The thing I love about my job is the opportunity to meet entrepreneurs who – in the words of the immortal Steve Jobs – “Think Different.” Lukas Cudrigh, SVP Digital at Red Bull Media House, is at the top of that list. It’s not because Lukas works in one of the coolest offices around that includes an eSports broadcast studio, a recording studio, and a high-performance training facility for big wave surfers and acrobats alike. It’s not because he’s equally comfortable talking about digital technology, Formula 1 racing, high fashion, break dancing, chess, or Street Fighter. I love the opportunity to catch up with Lukas, because he and Red Bull think very differently about brand and media.
Since the first can of Red Bull was sold in Austria over 30 years ago, the company has carefully cultivated one of the world’s most valuable brand identities, thanks to storytelling and an incredible nose for talent and pursuits that embody adventure, thrill, teamwork, and focus. Today, Red Bull content reaches millions of people worldwide through their owned and operated channels.
Lukas has been central to these efforts. At a recent TCV event, he shared his insights on how Red Bull has built its enthusiast brand and how modern brands are fragmenting.
Dave Yuan: Lukas, most people think of Red Bull as an energy drink. What is the Red Bull brand? Who is it? Where is it? How do you make it authentic?
Lukas Cudrigh: Red Bull gives wings to people and ideas. For us, this means that we want to inspire people to follow their passions and realize their dreams. The brand is very much defined through the people we work with, the experiences we create, and the stories we tell from what we call the World of Red Bull.
The brand really comes to life when we partner with extraordinary people to push the boundaries within their disciplines through projects like Red Bull Stratos, where Felix Baumgartner jumped from the edge of space, or skier Lindsey Vonn breaking the record of most Ski World Cup wins.
Dave Yuan: Red Bull is involved in so many different playgrounds, how do you decide who you work with and in which areas?
Lukas Cudrigh: We have a very strong heritage in action sports and motorsports that dates back to the inception of the brand in 1987. This has developed into a global network of more than 750 athletes in over 150 sports, including Red Bull soccer clubs and academies in Salzburg, Leipzig, São Paulo, and New York, and two Formula 1 racing teams.
Over time we have expanded into music, dance, and culture through programs like The Red Bull Music Academy, Red Bull Sound Select – an emerging music artist development platform – and Red Bull BC One – a global B-Boy competition. We are also always on the lookout for, and like to invest in new and emerging playgrounds such as eSports, drone racing, and social entrepreneurism.
This is hard work. It takes effort to understand what’s going on in different markets and to find and get to know the next up-and-comers. When deciding who to work within any of these domains, we look for emerging top talent with a natural affinity for the brand and a deep desire to change the game. We then provide them with a platform through projects and events to push the boundaries of their disciplines and tell their stories.
Dave Yuan: A lot of people may think Red Bull just sponsors these events, slaps a Red Bull sticker on it, but you guys are pretty deep into running the actual event. How deep do you go?
Lukas Cudrigh: To create authentic and meaningful event experiences, you need to be involved within the core of a scene. Many of the ideas for the projects we do actually come from the athletes, musicians, and artists themselves. We are very hands-on during all phases of a project, from ideation through to execution, often employing experts from various fields to help our talent elevate their performance, build out the necessary event infrastructure, and create the content.
These collaborations have shaped many of the iconic events that now define the Red Bull experience. In some cases, we have even created new disciplines such as ice cross downhill through the Red Bull Crashed Ice event series or the Red Bull Aces wingsuit competition.
Dave Yuan: Red Bull seems to be so much more than an energy drink. Tell us about the Red Bull Media House.
Lukas Cudrigh: The mission of the Red Bull Media House is to fascinate and inspire. Everyday around the world our athletes, musicians, and artists do incredible things and achieve amazing feats. It is then on us to tell the stories of their lives and professional achievements. We do this through a global network of correspondents in more than 160 countries around the world.
Operating as a vertically integrated media business, the Red Bull Media House produces premium content experiences in sports, music, culture, and lifestyle entertainment that come from within the World of Red Bull. We then program and promote an integrated digital media network of owned and operated channels and consumer touch points centered around Red Bull TV, The Red Bulletin, and Red Bull.com to serve an owned global audience.
Image: Blake Jorgenson/Red Bull Content Pool
The Media House generates awareness and engagement for the Red Bull brand while also building a revenue generating media business through content distribution and licensing, brand partnerships, and advertising in our media.
Dave Yuan: Do you take applications from washed up venture capitalists? I want your job! What are some of your favorite projects?
