Red Bull scored a nine.
"I was really starting to get known around campus because of the website," Mayer says. "But when I first did the site, it was not that big in terms of hits; www.milkandcookies is what made me."
A popular website full of random, funny links and videos that the owners call "an archive of memes for disturbing geeks," www.milkandcookies.com linked to the energy-review site in 2004. Other sites, eager to play off the red-hot national trend of young people swilling energy drinks, quickly followed. A week after the www.milkandcookies.com shout-out, on July 17, 2004, Yahoo! made Mayer's hobby the site of the day.
"This kid is pumped up," the Yahoo! plug read. "A self-proclaimed energy-drink connoisseur, he's taken it upon himself to drink, rate, and opine on the huge assortment of energy drinks saturating the market.... Dan, the man behind the drinks, rates the pick-me-ups on taste, alcohol-hiding ability, cost, and 'pump upedness'.... If you're a fan of feeling fired up, this site will help you find the finest."
There were many fans of the feeling. Mayer was soon featured in the online version of USA Today, and his energy-drink reviews began appearing in college newspapers across the country. An interview with Mayer bumped the president of Snapple from the pages of Investor's Business Daily. The information superhighway rest stop www.fark.com featured Mayer's site, and he received 90,000 hits in two days.
"After that USA Today mention, I started getting hits from all kinds of random sites," Mayer remembers. "There were people in China, Japan, a lot of Germans for some reason. Within a couple of months, I got that search-engine boost that made me number one on a lot of search engines. At the time, there weren't all that many sites about energy drinks, anyway. Now I would say the search engines account for about 70 percent of my site's traffic, with Google accounting for about 80 percent of that traffic. They get me so many hits, it would be pretty hard now for any other energy-review companies to take me down."
By late 2004, just as Mayer was graduating from CU, his site became the first listed when you Googled "energy drinks." And it remains so today.
"I think it has really been in the last three years or so that we've seen the quantum leap in growth in the industry," says Gary Hemphill, managing director of Beverage Marketing Corporation, a New York research and consulting firm. "They really tapped into a significant consumer need state: energy. And these were products that delivered on their promise."
The products got their start in this country in 1997, when Dietrich Mateschitz introduced Red Bull to the United States. A former toothpaste salesman from Austria, Mateschitz had discovered energy drinks while on business in Thailand, where one brand was sold at gas stations as fuel for tired drivers. There was no trademark on the recipe, which was written on the side of the can, so Mateschitz took the concept and ran with it. Though the product struggled initially in Europe, eventually Mateschitz honed his marketing formula into a well-oiled machine. The first year Red Bull set up shop in California, it sold 5 million cans in this country. VW Beetles with giant Red Bull cans strapped to the hoods were sent to distribute free drinks to the hippest, most energetic spots: beaches, colleges, gyms, wherever there might be the need for a pick-me-up.
Red Bull worked hard to distance itself from the giant soft-drink makers. "They really marketed themselves differently," says Andrea Foote, editor-in-chief of Beverage World Magazine. "They opened up energy drinks as a category, rather than a sub-segment of the carbonated drink market. They redefined it. Sometimes it takes a rainmaker in a category to do that. Like Gatorade. They also happened to come on the scene at a time when extreme sports were becoming a really important market, a market that needed energy."
Though Coke and Pepsi initially had nothing to fear from the 8.3-ounce upstart, as Red Bull's numbers continued to rise, the big boys couldn't ignore energy drinks any longer. Coke launched KMX in 2000, though the product was eventually abandoned in favor of Coke's Full Throttle energy-drink line. Pepsi, which already had the guarana-based Josta on the market, pulled the drink in 1999 -- it was more of a competitor for the cult-caffeine tsunami that was Jolt Cola, anyway -- and responded to Red Bull by purchasing SoBe, which was producing Adrenaline Rush as well as AMP. Today, even though there are more than 500 energy drinks on the market, Red Bull still lays claim to half the field.