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Focus key to Red Bull rise, innovation success, says Vriens

Posted: April 11, 2013

Focus key to Red Bull rise, innovation success, says Vriens

Hans Vriens faced huge challenges in 1996 when he was sent to Los Angeles to launch the Red Bull brand in the United States.

Determined, focus and flexible, Vriens figured it out. Sales soared, launching Red Bull as a powerhouse brand in America. When Wal-Mart called to talk, Vriens said “No. We’re not ready for each other yet.”

Vriens, the former marketing and sales director for Red Bull USA, told the story of Red Bull’s early days in the U.S. market to about 160 students and faculty Tuesday April 9 during the fifth Harbaugh Entrepreneurship Forum. The forum has been held since 2010 by the College of Agricultural Sciences’ Entrepreneurship and Innovation Program to help inspire innovation among students, faculty and alumni. 

Focus and flexibility is the key to success as an entrepreneur and innovator, said Vriens, current senior VP of Global R&D and Innovation for The Hershey Company.

The biggest strength of Red Bull is its focus on a single product, said Vriens. About 90 percent of the company’s business historically has been the signature energy drink in the blue and silver can.

But in 1996, Americans had never heard of it. His budget for the launch was tiny: $2.5 million, a mere fraction of the $35 million - $40 million typically spent on a product launch. Making any kind of a splash in Tinseltown is difficult. Plus, at that time, Red Bull didn’t even have exclusive rights to the brand name.

Vriens solved that problem first, and negotiated a deal with another company to share the brand name. Then he targeted a smaller market — Lake Tahoe — allowing him to stretch dollars with cheap television advertising rates. When no distributors would take on the product, he found a way to negotiate and persuade a reluctant distributor to handle it, he said.

Then he hired two salespeople. The trio cold called on 7-11 stores and knocked on people’s doors, handing them Red Bull for free, said Vriens. In the small pond of Lake Tahoe, Red Bull could be a much bigger fish. Soon, people there bumped into Red Bull at all the stores and on TV.

Sales soared and Red Bull was the second-most profitable product in that first distributor’s lineup.

“Focus. Focus. Focus,” said Vriens. “There’s nothing else to do.”

When a company’s calendar is jam-packed with launches and other business ventures, it can’t possibly be focused on innovation, said Vriens. Only private companies and entrepreneurs who are focused, adaptable and determined can deliver on innovation, he said.

No one can predict the future, said Vriens, not even the best experts. So entrepreneurs must be flexible and adapt. And there is no magic process to study.

“Companies that talk a lot about the process of innovation do the least of it,” said Vriens. “I don’t think any process will occur that can predict innovation because it’s you. You predict innovation and it’s your perseverance.”

Even the best, most thorough research only provides data, said Vriens. Research doesn’t provide guidance. “That comes from you,” he said. When Vriens first reviewed the loads of research on Red Bull, there appeared to be several problems that would hamper the drink from ever getting off the ground. But the owner and founder had looked at all of those problems as strengths — and turned out to be right on.

The Harbaugh Entrepreneurship Forum is supported by an endowment from Earl and Kay Harbaugh to foster the entrepreneurial spirit at Penn State.