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How one small college's surprising sales ban could be bad news for Red Bull

Daniel Roberts

Last month, Middlebury College students noticed fliers, strategically left at the school's three cafés, alerting them to some surprising news: the school would no longer sell energy drinks. No Red Bull, Monster Energy, 5-Hour Energy, or Rockstar. The ban went into effect this week. Students can still drink the beverages on campus, but have to obtain them elsewhere, rather than from the three campus locations that sell canned drinks.

You might think that a tiny liberal arts college in Vermont, with 2,500 undergraduates, probably wasn’t a significant buyer anyway for Red Bull or for Monster Beverage, which is minority-owned by Coca-Cola (KO). But the danger to these companies is if other schools follow suit.

Middlebury is not the first school to make the move, but it has typically been done at the junior high and high school level (and mostly in Europe) because children can experience a high from the caffeine jolt. The University of Southern Florida pulled energy drinks from its vending machines in 2013. In 2011, The University of New Hampshire said it would stop selling energy drinks, but it changed course and canceled the ban. In 2010, the FDA issued a warning to energy drinks that contained alcohol, like Four Loko and Sparks, after colleges including Worcester State and the University of Rhode Island had already banned them. The global energy-drink market continues to soar; it grew 60% from 2008 to 2012 and is expected to balloon to $60 billion in sales by 2021.

"High-risk sexual activity"

The Middlebury decision stemmed from a meeting of the school’s Community Council, which is made up mostly of students but also contains faculty and staff, and holds meetings that are open to the public. At the meeting, Middlebury alumnus Myles Kamisher-Koch, recently graduated and now working in the college’s dining services department, suggested the ban, arguing that energy drinks don’t fit with the mission of dining services, which is to “nourish and nurture today and tomorrow by sustaining mind, body and earth,” as written on Middlebury’s web site.

According to the college newspaper The Campus, Kamisher-Koch presented data gathered from a few different studies that suggested nearly 25% of people who consume energy drinks combine them with alcohol, and that energy drinks create a “culture of stress.” Kamisher-Koch said that his colleagues at dining services, which oversees the dining halls and retail cafes on campus, agreed with the ban. Middlebury’s Community Council voted 11-1 in favor of the idea. It’s important to note that the college’s administration did not discuss the decision or review it, but considered it a community issue once the Community Council had approved it. Sources at the school say the administration has been surprised by the media attention.

The eventual flier distributed by dining services cited “increased participation of high-risk sexual activity." A study last year in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) found that just one energy drink can raise heart rate and blood pressure.

Red Bull, in a statement, says that its standard 8.4-ounce can contains, “about the same amount of caffeine as a cup of coffee” (80 milligrams) and that, “health authorities across the world have concluded that Red Bull is safe to consume.” The company would not specifically respond to the question of whether Red Bull leads to dangerous sexual activity, and would not agree to an interview. The American Beverage Association, a trade group representing the industry, sent a more forceful statement, saying in part: “There is nothing unique about the caffeine in mainstream energy drinks…The safety of energy drinks has been established by scientific research as well as regulatory agencies around the globe.”

Middlebury doesn’t sound convinced. The college declined an interview but sent this statement: “Middlebury College respects the work its students, faculty and staff have done in researching the health effects of energy drinks and in making the recommendation that the College no longer sell such drinks in our campus retail outlets. We hope that this move will contribute to a healthier campus environment.”

"We're getting it anyway"

What should alarm Red Bull now is how flippant many current students at Middlebury appear to be about the ban. While the decision has surprised them, they aren’t exactly up in arms over it. Ilana Gratch, president of Middlebury’s Student Government Association (SGA), says the SGA hasn’t received a single complaint email. “The majority of the chatter has been about the fact that it's been picked up by national news outlets, more than the decision itself,” she says. “I'm not convinced there's any real fear that our personal liberties will be taken away. But when you saw it on Perez Hilton, that was when you knew it had become a story.”

Indeed, Jake Turtel, a sophomore on the baseball team, says, “People can just drive five minutes away to Hannaford [the nearest grocery store] and buy it there, so we're getting it anyway. It’s just a little bit more difficult to obtain now.” If anything, Turtel says, he and his peers are more annoyed that Middlebury’s first association, for the moment, is as “the school that banned Red Bull.” Turtel says the general temperature on campus about the ban is one of puzzled dismissal, not outrage. “People I know who drank Red Bull used it for the same thing as coffee or Mountain Dew-- it was to study and do the work we’re assigned, not to stay up all night and throw bangers.” The college does still sell Mountain Dew and other soda.

Despite Middlebury’s small size, Red Bull once deemed it worthy of having an on-campus representative. Mike Waters, a Middlebury alumnus now working at a tech startup in San Francisco, was the campus rep during his time at the college. He says Red Bull paid him a small stipend between $1,000 and $1,500 per year to throw Red Bull parties, promote the brand, and sport a Red Bull backpack. “There wasn't a ton of supervision, it was basically like, ‘Try to get Red Bull into the hands of people who seem like they fit well with the brand,’” he says. Red Bull still has its Student Brand Manager program—the company has reps at 300 U.S. colleges—though Waters believes it did not appoint a new rep at Middlebury after he graduated in 2010.

Waters is not shocked by the college’s decision. “Obviously, being older and wiser now, I can recognize that having a lot of caffeine when you’re drinking means you’re going to drink more. But I never saw anything where someone got into trouble specifically because they drank a lot of Red Bull. I do know the brand was very focused on trying to get people to treat it as a lifestyle drink, not just something you have when you're studying.”

To an extent, Red Bull has done that successfully. The brand is deeply ingrained in extreme sports, for example: it sponsors major events like the multi-sport Crashed Ice competition, owns naming rights to a Major League Soccer team, and endorses adventure-sport athletes like skiier Lindsey Vonn skateboarder Ryan Sheckler. But perhaps it has associated itself with extreme lifestyle too forcefully.

Red Bull did $6.4 billion in sales in 2015, its best year ever. Middlebury's ban is unlikely, on its own, to damage Red Bull, but sales could dip if other colleges follow suit. And in a similar move to Middlebury's, this month Reebok, which is owned by Adidas Group (ADDYY) stopped selling all soda and sugary beverages at its company headquarters in Canton, Mass.

Of course, it’s also possible that the ban could have the opposite effect, and raise Red Bull’s cool factor. It’s the “banned in Boston” effect — when theater productions in the 19th century would debut in Boston and enjoy a positive benefit in buzz if they were banned.

And the Campus newspaper’s editors, at least, aren't condoning the change. An editorial published this week calls the correlation made between energy drinks and sexual activity “unsubstantiated,” and rails that the sales ban, “has made the College the subject of mockery in the headlines of national media outlets…. We believe that such a decision does not fall in accordance with the philosophy of the College.”

Disclaimer: The author is a 2009 alumnus of Middlebury College.


Daniel Roberts is a writer at Yahoo Finance, covering sports business and technology. 

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