Red Bull Goes to Space

Red Bull
Illustration by Sean McCabe, Source images: Joerg Mitter / Red Bull via Getty Images, Siri Stafford / Stone-Getty Images

On Oct. 8, seasoned skydiver and BASE jumper Felix Baumgartner is scheduled to perform an unprecedented feat of athleticism, science, and, possibly, stupidity. He'll free-fall nearly 23 miles to earth—jumping from a pressurized capsule hoisted by the world's largest helium balloon. If he jumps at an imprecise angle or any part of his gear malfunctions, he may die, as have two others who've tried a similar act. But if all goes as planned, he will pass the speed of sound (690 mph) within 40 seconds, smash four world records, and consecrate the most high-tech spacesuit ever created. All thanks to ... Red Bull.

Space is the only remaining frontier, and the most dangerous, for the energy-drink maker. Dozens of sporting events this year will bear its branding—from motocross in Germany to cliff jumping in Oman—and its pool of 600 athletes-cum-spokesmen will compete in hundreds more.

Thanks to Red Bull's association with extreme sports, the soda bears an aura of liquid adrenaline (though an 8.4-ounce can has half as much caffeine as a cup of coffee, and the benefits of taurine, an amino acid added to the drink, remain unproven). IMRE Sports marketing exec Marty Conway says Baumgartner's jump "is potentially catastrophic, but Red Bull fans have come to expect this. They would be disappointed if Red Bull didn't do this type of marketing."

The brand's daredevildom has grown its fan base and been a boon to its bottom line. It commands 43 percent of the U.S. energy-drink market, according to Euromonitor. Last year it sold 4.6 billion cans of its neon tonic worldwide, and revenue increased 12 percent to $5.5 billion—a third of which the company says it plows back into marketing.

But its promotional style comes at a steep cost. In the past 10 years, five Red Bull athletes have died, one paragliding, one skydiving, and three BASE jumping (parachuting off buildings or cliffs). A few years before Shane McConkey's fatal BASE jump in 2009, he praised the company's daring to The New York Times. "How many companies in the world would even consider supporting BASE jumping? ... It's crazy. There's too much liability. And Red Bull's just like, 'So?'?"

"Red Bull has a very special, direct, personal relationship with each one of its athletes and is pleased to enable them to fulfill their dreams," said a Red Bull spokesperson via email. "As with any sport—despite state of the art precautions—there are inherent risks."

Perhaps risk, for Red Bull, is the point. The most remarkable part of Baumgartner's descent from the stratosphere is the level of Red Bull's commitment—including five years of development and untold amounts of cash. One small leap for man, a giant leap for publicity.