If you want your brand to take off, fly under the radar.

Backstage at the 1997 MTV Europe Music Awards, Rotterdam (that’s LL Cool J at the front, and that’s me in the green shirt).

In the late 1990s I was MD of a radio studio business. One of our annual projects was running the back stage radio room at The MTV Europe Music Awards. It was a great gig, not least because I had an excellent right-hand man Chris who managed everything. I just turned up, shook a few hands and enjoyed the after-show party. It was a project that took me to Milan, Rotterdam, Stockholm and Dublin. Part of the massive backstage village, the radio room was where stars came off stage to be interviewed by international broadcasters.

A few weeks before heading off to Rotterdam for the 1997 awards, I had a catch-up with Harry Drnec. I’d worked with Harry when his company brought Sol Beer to the UK. More recently he’d joined Red Bull as managing director of its UK operation; he would later transform the brand from a company that was losing money into the second largest Red Bull market worldwide. Harry told me his vision for Red Bull. How he didn’t want it to go mainstream… yet. He wanted truck drivers to drink it, he wanted backstage crew to drink it. In nightclubs he wanted the people behind the bar to be drinking Red Bull, not the ones dancing.

He told me that this was a product that “no-one knew they needed.”

Jon Bon Jovi in the radio room (pic, Ian Sanders)

Harry was smart. A former US Air Force fighter pilot — who’d flown in Vietnam — he’d spent his career in drinks marketing. He knew the story he wanted to tell: Red Bull was the drink that fuels the hard work that goes on behind the scenes.

That story would create the word-of-mouth buzz and make the brand famous.

When Harry heard about my MTV project he asked if I could use a few cases of Red Bull backstage. He wanted the brand to be backstage. He wanted production personnel to be drinking it. Our radio room had a huge fridge stocked with drinks provided by the official sponsor brands. Red Bull wasn’t a sponsor, it couldn’t officially be there.

But I liked Harry’s spirit. So when we were packing the van for Rotterdam, we put in some cases of Red Bull that he’d sent us. And on the day of the awards show, we stocked the fridge with it. We only really intended these cans for us to drink, after all we were working crazy hours, and we needed something to keep us awake. But soon word spread throughout the backstage village that our room had Red Bull. Crew members, assistants to some of the performers, and other entourages starting turning up in our room. Could they grab some Red Bull?

It was the perfect environment to seed the brand and spread the word. An influential global music industry event with hundreds of crew and production personnel backstage. People working hard behind the scenes. Harry didn’t (yet) want the folk out the front to be drinking it, he wanted to create a buzz backstage.

So I got Red Bull there under the radar. Out on the stage the stars lined up to perform and receive their awards. Meanwhile, backstage, the Red Bull flew off the shelves of our fridge. Soon people were turning up to grab a can only to discover it was gone. The brand went on to sell over 300 million cans a year in the UK.

So if you want your brand to really take off, think like Harry Drnec and start by flying under the radar…

If you’re interesting in learning more about Harry Drnec and the Red Bull story, here’s an interview I did with Harry from 2009.

I’m a creative consultant, storyteller and coach who gets organisations, teams and individuals fired-up about their work.