“I’ve always loved hanging out at the edge,” beams Harry Drnec, recalling tales of racing kit cars around Daytona International Speedway in the 1980s under the guidance of NASCAR legend Junior Johnson. Despite Drnec impressively keeping his vehicle steady at speeds of up to 170mph, Johnson would besmirch Budweiser’s marketing prodigy for his reluctance to go fast enough to ensure he walked away from the track in a shaken state.
Junior’s tutorial on what makes a true risk-taker is just one of the many experiences that Drnec, the former managing director of Red Bull UK, has taken life lessons from in a marketing career spanning across the who’s who in drinks manufacturing. Starting off as brand manager at Budweiser, Drnec went on to mastermind the launch of fellow lager label Sol before spells in the marketing departments of Snapple, Gallo Wines and a key role in Red Bull’s British division.
A glowing CV aside, it’s Drnec’s mottos and instance on “reaching the edge” of performance that has so evidently helped one of marketing’s most driven figures get ahead of his competition time and time again.
A gutsy attitude to life and business has taken Drnec from flying planes in the Vietnam war to transforming Red Bull into one of the most recognised drinks brands in Britain. And now, they allow marketers, agencies and brands alike to ponder just how many informed risks they are taking with their promotional activity.
For Drnec, there is plenty to be said about characters that achieve excellence by shattering the so-called norms. But of course, when the stakes are high, a degree of calculation never goes amiss.
“We would measure where we were and we would do something to affect that, hopefully. And with every bit of messaging or an event which would follow that, we would measure again,” he says of the marketing strategy that overarched a 12-year stint at Red Bull.
Joining in 1995, Drnec had a crucial part to play in elevating the company from a relative straggler in Britain to the lifestyle brand and marketing force that stands today. It is understandable that risks would have needed to have been taken along the way. Boosted by innovative marketing and distribution strategies, Red Bull managed to grow its annual figure of cans sold from six million in 1996 to 300 million ten years later in a period which saw Britain become the brand’s second-strongest market.
“There is a simple adage here from a management standpoint - what gets measured gets done,” Harry adds, speaking exclusively to PeformanceIN earlier this month.
One giant leap for Red Bull
Another segment of Drnec wisdom is the importance of being there first, summed up by a Red Bull event which actually took place five years after his departure - his legacy shining through.
When Austrian skydiver Felix Baumgartner used helium balloon elevation to lift himself 39 kilometres into the atmosphere before freefalling down to Earth, a live stream of the Red Bull owned (not to be confused with sponsored) event had a large portion of the web community at a standstill. Seeing a chance to emulate his promotional success, Google’s senior vice president of knowledge actually broke Felix’s diving record this year with a jump from 135,890 feet, above the 128,000 feet achieved by Baumgartner. Whether or not many would recognise the name of Alan Eustace or the fact he was representing Google is Harry’s theory going to work.
“The first guy in is the one that reaps the rewards - perfect case with Red Bull. Last week, Google did the same thing [the simple task of a skydive through the sound barrier] and nobody watched it. A guy was talking to me the other day from a media company and he was a big fan of Red Bull. He said that 8% of all people online were watching [Felix] when he jumped.
“The thing with Google? It went pretty much unobserved. They had to pump the publicity out afterwards... The guy that takes the chances gets the reward.”
Back to the lab
Drnec took to the stage at October’s Performance Marketing Insights: London to provide his thoughts on what he believes is another bright idea worth pursuing - that of socially-enabled shopping experiences, and why they could be destined for success in our current society.
Harry’s career path has taken yet another hairpin turn through his lending of knowledge and expertise to the development of Social Superstore, a product recommending platform which allows users to monetise their own social networks by suggesting items to their peers. After years spent in charge of the manufacturer’s rhetoric, it is clear that Drnec is prepared to champion a model that sees him and the rest of the team at Social Superstore taking a more different role to the ones he is perhaps used to.
“It’s about social media; it’s about people talking to each other; it’s about recommendations for buying. I mean, who can you trust anymore? You certainly can’t trust a manufacturer. They’re going to say ‘It’s my product, it’s the best in the world.’ Well, you say that,” Drnec explains.
“Then I go down to a retail store and someone tells me: ‘No, this is the best product’. And I’m thinking, ‘Is he telling me this because he’s got a margin in it? Is he telling me this because he’s graded on performance. What does he know?”
Commissions from products listed on Social Superstore start at a base point of around 7% but can scale up to a figure around 15-20% in certain item categories. Many of the interactions could be perceived as a way of users monetising the conversations they have on social media. A strange situation, granted, and one that also owes inspiration to another performance-based staple in affiliate marketing.
When asked about Social Superstore’s links to the channel, Drnec responded: “No question, it is affiliate marketing. I’ve been at the periphery of it at Red Bull and I know people that have dealt with it, and somewhere down the line I believe that consumers are going to figure out how to grab that one or two per cent for having recommended a product to someone.”
Drnec sees such a model as potentially the “in game” in retailing - stating that if the demand is there, companies like Social Superstore will evolve to become a significant part of the retail industry. The journey could start as early as next year with the company’s UK launch earmarked for Q1 2015.
“Like any business, only one in ten succeed in a meaningful way. But if this one does, it’ll be an earth-shaker,” says Harry. Here is to hoping he’s done his calculations.