How to Hack the Attention Economy

A lesson from Red Bull’s marketing strategy can help you to unleash your creativity.

Jon Torrey
Aug 4, 2020 · 5 min read
Image of a Red Bull can on a train track.
Image of a Red Bull can on a train track.
Photo by Kevin Lehtla on Unsplash

t’s no secret that success in marketing revolves around getting the attention of your consumer. For most of us, marketing happens after a product-market fit is discovered, so we just need the right people to give us enough time to explain what we do and get them to take action.

The problem?

It’s becoming increasingly hard to get the attention of a consumer in the digital age of instant gratification and numbness to the advertising consumers are used to seeing on a daily basis.

Just think: in the 1940s and 1950s, there were just three television stations that dominated the attention of the American market. In 2017, there were 1,761 commercial television stations in the United States. Vying for precious eyeballs is more fragmented and scarce as people now have more choices as to where to put their viewing focus. This is what is commonly known as the Attention Economy.

“Attention is a resource — a person has only so much of it.” — Matthew Crawford

Simply put, attention economics recognizes the scarcity of attention and attempts to measure its value with simple supply and demand models. For marketers, that means our jobs are harder.

How can you possibly engage someone long enough when attention spans have fallen to under 8 seconds and do it at a reasonable cost? Sure, there are many new channels to reach a consumer—Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, Snapchat, etc.—but there are myriad advertisers on those platforms too. Marketers already feel under pressure to meet revenue goals and the lack of attention combined with a plethora of channel options can make it difficult to create your own wedge of attention.

So what can you do to help your brand, business, or product drive that wedge of attention in the busy consumer’s mind?

Enter Red Bull.

Finding undervalued attention means thinking outside of the box

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Red Bull brand was trying to solve the same problem all marketers face: how the heck do we get people familiar with our brand at scale with a small budget?

Remember, this was in the late 1980s and early 1990s. They couldn’t simply create an Instagram account, Facebook page, YouTube channel, or TikTok account to reach people at scale on a small budget. They were relegated to using the traditional advertising methods available to them at the time.

Red Bull’s answer? Garbage cans.

That’s right, Red Bull bucked the traditional advertising routes and took a wildly unique approach to get their brand in front of the right people, at the right time, and in the right places. You’re probably familiar with their more well-known tactic of getting attention through their Red Bull car, but this lesser-known garbage-can approach was a real thing.

Red Bull strategically placed empty cans of its product in garbage cans outside of popular night clubs. They would also leave empty cans on tabletops at bars and clubs that catered to the demographic they were trying to reach.

Today, Red Bull captures about 25% of the energy drink market, which equates to about $2.89 billion dollars in sales. Sometimes, winning attention requires thinking outside of the box—or can.

You can only be unconventional if you understand the ‘why’ behind it

There’s a difference between analysis and insight, and it’s crucial to understand if you want to be an innovative marketer.

You can leverage the traditional advertising channels that every other marketer has at their disposal and try to do it better. But, if you truly have a deep understanding of your customer, you can approach the concept of wedging your brand into the mind of a customer with a left-field tactic.

“If you’re going to have greatness, you need a breakthrough insight that defies conventional wisdom.” — Mike Maples, investor, and former start-up founder

In Red Bull’s case, they identified a specific segment of not-so-obvious potential customers: clubbers. In hindsight, this may seem like the easy choice for marketers at Red Bull, but that’s because only now are we so used to seeing their product in bars and clubs.

The conventional marketing approach (read: analysis) likely would have pointed Red Bull’s marketing team to coffee-drinkers, the logical choice of consumer who wants to boost his or her energy in the mornings or afternoons. But the Red Bull team was savvier than that (read: insight) and found an overlooked consumer to solve a problem for.

Would Red Bull be as successful as they are today if they tried to compete with Starbucks? Maybe not.

Using insight to defy conventional wisdom can give marketers the window they need to reach their busy, attention-scarce consumers.

Marketers must create space for unconventional ideas

Placing empty cans of Red Bull in garbage cans outside of night clubs was a bold move. Doing it in the ’80s and ’90s was an even bolder move. The Red Bull Vodka concept wasn’t even conceived until about 2001 and the brand was able to reap the benefits of seeing something others couldn’t at the time: energy drinks were the perfect mixer for nightclub enthusiasts wanting to keep their energy levels up late at night.

Red Bull was smart at doing two things: identifying an underserved customer, and delivering their brand to that customer in a creative way.

Said Dietrich Mateschitz, co-founder of Red Bull:

“We don’t bring the product to the people, we bring people to the product.”

Red Bull understood it’s customers so well it knew exactly how to bring the product to them. The empty cans created social proof almost by default. If you’re at a night club and you see empty Red Bull cans everywhere, you’re probably thinking, “what is this stuff and why are so many people drinking it?”

That’s the hook. That’s how Red Bull wedged its brand in the consumer's mind.

While I wasn’t in the room when the decision was made to test the tactic out, there’s an obvious lesson to be learned from it: your marketing team must have a culture that allows for the weird, left-field ideas to have a place to be taken seriously.

“Worldly wisdom teaches that it is better for reputation to fail conventionally than to succeed unconventionally.” — John Maynard Keynes

Give yourself or your team permission to fail unconventionally. Doing so may open up a creative latitude to a true insight such as an underserved demographic or a new way to deliver a message that helps your company succeed.

Final thoughts

Consumer attention is always shifting from one place to another. 15 years ago, the attention was on MySpace. Then it shifted to Facebook. Then Instagram. Then Snapchat. And now TikTok. If you don’t fundamentally understand your product, the problem you’re trying to solve, and the consumers you are trying to reach, you’re going to be too late on the newest platform capturing the attention of your dream customer and you’re going to pay more for it.

Red Bull is a great case study for what one company did in a specific era for a specific consumer. Copying the tactic won’t work, but aspiring to the creativity and deep understanding of the market, consumer behaviors, and your target demographic can help you move past the run-of-the-mill analysis and develop true insights to help hit your goals in a sustainable way.

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Jon Torrey

Written by

I am a Senior Product Manager at a tech company. I host two podcasts and invest in sports cards. For more info — https://medium.com/@jonathan-torrey

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +785K followers.

Jon Torrey

Written by

I am a Senior Product Manager at a tech company. I host two podcasts and invest in sports cards. For more info — https://medium.com/@jonathan-torrey

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +785K followers.

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