder.

Raise your hand if you've had a client say, "I'd like to do what Red Bull is doing." I've lost count of how many times I've been given that challenge.

There are a lot of learnings from how Red Bull has conquered the content marketing world, but here are six that I've mentioned to clients who want to emulate its success:

1. Empowerment Equals Engagement...or, What's the Big Idea?

Red Bull sells empowerment, and its content strategy is built on the cornerstone of tangibly experientializing that empowerment, both through Red Bull's own many sports and event activations, and though content generated by its community. It's not enough to say your product is all-in on benefiting consumers or customers: can you put a stake in the ground about how it improves a universal aspect of their lives or personal experience? Can your brand make that case?

If you can't decide what the "Big Idea" is behind your brand, then you'd better.

2. It Takes Total Content Commitment

Content marketing excellent takes an enormous amount of focus and resources to make successful. Those who think that user-generated content, for example, is a cheapskate's path to a pot of gold don't realize the investment in the right strategy, messaging, curation and community outreach that's incumbent on a marketer who wants to mount any content marketing initiative, let alone a UGC program in the CPG space.

It'll entail wholesale changes to your marketing culture, and even to how you deal with retailers, co-marketing, P.R. and more. Plus, it involves a relationship with consumers extending beyond simply trying to nail a sale at every available touch-point. Your brand's value to the consumer, if it's really and truly valuable enough to enable a content-focused community, is contingent on far more than pricing or that sexy new packaging you've trotted out.

3. It's Not About The Brand

In 2012, Facebook did a study that laid out how to drive brand engagement via their platform. It show the returns on three types of messages:

1. Messages about the product or service
  • Travel brand example: Our new resort just opened! Book your trip today. 
2. Messages related to the brand
  • Travel brand example: I decided to go on my first cruise because______.
3. Messages unrelated to the brand
  • Travel brand example: Hang in there everybody. Monday will be over before we know it!

Posts that were about #2, topics related to the brand but not specifically about the product, were the "sole universally-significant predictor" for all types of engagement, and the top driver of Shares, Likes and Comments.

"Well, duh," you might say. "Everybody knows that."

But Red Bull knew it first: people are foremost interested in what's closest to their own experience-craving, benefit-seeking little hearts, not in a brand for its own sake. Plenty of brands claim to have that understanding, but their content programs devolve into brand-centric bushwah that leaves consumers cold.

4. Embrace Content Communism, Comrade

A brand experiencing the kind of success that Red Bull or GoPro have seen with content generation quickly realize, if they didn't go in thinking it beforehand, that content belongs to the people...as so does the brand, in today's authenticity-focused, transparency-obsessed marketplace.

If your brand can lay claim to being salient to some small part of a consumer's lifestyle or lifestage, don't shy from letting people testify to its impact on their lives.  Even if it doesn't ask for user-generated content, a brand may find its user body is will to express their product experiences in interesting (and sometimes scary) new ways, pushing testimonials to bold extremes, or otherwise creating scenarios that'll keep your legal team up at night.

That's the best result you can imagine. So don't discourage it. If people care enough to build their own stories around your brand, there's obviously a spark there that needs to be fanned.

5. Decide to Diversify

Red Bull didn't stick to the the on-the-nose topics and tie-ins to spread their message, or emphasize the relevance of their brand. Red Bull Music Academy is another integration of synergizing live experiences with digital content, and the affiliation with music (and clubbing and concerts) makes sense, of course.

Are there ways you could diversify your content strategy into areas that aren't obviously monetizable or immediately product-related, but still help build your bona-fides? Look for them: they'll help you enlarge your breadth and depth of engagement.

Delivering a steady stream of content on behalf of good causes, category education, industry awareness or other realms puts a more human face on your brand or company, and demonstrates its willingness to champion a cause or idea. But as with any content strategy, it takes commitment. Consumers and customers are quite capable of recognizing insincerity or lip service, so that commitment has to be continual and authentic.

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