'For the Value and Image of Our Brand': Red Bull's Audacious German Soccer Plot
Red Bull owns a team in the German soccer system that's turning heads, but the corporation is catching heat for their plan to take over the Bundesliga.
Photo via Red Bull
When the New York Red Bulls took out the Supporters' Shield last fall, they became the last of the MLS's foundation clubs to bring home some silverware. Yet it left many of their long-suffering fans deeply conflicted. Here, at last, was a taste of the success they'd been craving for years; but who, many of them wondered, was this team?
"There's still that attachment to the old name," Jennifer Muller, a key figure in the club's biggest and longest-running supporter group, tells me between play-offs against Houston. That old name was the MetroStars. Almost a decade after Red Bull's audacious takeover and rebranding of the club, many supporters still stand by the original moniker. "People feel they are being a sell out by wearing a Red Bull logo on their chest."
In extreme sports and underground music, Red Bull's beneficence is generally welcomed with open arms. Soccer fans are proving much harder to win over, despite the energy drink giant bringing unprecedented success to clubs across Europe and the Americas.
Nowhere is the disquiet as strong as it in Leipzig, Germany, where Red Bull's most ambitious footballing project has been met with in-stadium protests and match boycotts by some opposition teams. Some of those outraged by the takeover of a no-profile club from the regional leagues even used weed-killer to burn protest slogans into the team's home turf.
The Red Bull formula is simple: buy a struggling club and pump them so full of money, talent, and hype that success is virtually guaranteed. But Red Bull is not happy just to have its logo on team shirts. It adopts something of a year zero approach, changing every piece of the club's identity—names, colors, and, in some cases, even erasing club records—to suit their marketing goals. Football clubs in the Premier League may be the playthings of foreign billionaires, but not even they would go as far as Red Bull does.
In Leipzig, Red Bull found the perfect soccer vacuum. It's a city with an excellent footballing pedigree: it was the birthplace of the German FA; its teams were amongst the best in East Germany; it built a brand new stadium for the 2006 World Cup. But those clubs have shriveled away to the point of inconsequentiality since the Wall came down, and that stadium was looming over the city like a sparkly white elephant until RB Leipzig moved in.
And a bold move it has been. Red Bull's clubs in New York and Austria might have once been stragglers, but they were stragglers in the top-flight. Here in Germany, Red Bull has taken over a club from the fifth tier with the aim of making the Bundesliga, the pinnacle of German football. Within eight years. It's a tight schedule (they would need to be promoted every second season) but one they are on track to meet.
Last season, they moved up from the third division in their very first attempt. In the pre-season, they left Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Paris Saint-Germain for dead in a friendly against the Champions League quarter-finalists. They then followed suit against Premier League club Queens Park Rangers, and six rounds into the season, are fourth on the table. Clearly, Red Bull is doing something right, even if some remain displeased.
There's an old Groucho Marx saying about never being part of a club that would have you as a member. He'd probably have been a season-ticket holder at RB Leipzig. While anyone can go to their matches—the crowds they drew in the third division last season dwarfed most of the second division's—becoming a member is another matter altogether. Less than a dozen people have reportedly been accepted, and all are said to be bigwigs from the Red Bull headquarters in Austria.
It's part of why RB Leipzig is considered a slap in the face to German football, which prides itself on the traditions of its clubs and the authority of their supporters. Even a European powerhouse like Bayern Munich has to stick to the Bundesliga's 50+1 rule, which is meant to ensure members, not companies, have the majority stake in their clubs (with a few historical exceptions). Bayern has close to 220,000 members.
"(In countries like Germany,) a fan base derives its identity from the particular history of its club," says Boris Haigis, from Wuerzburg University's Institute of Fan Culture. "Red Bull is therefore a red flag for many other fan groups. There is no decade-long tradition behind it, but it tries to buy everything."
