For most brands, a risky marketing move consists of not testing the copy on that new ad, or using a new media channel despite the lack of rock solid metrics.
Red Bull’s idea of risk is that one of its sponsored athlete’s bodily fluids will turn into gas as he plummets 24 miles from space at 800+ miles per hour while his parents, girlfriend, and the rest of the world watch, live.
With the Red Bull Stratos Project, the energy drink brand-turned-media company brought extreme sports spectacle to new heights and redefined the idea of content marketing, PR stunt, and brand utility.
Of course, the real risk was taken by Felix Baumgartner, the Austrian skydiver, BASE jumper, and all-round daredevil who, on Sunday, while millions watched, stepped from a balloon-borne capsule into a 128,000-foot freefall to earth. Baumgartner started working in 2005 with Red Bull, which would back the Stratos project as sponsor. The idea was to send Baumgartner to the edge of space in a stratospheric balloon, have him execute a free-fall jump, hit supersonic speeds, and then parachute safely to the ground. The purpose: to break a record set by former U.S. Air Force pilot Joe Kittinger, who made a 19-mile jump in 1960, to record reams of data from the leap that could be used by the aerospace, commercial flight, and medical industries, and, for Red Bull, to set a new standard in extreme sports cred.
Live video captured the jump on Sunday October 14, after last week’s planned launch was cancelled due to high winds. Viewers watching on YouTube or the Discovery Channel or following along on the many sites that covered the event saw Baumgartner ascend into the stratosphere, stand on his capsule’s tiny platform and then, simply, step into the void. The jump, which, initially, looked perfect, turned at one point into the kind of out of control flat spin that could have knocked Baumgartner unconscious. There was also some concern about his space suit’s visor fogging up, a glitch that could have scuttled the mission. But Baumgartner managed to correct the spin, deal with the gear issues and after the fall, parachute lightly onto the earth in the eastern New Mexico desert.
In a press conference after the event, Baumgartner and his team, including Kittinger, technical project director Art Thompson, life support engineer Mike Todd, and medical director Jonathan Clark, confirmed that the successful jump had broken three records: highest jump, with an exit altitude of 128,100 feet; longest free fall at 4 minutes and 20 seconds, and maximum highest vertical velocity: Baumgartner fell 119, 846 feet or 36,529 meters reaching a maximum velocity of 373 meters per second or 833.9 miles an hour. Put another way, Mach 1.24—faster than the speed of sound.
The record-breaking jump represented the work of a number of entities and experts who collaborated on the creation of the pressure suit (designed by the David Clark Company), capsule, and the 55-story, 3,000-pound balloon that lifted the capsule, parachutes, cameras, and communications gear, data collection, and other elements.
While Baumgartner and his team celebrated the milestones achieved through years of technical work on all of those moving parts, Red Bull could celebrate another record—more than 8 million people watched the YouTube Live stream of the event, besting President Obama’s inauguration, and any other mainstream spectacle. Meanwhile, the event drew untold millions in earned media. According to Red Bull, footage from the event will also be used in a BBC documentary that will air in November and on National Geographic Channel in the U.S.
Red Bull has a long history of producing high-end events and content beloved by exactly the kinds of people that you’d think would love Red Bull content, and Red Bull itself—snowboarders, skateboarders, adventure sports types, gamers, and the bros who emulate them. But more recently, the company has also enjoyed more mainstream success. Its Art Of Flight feature film, which captured the antics of the world’s top snowboarders on the world’s least-ridden mountains, was the top-selling movie on iTunes the week of its release. And while the number of people who might consider themselves hardcore space jumping fans is probably fairly small, the sheer scale, audacity and…weirdness of Stratos pulled in millions of fans of aviation, mainstream sports, science and…weirdness.
During the event, Red Bull Stratos was trending (under a few different headings) on Twitter, as everyone from athletes to magazines like GQ and social media pundits to the Gates Foundation to hoi polloi tweeted about the event in admiring tones. When do you ever see that swath of humanity tweeting in gee whiz admiration about a branded event? Not often.
There’s a lot that’s astonishing about the project, but one of the more quietly amazing things is that this is a privately funded quasi-space mission—NASA (the U.S. government) is going to be reaping data from a major aerospace project funded and orchestrated by a brand. (As one wag tweeted after the event: "That awkward moment when you realize an energy drink has a better space program than your nation"). This is the new world of marketing—where the advertising efforts of brands become public works—think Nike funding childhood obesity studies and creating campaigns to get kids moving and American Express creating an initiative to get the public shopping at small businesses.
And, more simply, it’s an insanely ambitious standard for content marketing. As noted here before, Red Bull has gone further than almost any other brand in demolishing the line between the company’s "primary" business—making energy drinks—and the corollary business of creating content and experiences for the people that it considers its target audience for those drinks.
To say that Red Bull creates content at this point to sell energy drinks, while technically true, has become almost misleading as a way to encapsulate the company’s mission and its marketing philosophy. For Red Bull, "content" has meant inventing a new snowboarding competition and related video content, making a feature film, creating a championship Formula 1 team—and now, putting a man at the edge of space for an unprecedented leap and an unprecedented PR spectacle—and, more and more, the content is the business.
Since the company was founded in 1987, it’s built its content creation discipline just as rigorously as it’s built its beverage distribution channels, or any product-related mechanism. It’s become a media company. When Co.Create asked company founder Dietrich Mateschitz earlier this year whether Red Bull was a drinks-maker or a content producer, i.e., whether the athletes and sports ventures supported the selling of beverages or the other way around, the answer was, in essence. "yes." "This is not either or," said Mateschitz. "It is both ways, the brand is supporting the sports and culture community, as well as the other way round."
So what’s it like to free fall from space? Below, Baumgartner’s report, delivered at the post-leap press conference, of what he was thinking, saying, and feeling during the event.
Standing on the platform of the capsule, looking down at earth and ready to jump:
"When i was standing there on top of the world you become so humble—the only thing you want is to come back alive. You don’t want to die in front of your parents, your girlfriend and all those people."
What he said at that moment:
"I know the whole world is watching now and i wish the world could see what I see…Sometimes you have to go up really high to understand how small you are."
What he felt like getting ready to jump:
"When you’re up there you’re already exhausted—I never anticipated it would be so tough."
The feeling of traveling really fast—and then going into that horrible spin:
"It started out good—my exit was perfect," he said. After a planned tumble, he began, for reasons he didn’t know at the time, spinning out of control. "For some reason the spin became violent. When you’re in that pressure suit—pressurized at 3.5 psi—you don’t feel the air. It’s like swimming without touching the water." Trying to correct the spin at first just make it worse, but Baumgartner eventually managed to right himself.
Asked if he felt he was in trouble during the descent, Baumgarnter says yes, but he was thinking through the choice of pulling an emergency chute or going for the speed record. "I have a manual button, where I can release a drogue shoot to pull me out of the spin. But then it’s all over; I’m not going to fly supersonic." The choice was: "push that button and stay alive or get it under control."
The feeling of going supersonic:
"It’s hard to describe because I can’t feel it… if you want to judge speed you need reference points; I had none of those." (because of the suit).