Why is Red Bull always in trouble?

A comment was posted on jamesallenonf1.com a couple of days ago that really caught my eye and made me wonder about design philosophies within teams.  I have talked pretty extensively about the culture within a F1 team (here), but I had never considered the extent of its impact.

The comment went as follows and you can find it here;

Also, let’s remind everyone that if Ferrari, Mercedes, McLaren, etc. pushes the rules to edge of “cheating” they risk the link being made to their product as being “inferior”. If Red Bull pushes the rules to the limit, what will you think about their beverage? Nothing. They risk nothing by pushing the rules in F1, because these cars ad space for an entirely automobile unrelated product. So pushing it further in F1 has no impact on their sugar water, outside of another article in JAonF1 with a Red Bull brand all over it.

Seems to me that Sabee is really on to something here.  F1, from a corporate perspective, is appealing primarily as a branding opportunity.  For example, Mercedes wishes to expand its brand internationally and show itself in a racing context.  The only real way to fill this need is to jump into F1.  And remember, though a team may change its name, say from Brawn to Mercedes, most of the original staff stays and the facility still has all the infrastructure (like a wind tunnel) that Honda put into it.  So, Mercedes gets a ton of infrastructure that has a proven winning ability and spreads its name all over the world.

Mercedes has a couple of goals in mind when they join F1.  They want to win, but know it takes time, and they want to exploit the F1 circus to do as much branding activity as they can.  They ask themselves what message they want to send and then try to match the F1 team’s message with their own branding.  Cohesiveness in branding equals recall by consumers and that equals sales.

When thought of in this light, Mercedes’ branding becomes pretty clear.  They want to be seen as technically expert, willing to spend for results, and employing top people.  So, they go out on a spending spree, hiring up a ton of technical directors and put them under Ross Brawn.  They hire two German drivers (completely changing the line up from Brawn) and one happens to be named Michael Schumacher.  They also pursue a technical development that is fiendishly finicky and very difficult to copy, the double DRS (Lotus is just now putting their own system on the car, ten races later).  All this should sound somewhat similar to Mercedes road cars.

Now lets consider Red Bull.  Red Bull, as a brand, is all about intensity.  They have ice skaters going down a narrow, fast channel of ice in the middle of the city, beating their opponents on the way (here), they have people build home made flying machines and jump off piers (here), they have crazy athletes do crazy things (here, here, and here), they are big in motorsport (duh), and they love the party that always comes after any of these things (here)

So, when Red Bull gets a F1 team (lets ignore Toro Rosso), the team should match the brand.  And guess what?  They do!

Red Bull Racing, proud to have a sound system louder than any other garage (you can get their playlists online), they bring a barge to Monaco (here) throw pool parties full of girls at Valencia (again, here) and they throw parties like no other team.  Last but not least, they are intensely, uncompromisingly, competitive.

And with that sort of intensity must come a willingness to take certain risks.  A win at all costs approach is very different from what Mercedes wants to portray.  It is Red Bull who takes chances, and then it is Red Bull who then dukes it out with the stewards.  As the commenter above says, Mercedes cannot afford to have that aggressive brand image, and so they are unable to take as extreme risks.

Red Bull, however, can.  This is the exact reason Red Bull is so often in trouble.  Red Bull wants to take risks and be creative in a way that Mercedes can never be.  So while Red Bull is fighting it out with the stewards as they were at Germany and Hungary, Mercedes will never find itself in that kind of trouble.  Both headlines and controversy avoided.

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