In the mid-1980s, an Austrian businessman and former toothpaste marketer named Dietrich Mateschitz was traveling from the Bangkok Airport in Thailand to the City Centre with a severe case of jet lag. Looking for relief, he stopped and bought a local beverage called Krating Daeng, and found that, unlike anything else he had tried, it cured his jet lag.
Mateschitz, who arrived back in Austria some time later, couldn’t stop thinking about the product. He could sense there was an opportunity afoot, perhaps to bring something new to a European audience. He knew Europeans had different tastes and sensibilities than the Thai people did, but Mateschitz thought that with just a few adjustments to the formula to satisfy a different type of palette, he’d have a winning product on his hands.
Mateschitz approached the original drink maker, a man named Chaleo Yoovidhya, and proposed a new company that would be separate from the original drink company and allow him to reformulate the beverage and launch it to a new market. Yoovidhya saw the potential and agreed.
For three years, from 1984 to 1987, Mateschitz worked to reformulate the drink.
This is where the story gets interesting.
What if I told you that the drink Mateschitz created was more expensive than the original, came in a smaller can than the original, and tasted terrible to virtually everyone who tried it?
It wouldn’t seem logical, right?
And yet, that was the exact scenario when Mateschitz launched Red Bull in Austria in 1987.
In Rory Sutherland’s book, Alchemy: The Dark Art and Curious Science of Creating Magic in Brands, Business, and Life, he writes, “Before Red Bull launched outside of Thailand… it’s widely rumored that the licensee approached a research agency to see what the international consumer reaction would be to the drink’s taste; the agency, a specialist in researching the flavor of carbonated drinks, had never seen a worse reaction to any proposed new product.”
The logical thing for Mateschitz to do when facing that type of news would be to change the formula, improve the taste, increase the size of the can, and lower the price. But that’s not what he did.
Instead, he forged ahead, logic be damned.
According to Statisa, a leading provider of market and consumer data, Red Bull was worth just over $18.4 billion in 2022.
“The trouble with market research,” famed advertiser David Ogilvy once said, “is that people don’t think what they feel, they don’t say what they think and they don’t do what they say.”
What he’s getting at is that people, by and large, aren’t logical, even though we tell ourselves, and anyone else who will listen, that we are. Buying a sugary, stimulant-fueled carbonated beverage that’s probably not all that good for you, in a small can, for a high price, because it will cure your jet lag or keep you awake longer than you should be, isn’t really rational.
Nevertheless, that’s exactly what many of us do.
The fact that we’re not always logical means that sometimes the solution to our problems—or the reasons and motivations behind our behaviors—aren’t always logical either.
“Why do people clean their teeth?” Sutherland asks in Alchemy. “Obviously, it is to maintain dental health and to prevent cavities, fillings, and extractions. What possible other answer could there be?
Sutherland goes on to write that when we look at adult human behavior as they choose, buy, and use toothpaste, we see patterns of consumption that entirely contradict this logical explanation.
“If we were really interested in minimizing the risk of tooth decay,” he writes, “we would brush our teeth after every meal, and yet almost nobody does this. In fact, the times when people are most likely to clean their teeth occur right before those moments when we are most frightened of the adverse social consequences of visible stains or bad breath.”
This is why so many of the toothpastes we see on the shelves of our local Target are flavored with mint. Fresh breath has nothing to do with clean teeth, but it’s the main reason we use toothpaste.
We essentially say one thing and then do another.
“The reason toothpaste is an especially interesting example,” Sutherland concludes, “is because, if an unconscious motivation happens to coincide with a rational explanation, we assume that it is the rational motive which drives the action.”
Many times, though, our assumptions are wrong. This is why, even after embarking on a qualitative research quest to uncover a logical explanation for some sort of behavior, it pays to find a solution or idea that counters logic. It’s a contradictory approach, but it’s contradictory by design.
Bringing this idea back around to the world of creative agencies, I would argue that trusting your agency to ask what may seem like an obvious or dumb question (Why do people use toothpaste?) so they can propose a solution that defies logic is the real reason why you’re hiring us.
Though you may push back, or feel frustrated when it happens, you actually want to be surprised, or pushed, or challenged by the firm you’re paying your hard-earned dollars to.
Because it’s really not all that difficult to come up with the logical solution. In fact, you probably already have. My guess is there are lots of people in your organization that come up with logical solutions. After all, no one gets fired for doing the logical thing.
No one gets promoted either.
So next time you find yourself in a position like Dietrich Mateschitz did, vacillating between a metaphorically bigger can with a lower price and a better taste, and a smaller can with a bigger price and a terrible taste, don’t be afraid to throw logic to the wind. Find your Red Bull moment. It may not be right; then again, it just might be.
And no one can question the logic in that.