Red Bull's openness on feces threat could pay off

Fri Mar 15, 2013 4:41pm EDT
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By Georgina Prodhan

VIENNA (Reuters) - Red Bull's unusual decision to go public on a blackmailer's threat to contaminate its energy drinks with faeces could cost the brand far less long-term than any immediate hit to sales.

Known for investing heavily in marketing its drinks and sports events, the privately owned Austrian company reveals little about itself. So its announcement on Thursday of a criminal threat to taint its drinks came as a particular surprise.

Companies hit by product tampering generally hope such threats blow over, marketing experts said.

"It's a bold brand and a bold move," said Gordon Pincott, chairman of global solutions at the Millward Brown brands specialist agency. "The good thing about what they've done with this announcement is it doesn't let the rumor mill get going."

Red Bull made the announcement in order to remove the "blackmailer's greatest lever" of disclosing it in the media, said the company. Red Bull sold 5.2 billion cans of drink last year and is ranked the third biggest soft drink brand in the world after Coca-Cola (KO.N: Quote) and Pepsi (PEP.N: Quote).

The extortionist had threatened to taint beverage cans with faecal matter if not paid off, Red Bull said. But nothing had been found at checks in stores where the blackmailer said drinks had been contaminated.

"People now know to pay close attention to their can," said Jordi Connor, head of planning at WPP's (WPP.L: Quote) Dialogue brand marketing agency. "While it may cost Red Bull some sales in the short term, the announcement will have strengthened the bond of trust between them and their drinkers."

Investigations were focused on a specific supermarket in Vienna, Austrian prosecutors said. The Kurier newspaper printed what it called a ransom email signed by "gruponymos". It blanked out the supermarket address.   Continued...

Red Bull drink cans are pictures inside a metal recycle container in Vienna March 15, 2013. REUTERS/Heinz-Peter Bader