Noah Brier | January 20, 2022

The Magic Helmet Edition

On protection, sponsorship, and Red Bull

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Eric Matthies (EM) has worked as a director, producer, and consultant across a number of genres—from large-scale installations to major motion pictures, broadcast specials, web series, multi-platform content packages, site-based VR, world-building R&D, live events, and traditional documentaries. -Colin (CJN)

Eric here. Most sports are governed by rules about wearing the team’s uniform at all times when in public, even when training. This extends to the helmet, which happens to be the one piece of kit that is often customized to reflect the personality of the athlete. Motorsport is probably the best example of this. Racers on two and four wheels often sport helmets that carry their sponsor’s logos but can be heavily personalized with lucky colors, airbrushed images, and talismanic details. Customizing helmets is a niche art unto itself—one in which the top artists have followings just like the athletes whose gear they paint.

There is one custom helmet design across all sports that has to be earned, however, and that comes from Red Bull. Red Bull supports a dizzying array of athletes across dozens of activities, many of whom have existing sponsorship obligations on teams that are otherwise not engaged with the drinks brand. It’s a coveted honor to have one of the iconic branded hardhats, and the only piece of gear I can think of that deviates from the usual sponsorship rules about maintaining color palette and logos in symmetry with the rest of an athletes’ team uniform.

Why is this interesting?

For a sportsperson, especially in a particular niche or outsider sport, acquiring sponsorship is an art form that usually involves the athlete and/or their management submitting request packages to candidate brands. It’s rumored that Red Bull keeps a list of these requests—a list that banishes those athletes from ever receiving their support. True or not, what’s clear is that the brand is highly selective about who they bestow their colors upon. What’s especially true is once that distinctive silver, blue, gold, and red hardhat are granted, much more than cranial protection comes along with it. 

Red Bull athletes gain access to a sport-specific science, technology, and public relations machine that achieves world-record-setting results across the board. When RB-winged aviator Dario Costa set out to fulfill a dream of flying through a motorway tunnel, he trained for it at one of Red Bull’s Athlete Performance Centers, where coaches adapted specialized technologies to help increase Costa’s fast-twitch reaction timing. The event was filmed by a camera crew and production budget akin to a stunt in a major feature film.

A lot has been written about Red Bull’s status as a media company that happens to sell beverages, including by WITI co-founder Noah Brier. The brand’s YouTube channel bristles with cutting-edge films and clips produced for all types of “winged” sportspeople demonstrating their skills at the highest levels. Not only does RB document its athletes’ best performances, but they also create and stream super-sized events in sports like downhill mountain biking, motocross, snowboarding, and surfing in which all the top athletes compete. 

With Max Verstappen beating out Lewis Hamilton to win the 2021 F1 Driver’s Championship toward the end of 2021, Red Bull imagery dominated sport and culture stories in ways most brands only dream. F1 wasn’t the energy drink brand’s only media coup this winter—in bicycling mad Europe, Wout Van Aert has been sweeping podiums wearing a distinctive Red Bull brain bucket since his return to cyclocross. His top competitor, British champion Tom Pidcock, is also with the Bull’s wings. Often running first and second race after race, they’re giving a lot of television time to the brand.  

Cycling has some of the most rigid rules in sport about wearing approved sponsor gear. Pidcock and Van Aert are the only guys on their respective teams not topped in team-issued helmets for these races. There have been cases of cyclists docked pay for training in the non-regulation kit. The sport’s sanctioning body has forced squads to change color schemes or pay fines because of perceived infractions to the rules. Does RB also pay any penalties that might occur from their racers wearing their potentially non-regulation helmets? 

Perhaps one of the more successful examples of a Red Bull helmet marketing scheme can be found during the winter Olympics. During the competition, athletes are head to toe in national colors. When the coverage cuts to packaged stories about their training and preparation leading up to the events, Red Bull and its distinctive headgear is frequently front and center. In 2008 snowboarder Sean White had a historic Olympic season, one in which Red Bull got a three-minute infomercial during the primetime NBC broadcast by putting a helmet on White’s head during the shoot about his prep for the halfpipe finals. The fact that they also built the training center he used, branded the helicopter that shuttled him around, and stuck logo emblazoned flags in the background of every shot didn’t hurt either. In 2014, the IOC banned sponsor logos from athletes’ wardrobes and equipment entirely, though they still slip through regularly. (A year or two later, when White mired himself in #metoo assholery, Red Bull pulled his sponsorship.)

The Red Bull helmet is like a super sponsorship on top of the athlete’s already hard-won set of benefactors. Unlike any other piece of gear, it immediately identifies the wearer as someone who is reaching beyond the established top tier of their chosen sport. Unlike any other piece of branding, it ensures that the energy drink is front and center in all media coverage of the chosen athlete. The mystique of the helmet is so large, no other brand has even attempted to match it. (EM)

Quick Links

  • We should perhaps be thinking about waste. (EM)

  • Robotic greenhouses. (EM)

  • An interview about what lies beneath with Robert Macfarlane. (EM)


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Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN)

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