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So I’m looking for an iced tea at my neighborhood 7-Eleven a few months ago and I end up having one of my typical confrontations with the energy-drink section. It’s pretty hard not to: Energy drinks are the boisterous clowns of the retail shelf, shouting commands like “Live Life Loud!,” “Khaos!” or “Party Like a Rock Star!” I’m not even legal to drink alcohol, but I felt like I should have been wagging a cane. Kids, with their idiot drinks!
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In a few weeks, I was drinking four a day and living in my own filth. I made pyramids on my bedroom floor with the empty cans of NOS Energy Drink. Soon you couldn’t see the floor of my car, it was so littered with empties. And its smell — a sickly mix of mildew and warm soda — became so disgusting, I couldn’t stand it.
To market, let alone buy, a drink that sells for $2 more than a soda and serves the same function as coffee defies every law of common sense. But in only 10 years, the energy-drink industry has morphed into a multibillion-dollar enterprise, disrupting the normally sedentary beverage market with whip-smart marketing tactics and guerrilla promotional strategies.
How has such a contrived product turned into an essential in such a short amount of time? Part of the answer is niche marketing. Tampico’s label is a furious rooster, and the drink targets Latinos. Hyphy is for fans of Bay Area hip-hop (and is awesome, by the way). Dallas-based Havoc Energy has taken niche marketing to an extreme by making West Point Military Academy: The Energy Drink, as well as beverages for the NHL and college basketball teams. This creates brand loyalty before the consumer has even tasted the product.
It has become common practice among reps for energy-drink brands to show up at extreme-sports events, NASCAR races and trendy magazine parties and hand out free drinks.
Since my niche isn’t bankable enough to represent (“Devo: Are We Not Energy Drink?”), I was forced to choose the brand that was most readily available and got me the highest: NOS.
NOS is all business. It gets its name from Nitrous Oxide Systems, a reference to the product used to boost the speed of rocket and drag-car engines — and which is inhaled at so-called balloon parties, a trendy and sometimes dangerous pastime. NOS’s label begs pregnant women and children not to drink it, and not just because it tastes like Mountain Dew and crab apples. NOS only halfheartedly tries to present itself as something other than a drink that gets you high — anything that takes its cues from a tank of nitrous isn’t fooling anyone.
For me, one sip into an NOS and I feel the presence of something foreign and awesome in my brain. Energy drinks’ tendency toward tacky automotive references is not for nothing: Drinking them, I feel revved and speedy, as I wait for an excuse to accelerate. Two hours of rapid-fire thinking and can-do attitude later, the rush leaves as quickly as it came, and I’m depleted, blank, spun and in dire need of another energy drink. Like good old coffee, energy drinks don’t actually give you energy. They move your brain around a little and tap into your reserves.
The first incarnation of the energy drink came from 1970s Korea, and was sold in pharmacies throughout East Asia as a tonic for weary professionals. For 30 years it festered there, until jet-lagged Austrian entrepreneur Dietrich Mateschitz, in Bangkok promoting toothpaste, stumbled upon it. The tonic revitalized him all right: His spinoff of the drink, which he packaged with a sleek, Eurocentric label and called Red Bull, made millions.
The wise Austrian covered all his bases with Red Bull: the syrupy taste of soft drinks, the buzz of coffee, and sports drinks’ promise of heightened function. He loaded it full of ornate, cool-sounding herbs, minerals and tinctures, setting the standard for energy drinks to come. Some of them include taurine, a protein our bodies stop making when we run long distances; guarana, which is just another source of caffeine; and royal jelly, which is what bees feed their larvae, and which is of questionable relevance to humans.
I guess this is the part of the article where I tell you that energy drinks probably aren’t that good for you. In fact, Red Bull and other brands have been banned in France, Denmark and Norway because they were suspected of causing Sudden Adult Death Syndrome in Irish basketball players. Or at least one Irish basketball player — Ross Cooney — who according to U.K. press reports consumed four Red Bulls in the hour preceding his death.