Being Right Is No Longer Enough -- You've Got to Experiment

Lessons from Red Bull About the More Expansive Route to Creative

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Earlier in my career, I was introduced to the phrase, "tyranny of success," which means that people think that the way they have become successful is the way to stay successful. But as any Darwinian thinker would be quick to add, and as I have learned, things change.

When I started in planning in the mid-1990s, creative development was focused on being "reductive and right." We triangulated audience attributes, competitive positions and brand equities. Our goal was to convince the client that our solution was "right" via a stress-tested positioning statement and resulting brief. Then we'd "disaster check" and copy-test the campaign, which was largely 30-second spots and a catchy tagline, with a "matching luggage" form of integrated print and direct.

The process was built to serve a simple message, delivered repetitively. But as we develop more complex engagements and transmedia programs, it works less and less well. As we seek the broadest, "right" answer, some outstanding ideas are getting lost. Small audience differences are discarded, and many potentially compelling brand stories never get told. This process also fails to distinguish the needs of owned and earned channels. There's little aimed at web or social properties. There's no leveraging of the diminished cost of production. Extensive pre-testing can choke the creative time required to develop more options.

Put bluntly, campaigns developed in this manner are often limited, inefficient and boring. Perhaps worse, the process cultivates a false sense of confidence and completion.

Our mindset needs to shift from being "reductive and right" to "expansive and experimental." Web development, social engagement and analytics all benefit from a deeper relevance that we cannot achieve by combing through syndicated surveys and conducting a handful of focus groups. We have to use a field researcher's mentality—produce trials, observe, refine and replicate.

Red Bull is a great example of a brand living this philosophy. Red Bull was launched in 1997 with a traditional campaign built on consumer insight around the pick-me-up you get from the drink—"Red Bull gives you wings." Still on air today, much of the campaign's success is owed to small-scale promotional experiments, which have gone from being larks to legendary.

Red Bull's earliest experiment, Flugtag, was a brand-sponsored air show of human-powered flying machines. While the initial event was conceived as a small affair, with hundreds of people in attendance, each successive event has grown in scale and complexity. The recent world-record-setting Flugtag in Minneapolis had over 90,000 in attendance, coverage by the local news and nearly half a million views on YouTube.

Red Bull has taken this expand-and-experiment approach to every imaginable venue and the brand has become synonymous with high-flying sports: skating, snowboarding, motorcross, Formula One and air racing. It has built a personal snow park where Olympic snowboarder Shaun White can train and developed historic motorcycle jumps with the champion motorsports competitor Travis Pastrana. More recently, it forayed into cultural events like the EmSee Rap Championships with Eminem, into writing with Red Bull Reporter and into music with the Red Bull Bedroom Jam.

Red Bull has progressively deepened the meaning of "Red Bull gives you wings," from being a "pick me up," to literally "flying" in sports, to "giving wings" to your aspirations. But is it working?

In 2011, Red Bull continued to post double-digit growth, and hold an unassailable lead in the category, according to the 2012 Mintel report. This, despite heavy competition from Monster and Rockstar, as well as efforts from major marketers, like PepsiCo's Amp and Coca-Cola's Full Throttle. 

The level of social engagement is even more impressive. Despite a massively smaller scale and shorter legacy in the market, Red Bull has four times the amount of Facebook likes (28MM+), twice the conversations (186k) and more than 10 times the Twitter followers (726k) as Mtn Dew. And Mtn Dew had built messaging around "extreme sports" decades ago. But while the messaging was no doubt "right," because the company chose to focus on simplistic ads and product formulations and packaging, it has garnered far fewer social-media engagements.

Red Bull has successfully built its business by following its audiences, athletes and artists and making deeper commitments to things that matter to them most—energy, fun, creation and world-record-level achievement. It expanded and experimented from an energy-drink company to an entertainment brand that is synonymous with sport, and which happens to sell a drink.

Today is a stressful time for the status quo. But as our thinking shifts from reductive and right to more expansive and experimental, we will see effective and sustainable results—more brand stories will find a home, constituencies' motivations, aspirations and differences will yield far greater relevance, and the challenges of the disrupted media landscape will give way to opportunities for connection and commerce.

Michael Dezso is Director of Planning, JWT Atlanta.
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