Over the last few months, energy drinks Red Bull, Monster Energy and 5-Hour Energy have been feeling both the warmth and the wrath that scientific research – a potentially fatal PR hazard – can bring.
Accusations of injury and death
Reports of 18 deaths and over 150 injuries mentioning the possible involvement of energy drinks, such as Monster Energy, a caffeinated beverage claiming to be a “killer energy brew” and retailing at $2.99 a can, prompted the US Food and Drug Administration (F.D.A.) to launch an investigation into the situation, during the final quarter of 2012. Shares started to crash.
Meanwhile, one aggrieved family decided to sue. Monster kept its cool. First, a statement of sensitivity, Monster stated that they were “saddened by the untimely passing of Anais Fournier” and that “sympathies go out to her family.” Next, a concise statement flagging up the ‘facts.’ Monster declared they would be defending the law-suit because, to their knowledge, “neither the science nor the facts support the allegations that have been made.”
The F.D.A.’s own research could not prove that any energy drink was responsible for death or injury. They would, however, continue to look into the matter with the assistance of specialist expertise. That the F.D.A.’s own research had not been able to prove a link between death and energy drinks was enough to convince the analysts that all was well. Shares surged. Research – or lack of conclusive evidence – had put out the fire started by the accusations that energy drinks were dangerous.
Scientific research vs. marketing claims
The outside experts have not proven a link between energy drinks and death. However, their research has catapulted another communications crisis into the heart of the energy drinks industry.
Scientists found scant proof to back up the industries marketing claims that their specially engineered blends of ingredients give consumers a mental and physical edge. ‘Magic’ ingredients such as taurine and excess amounts of well-known nutrients were shown to be futile additions to the concoctions. Rather than performance-enhancing elixirs, the studies conclude that energy drinks simply leave you buzzing from excessive amounts of caffeine and sugar.
Red Bull handled the critique by, rightly, not arguing with the research but instead stating why the findings of the research were not relevant to the debate over their marketing claims. A spokeswoman said that the company did “not make claims for individual ingredients but rather for the product in its entirety.”
Meanwhile, in response to research showing how an excess of vitamins in 5-Hour Energy, such as a jaw-dropping 8,333 per cent worth of the recommended daily allowance of vitamin B12, would not aid energy levels, a spokeswoman said the amounts used were safe and effective: “The body is going to use what it needs and it is going to excrete what it does not absorb.” Not wise to start arguing with the men in white coats. The statement managed to show disregard for the scientists’ findings and essentially admit that 5-Hour Energy’s marketing claims were indeed full of hot air, telling us that the body would not be able to absorb the large amounts of vitamins in the drink.
Don’t argue with the experts
Tip: don’t enter into arguments with the experts because they are just that – the experts. In this case ‘least said is soonest mended’. Rather, explain, as Red Bull did, why the research findings are in fact not relevant to the issue at stake. And then go quiet.
As it happens, the research hasn’t really told us anything new. Most consumers of energy drinks would have realised on their own accord that the slightly sickening, shake-inducing hit gained from a can of Monster felt no different to when they drink a few strong, sugary coffees in succession.
With this in mind, and given the fact that scientific research has, to date, shown that energy drinks are safe and not death-inducing, it will probably be business as usual for the fastest-growing sector of the beverage industry in 2013.