Red Bull Sponsoring Daredevil Felix Baumgartner May Usher In Marketing Investment in Science

Is Stratos the beginning of marketers' investment in science?

October 17, 2012, 4:04 PM

Oct. 17, 2012 — -- Nearly a decade ago, then Advertising Age editor Scott Donaton coined the phrase Madison and Vine to describe the new way advertising (Madison Avenue) and Hollywood (Vine Street) were collaborating, blurring the lines between traditional advertising and entertainment. Think "The Apprentice," which is about people promoting themselves by working on projects that are from companies promoting themselves produced by a mogul promoting himself.

Now that Felix Baumgartner has dropped out of the sky and plummeted safely to earth courtesy of Red Bull, will we see brands move heavily into the sponsorship of science and research?

From a marketing perspective, Red Bull stayed right on message. Their tagline is "Red Bull Gives You Wings." They are involved in a number of sponsorships that emphasize the product benefit—energy in a can—thanks to healthy doses of sugar and caffeine. Those sponsorships include racing, surfing, mountain biking, soccer, bull-fighting, basketball , the X-Games and adrenaline-inducing athletic activities like cliff diving and even an event called Crashed Ice which is a combination of ice hockey, downhill skating and boardercross.

Even for a company so focused on speed and extreme sports, dropping what experts agree was millions of dollars on a project called Red Bull Stratos a mission to the edge of space and a 24 mile free-fall, is reaching. The risks were great. Many things could have gone wrong and concentrated the world's focus on a company that is marketing a beverage that some countries allow only to be sold in pharmacies and still has doctors investigating its potential negative health effects.

If Baumgartner had plunged to earth unconscious or been otherwise injured it would have amplified Red Bull's sponsorship of so many sports that are considered dangerous. But, they didn't. Austrian Skydiver, daredevil and BASE jumper Felix Baumgartner, 43, jumped out of a capsule 24 miles above the earth and fell at speeds estimated to have been greater than 800 miles per hour and landed safely back on earth. And now the question is will the tens of millions of dollars in free publicity and attention garnered by Red Bull attract other companies to move outside of traditional advertising and promotional sponsorships into the area of science and research.

It is important to point out that Red Bull isn't the first consumer company to sponsor this type of activity. Past notable sponsorships include Shaklee corporation's sponsorship of the 1988 Daedalus, which broke the record for distance for human powered aircraft, and Watchmaker Breitling's sponsorship in 1999 of the first successful round the world balloon flight. Purists will want to differentiate between adventure and science but it is clear that these types of projects have the potential to make heavy contributions to science. Nor was Red Bull the only sponsor of Stratos, there were other aerospace and equipment companies and at least one other consumer brand, GoPro, who provided wearable high-definition cameras.

The question is: Will we ever see global companies like Cola-Cola and Nike, who are fighting rising costs and increased competition, push onto broader platforms like scientific and medical research where they could conceivably gain increased customer loyalty and respect while reinforcing their brands? The companies already participate in a number of philanthropic causes.

A spokesman for Nike said the company conducts a wide range of sport and body-related scientific research.

In a statement, the Coca-Cola Company said it "supports independent research designed to promote evidence-based science to advance knowledge, understanding and help facilitate workable solutions to promote active, healthy living. For research related to our business and product portfolio we support independent research, as well as research we do internally, as part of our commitment to product and packaging safety and quality."

Nike's tagline is the venerable phrase "Just Do It" while Coke's worldwide tag is "Open Happiness." It doesn't take much imagination to see how Nike's slogan could be used by the company to inspire millions fighting through medical challenges that involve walking and running. Similarly, "Open Happiness" lends itself nicely to a world where 1.1 billion people don't have access to clean drinking water.

Author Max Barry must be giddy with excitement. Max is the author of the novel Jennifer Government. He writes about a future world where companies like Nike, IBM and Apple have formed two alliances which run the world. This was all a far-fetched guilty pleasure for me as an ad guy until NASA cancelled the manned space program and Felix Baumgartner rose 24 miles above the earth adorned in a Red Bull costume. Will we now see the convergence of Madison and MIT? I'm going outside to look up at the sky now.

This work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.

Larry D. Woodard is CEO of Graham Stanley Advertising and the co-author of the book, "Advertising as a Branding Tool."

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