Lukas Cudrigh: We have already signed you up for our next VC big wave surfing competition…
Dave Yuan: Lukas, you are too kind. There are some of us that surf, but I guarantee you that none of us middle-age VC types are doing big wave surfing… 😉
Lukas Cudrigh: Joking aside, we know we’ve done our job when we’ve helped our athletes, musicians, and artists bring their projects to life, share their stories, and inspire our audience. I love the wide variety of things we do, but I have to say that one of my favorite events is Red Bull Rampage, which over the years has become one of the best and most challenging freeride mountain biking competitions in the world (www.Red Bull.com/us-en/events/rampage).
Another recent project that we are very proud of is Blood Road, a documentary film chronicling the emotional journey of Rebecca Rush as she pedaled 1,200 miles along the Ho Chi Minh Trail in search of the crash site that claimed the life of her father, a U.S. Air Force pilot shot down during the Vietnam war (www.bloodroadfilm.com).
What is most rewarding to me is when we see people extend themselves beyond their perceived limitations. An example is eSports athlete Daryl “Snake Eyez” Lewis, who grew up in a tough Los Angeles neighborhood and is now one of the top Street Fighter competitors in the world (www.Red Bull.tv/video/AP-1M5XYYUH12111/the-call-to-adventure).
Image: Yusuke Kashiwazaki/Red Bull Content Pool
Dave Yuan: Maybe stepping back a bit, I think everyone talks about the notion of a brand. What does the word “brand” mean to you?
Lukas Cudrigh: For me, a strong brand is defined by the experiences it creates and the stories it tells. The best brands are instantly recognizable, credible, and authentic, with a very clear identity and message. You need to live your brand and ensure that your brand values and personality are reflected in everything you do. This is especially important in today’s digital landscape, where anyone can market their brand to a global audience online. A strong brand is your beacon for discovery.
Dave Yuan: What’s next, where is this all going?
Lukas Cudrigh: A few years ago, I was concerned that the internet was becoming this massive enabler of global consolidation within many industries. Economies of scale seemed to be the only metric that mattered with values such as quality, longevity, and sustainability taking a back seat. The message to young entrepreneurs was to not even try to start a business in apparel, consumer electronics, home furnishings, etc. because you would not be able to compete with the large global players.
But then something interesting happened. Because of ongoing advancements in technology, things like manufacturing, logistics, shipping, etc. that were previously only available to larger companies are now more easily accessible to smaller upstart businesses. Access to knowledge and expertise has become ubiquitous and the continued growth of digital and social channels provides even the smallest companies with the opportunity to build an owned global audience. Entire product categories that used to be defined by economies of scale are now open for innovation again.
As a result, we are starting to see a renaissance of small brands. For example, where there used to be only a handful of multinational ski manufacturers, there is now again a growing number of emerging specialty ski makers driving innovation within their segments and catering to a dedicated global fan base. Companies such as Faction, Black Crows, and Kästle embody this trend. To me, bringing back the ability for smaller brands to create quality products and compete within a global marketplace is good for any economy, fosters diversity, and enriches the culture of a society.
Dave Yuan: How does this new brand landscape change the world? What does this mean for consumers?
Lukas Cudrigh: The behavior of the modern digital consumer continues to change. People are increasingly looking for purpose and belonging along with the opportunity to express their individuality through early association with new and emerging brands. They value high quality experiences and are willing to pay a premium for it. Due to the resurgence of small brands that create innovative and unique product experiences, consumers have choices. They want to identify with the brands they choose and be a part of their story.
Dave Yuan: What does this mean for a modern brand?
Lukas Cudrigh: Many smaller companies are embracing the rapidly increasing convergence of media, marketing, and commerce to build new and creative consumer experiences that span the entire product lifecycle. They are encouraging consumers to become part of this experience through integrated on/offline retail activations, participatory events and engaging digital storytelling. The most advanced brands are producing compelling, story based content made for and delivered through digital media channels to turn customers into brand ambassadors and build a loyal global fan base.
Dave Yuan: There’s a meta point here, right? While many established brands are giving $100M to Facebook and Google to rent eyeballs, these smaller brands are using content and storytelling to build a brand audience and market their products.
Lukas Cudrigh: I think buying audience through third-party media outlets will always be a tool for marketers to expand reach, yet most current digital advertising formats do not necessarily reflect a modern digital consumer experience.
Today, brands have the opportunity to build direct and meaningful relationships with a global customer base through creative storytelling and premium content experiences. Instead of using traditional advertising campaigns, many smaller brands use their deep understanding of modern digital media platforms to create compelling content formats and storylines that engage their audience in meaningful and authentic ways. Brands are the new storytellers!