In the summer of 1982, thirty-six-year-old Austrian toothpaste salesman Dietrich Mateschitz boarded a plane for a routine business trip to Thailand. There was nothing about Mateschitz at the moment that would have tipped you off that he was about to make a discovery that would make him one of the world’s wealthiest men and create a new kind of company that conveys its story in a new way — through actions and experiences.
The odd fact is that if Mateschitz hadn’t arrived in Thailand suffering from terrible jet lag, he might still be a toothpaste salesman today. But as luck would have it, Mateschitz did arrive jet-lagged. Some locals took pity on him and directed him to a store where he was told to ask for an exotic-sounding tonic called Krating Daeng. Mateschitz learned that in addition to being an excellent remedy for jet lag, Krating Daeng was also prized by locals for its ability to increase physical endurance and mental concentration.
Are you still having trouble guessing the identity of this company? It might help to know that the Thai name Krating Daeng translates roughly in English to “red bull.” Upon making his discovery, Mateschitz sought out the manufacturer of Krating Daeng and with passion and persistence convinced him that there was a vast market outside Thailand for Red Bull. The two formed Red Bull GmbH and set to work on a product formulation and a marketing plan to pursue a specific group of people: young men aged eighteen to thirty-four who were enthusiasts of a growing movement — adventure sports. In 1987, the first can of Red Bull energy drink went on sale in Mateschitz’s native Austria.
This is where it starts to get interesting because here Mateschitz reveals his one true superpower. It turns out that lurking inside the mild-mannered toothpaste salesman was an extraordinarily talented storyteller and experiential marketer. Mateschitz didn’t have a massive TV budget. He had something much more important — a vision. He believed Red Bull could become something far greater than liquid in a can.
From the very beginning , Mateschitz viewed Red Bull as a lifestyle, a kind of belief system, a religion in which that can of liquid was necessary and functional. From the beginning, Red Bull, the belief system, and Red Bull, the product, were inextricably interwined.
In a rare interview with Fast Company magazine in 2011, Mateschitz explained, “ What Red Bull stands for is that it ‘gives you wings…’ which means that it provides skills, abilities, power, etc., to achieve whatever you want to. It is an invitation as well as a request to be active, performance-oriented, alert and to take challenges. When you work or study, do your very best. When you do sports, go for your limits. When you have fun or just relax, be aware of it and appreciate it.”
Like many entrepreneurs before him, Mateschitz had the vision clearly in his head, but he didn’t find the right execution on day one. The breakout moment for Red Bull came in 1990, when Mateschitz came up with an event he called the Red Bull Flugtag.
Flugtag translates from German to roughly “flight day” or “air show.” It features homemade aircraft built by self-taught “pilots” who launch off a platform three stories above a body of water that serves as the landing surface. The main rule is that a craft must be powered by muscle, gravity and imagination.
The first Red Bull Flugtag competition was held in 1991 in Vienna. It was an instant hit. In fact, Flugtag was such a success that it has been held every year since in over thirty-five cities globally from Dublin to San Francisco, attracting up to 300,000 spectators per event. The success of Flugtag was a seminal moment for the young company, and it codified a core philosophy: don’t rent space at other people’s events — create (and own) your own.
Thirty years later, Red Bull has become a company that is hard to describe in conventional terms and perhaps the premier global example of a business that combines story and action — something I call a storydoing company. Instead of “telling” its story using advertising, Red Bull conveys its story through the creation of compelling experiences, all carefully crafted to “give you wings.” Because of this, Red Bull has become a packaged-goods company that is also a content creation company that is also an events company that is also an adventure sports lifestyle company.
The Rise of Storydoing
Red Bull may be one of the first of its kind, but today there are numerous companies in multiple sectors that are building large businesses by pursuing the principles of storydoing — from start-ups to multinational corporations. It’s easy to see why: when it is done correctly, storydoing is simply better business. For instance, the best storydoing companies can reduce their cost of paid media dramatically — sometimes to zero. And there is growing evidence that this actually makes them more efficient businesses.
But there are other benefits. One of the other core attributes of storydoing companies is that they have a more clearly defined purpose than other companies, something that transcends creating shareholder value or maximizing profits. This attribute often creates intense loyalty among customers and employees alike.
When most people think about the word story, they think about a narrative like “ Jack and Jill went up the hill.” Most of us have been taught that there are two basic kinds of story: fiction and nonfiction.
Metastory is actually a third kind of story. Metastory is story that is told through action. It is not a story that you say, it’s a story that you do. Every individual has one. And every company has one too.
The reason this is so important is that people are already innate storydoers themselves. They use the story of your brand or business to tell part of their own personal metastory. Put another way, people don’t buy products; they take actions that help advance their own personal metastory. As we grow up, all of us learn to manage our own metastory through our actions — the car we drive, the clothes we wear. All of these choices are components that we know people around us will use to piece our metastory together.
If I am thirsty today, I have a vast constellation of beverages to choose from. If I pick Red Bull, it is because, in addition to quenching my thirst and waking me up, I want to take action that signals my allegiance to the Red Bull tribe, to make their story part of my story.
Stories live in the hearts of human beings and in the future, should be at the core of every business. The truth is you have the power to become an agent of change in your own organization today. You just have to roll up your sleeves and get to work.
Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business Review Press. Excerpted from True Story: How to Combine Story and Action to Transform Your Business. Copyright 2013 Ty Montague. All rights reserved.