RB Leipzig has found ways around many of the Bundesliga's other rules against corporatization too. The drink's logo dominates the club crest, making it clear RB stands for more than RasenBallsport—it officially stands for this invented word which translates as "lawn ball sport" and, according to When Saturday Comes magazine, "sounds like a three-year-old struggling to describe tennis." The club uses their Red Bulls nickname so often it might as well be their official title anyway.
Yet none of that matters to fans like Christian Krug and Oskar Gotter. Both men are thrilled to see serious money being invested in an east German club. It's a region which, two-and-a-half decades since reunification, is still struggling to play catch-up with the west in football, and in many other areas.
"This feeling of being part of the great Red Bull family and knowing we have such huge aims with the club [gives me] incredible pride," says Krug, who is part of Das Bulls Club fan group. "[My feeling for RB Leipzig is] much more intense than it has ever been for any other football club."
"With Red Bull, a financial strong company, blessed with capable personalities, came to my hometown," says Oskar Gotter, founder of fellow supporters group, RB Fans. "The history is short, but what is the value of history and tradition if your favorite club goes bankrupt multiple times or is famous for its violent fans?"
In a city where hooliganism has been a regrettable part of the matchday experience over the years, Krug agrees the atmosphere at the Red Bull Arena is a refreshing change. "It's totally different. It's young and old at the games, retirees, families, lovers, just all. All sectors of society are represented. No anxiety, fear, or rampage, [just] the pure joy of football. Finally a football club to which you can just go with the whole family and indulge in the beautiful game."
Such passion is not uncommon at the Red Bull Arena, but for Haigis, the worry is this: What will happen to such confected support once the bubble and fizz have gone flat and the taurine hit wears off?
"The club serves … as a pure marketing tool without tradition and without flair. This is also the basis of the atmosphere in the stadium, which is probably largely occupied by the so-called 'event fans' who will be gone very quickly at sporting failure. There can be no mature fan base, which for years is loyal to the club.
"Unlike in America, it is not common in German-speaking countries to rebuild clubs in other places. There is a fan base that derives its identity from the particular history of the club."
Red Bull's real audience, however, may not be in Leipzig at all, or even in the Bundesliga. For the $7-billion company's CEO, Dietrich Mateschitz, RB Leipzig is the best chance of getting his brand onto football's biggest stage.
"We also want to get into the Champions League and be successful there," Mateschitz is reported to have said in 2011. "[That is] something you can only achieve with a club that plays in one of the top leagues." It's something their first club, FC Red Bull Salzburg, has struggled with, despite developing a Bayern Munich-like dominance over the Austrian league since the takeover.
For a company which once launched a skydiver from the stratosphere, a presence in the Champions League might seem a little unconventional, if not under-ambitious.
Yet it makes perfect sense, given how Red Bull has made an artform out of content marketing and branded entertainment. A stable of football clubs looks right at home alongside its Formula 1 teams, electronic music academies, air shows, and media house.
It's why they won't settle for simply being a kit sponsor. As Naomi Klein wrote in the opening to her late-90s war cry against marketing, No Logo: "Successful corporations must primarily produce brands, as opposed to products." In line with their own marketing, Red Bull has taken this to the extreme.
"Our corporate philosophy is significantly different from all other sporting engagements," Mateschitz told German tabloid Bild in 2009. "We are not like Marlboro at Ferrari or Samsung at Chelsea; we do motorsport, play ice hockey or soccer, meaning we are also responsible for athletic performance and success or failure itself."
Elsewhere though, he confirms the critics' fears, "Everything we do is for the value and image of our brand."
It remains to be seen how Red Bull would try to get around UEFA's restrictions on sponsorship, or how Germany's big clubs will react should RB Leipzig threaten their dominance. For now though, the Bundesliga continues to be accommodating. It could be because of the kickstart Red Bull is giving east German football. Or perhaps, as Borussia Dortmund CEO Hans-Joachim Watzke told 11 Freunde magazine: "The people are all afraid, nobody wants to mess with Red Bull."