Methylxanthines around the world

December 10th, 2013, 3pm

It was 1°C with few clouds. The breeze was gentle.

You can tell a lot about a group of people by the energy drinks they consume.

Actually, to be more precise, you can glean a lot about the demographics in a particular region by the ingredients in their energy drinks, marketing gimmicks used to sell said energy drinks, and branding attached to the same.

My background is in branding, and though my education was as a designer and illustrator, the most fascinating aspects of branding to me were always sociological; why certain colors or images or packaging or whatnot attracted certain types of people. What associations folks were drawing between a given product and the other brands they associated with (and defined themselves by, in most cases).

When I started traveling full-time back in 2009, I had never touched an energy drink. It was a good year for carbonated, caffeinated beverages, though, and as a result I was exposing myself to new cultures at the perfect moment to see local beverage companies releasing their new Red Bull/Monster/Rockstar clones.

To put in perspective why this opportunity was such an immense one, you have to understand something about energy drinks: they are, in essence, all brand. It costs approximately the same to produce a can of generic Coke as it takes to produce a can of Red Bull or Magic (an energy drink produced and sold in Iceland). The only variable that enables a cost differential between soda and energy drinks is the perception of value.

Where does that perception come from?

The cans, first of all. Energy drink cans tend to be slimmer, which is a visual indication that this is something sleek. Dynamic. Fast. Meant to be consumed in smaller doses than typical sodas, because it’s rocket fuel.

There are also the colors. The typefaces. The tie-ins with other brands (especially extreme sports, rock bands, and ‘extreme’ personalities therein).

The end result is that you have a smaller amount of product sold at the same (or lesser) cost as a soda, and you can charge between 2- and 10-times as much for it. That’s just good business.

So what you end up with is a bunch of beverage companies seeing the writing on the wall: sodas are uncool things that middle-aged people drink, and energy drinks are cool things that youngsters, with a far larger appetite for picking up sugary-whatevers when they’re out on the town (which is always), are far more likely to associate themselves with. Bingo-bango, worldwide energy drink explosion.

What can you tell about a culture based on the energy drinks they sell? Many things.

The use of certain chemicals to create the buzz such drinks instill, for example, can tell you much.

There’s a distinct flavor to the various sugars used, as well (those who grew up in the States will recognize many of them from the Otter Pops they gorged on in the 80’s and 90’s — the chemical that shaped the grape flavor, especially, can be found all over the world, and only in the cheapest of energy drinks).

I should note, though, that the differences are generally small: the chemicals used across the board are different only in the taste they’re trying to replicate and the region in which they’re sourcing them. The quality difference between the chemicals used in a high-end brand like Red Bull and a low-end brand like Shark (found in Thailand — original home of Red Bull, where it’s sold in little medicine bottles as syrup, rather than as a carbonate beverage in cans) is negligible, as is the price of said chemicals.

The numbers of competing energy drink brands also speaks volumes about the size and structure of the middle class in an area. Because this entire industry is predicated on a customer base with expendable income, the more options there are, the larger the middle class (while in poorer parts of the world, you’ll generally only find one or two options, there are hundreds in each region of the US).

Finally, the branding itself tells you much, especially about what’s considered cool and hip and young in an area: which colors represent these ideas, and which typography looks ‘with it’ to the locals. (This is not always completely reliable — some drinks will fail to garner market share because they’ll be put together by old folks who are using their own ideas about what ‘young’ and ‘cool’ looks like — but the drinks that stick around generally speak to that market, and as such, the cans are decorated in such a way that the youth aren’t afraid to be seen holding them.)

There’s been a seismic shift in the market since I started keeping track of such things, and I don’t consume energy drinks any more myself (I can tell more than enough by looking at the labels, usually). But they’re still a wonderful look into an area’s culture and market, as it remains one of the few product types I can think of that is almost entirely brand and little else.

Cassie, Lia and David Wade said thanks.

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Colin Wright

Author, entrepreneur, and full-time traveler / I move to a new country every four months based on the votes of my readers / My work ( / My blog ( / My publishing company (

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