• While energy drinks are experiencing an upheaval, they still appear in headlines across the global mainstream media mostly in a negative light, as their health effects are wrought with controversy.
  • Our media analysis suggests that energy drinks companies should look at the main drivers behind the health and wellness category and frame themselves as part of the solution, while using the ongoing plant-based trend to promote not only health but also sustainability.
  • Our findings also suggest that brands should explore an unexpected category – relaxation – and focus not just on their products’ effects on the body but also on the brain.

View a one-page infographic summary of the analysis

The energy drink category has become rather packed in 2022. While continued supply chain disruption and escalating inflation are impacting many consumer packaged goods sectors, the energy drink industry is experiencing upheaval and is still marking record profits, remaining the fastest-growing category in non-alcoholic drinks.

Despite that, energy drinks are still among the most controversial products in the food and drink market, with the media regularly publishing stories about their health effects. The products have associated stigmas of being loaded with sugar and high levels of simulating chemicals like caffeine and taurine. Energy drink manufacturers tout the vitamin content of these beverages, but the flashy, energy-at-any-cost branding of some of these products has alienated consumers who are looking for holistic health in all aspects of their diet.

To see how the energy sector could improve its reputation, we analysed 651 English-language articles published in the last two years in mass media outlets like the New YorkTimes, the Guardian and Reuters and in specialised industry publications like Drinks Business, The Beverage Journal and Food & Beverage Magazine. Here are our top findings:

1. Look at the main drivers behind the health category and frame yourself as part of the solution

Perhaps it’s no surprise that Health and wellness was the topic most central to the conversation – this hasn’t changed since the last time we analysed the energy market in 2020.

Many articles focused on the latest scientific findings or reported on people suffering from consuming large amounts of energy drinks. Journalists writing on this topic frequently cited the World Health Organization, according to which energy drinks may pose danger to public health, or the American Academy of Pediatrics, which cautions that children should not consume them.

We found that one ingredient, in particular, served as the main coverage driver in the Health and wellness topic – sugar. Tightening regulations and negative publicity has increased consumer awareness of the adverse impacts of sugar on human health. This has been reflected not only in the media – “has limited or no sugar” became consumers’ most sought claim when looking at products, taking over the leading position from “free from preservatives” in 2022.

Sugar has been under scrutiny for a long time, due to its link to a number of health issues, including diabetes, obesity and heart disease. But the pressure has intensified after the pandemic, as public health has become an even bigger concern. As a result, an increasing number of governments are taking action regarding the negative impact of sugar consumption on public health by targeting soft drinks particularly. The latest example of these attempts is from Australia, where a campaign has been launched to apply a tax on sugar in soft drinks.

More specifically, we found that tackling obesity is the primary concern when it comes to the media’s debate around sugar in energy drinks. One of the main reasons for that is increasing awareness of child health among parents. In this context, sugar is perceived by many media outlets as the number one reason for child obesity, with many experts stating that reducing children’s sugar consumption is the best approach to weight management. Tackling child obesity has now become a public issue in many countries, such as the UK, where a soft drinks industry levy came into effect in 2018.

Against this backdrop, our analysis showed that energy companies that promote no-sugar products tend to receive greater media attention:

Energy companies have tied their PR efforts to presenting themselves as responsible. For instance, Red Bull enhanced its position in the no-sugar claim among energy drinks by launching a sugar-free version of all its variants in 2018. It further expanded its “no sugar” offerings by relaunching its Zero line, which was initially launched in 2012 but was off the market for a while. It returned in 2020 with a different formulation, although its taste is similar to the classic Red Bull energy drink. The brand’s latest addition to its sugar-free offerings came in 2022, with a coconut version launched in the US.

Meanwhile, Monster added a new no-sugar energy drink flavoured with watermelon to its low-sugar Ultra range in 2022, aiming to tap into the increasing demand from consumers for no-sugar, low-calorie energy drinks.

Energy companies sometimes face very similar reputational troubles like tobacco companies. That’s why some parallels in terms of reputation management might help. As we saw in our recent analysis, Big Tobacco continuously aims to reposition itself as an innovative, tech-savvy champion of quitting and youth tobacco prevention. The most successful example in our sample was Philip Morris, which was covered in a positive light for its efforts to reimagine itself as a broader healthcare and wellness company. Similarly, working alongside public health and adopting the rhetoric of harm reduction could present energy companies as problem-solvers when it comes to obesity.

2. Explore an unexpected category: relaxation

Post-pandemic, shoppers are back to leading busy lives and are looking for functional drinks accordingly: whether that be energy to power through the day or relaxation beverages to calm in the evening. The last few years have seen a mushrooming of launches tapping into the energy experience – whether this be in energy drinks that cater to a wider audience, coffee or herbal concoctions that draw on key ingredients for energy. And on the flip side, there’s a real opportunity for beverages that calm and soothe.

As one of the biggest health concerns in the developed world is stress, more and more consumers reach for beverages claiming to calm and relax the body and mind. Plant-based ingredients and botanicals, particularly adaptogens, are a key ingredient type in this area, along with cannabinoids.

We found that PepsiCo became the most influential company in terms of media impact namely because it capitalised on the relaxation trend.

We determine an organisation’s media impact in the context of a topic by looking at its media influence score calculated in terms of coverage by high-profile media outlets, topic relevancy score measuring its contextual relevance, and media visibility as measured by the number of mentions.

PepsiCo made many headlines for taking energy drinks in a different direction: less energy hit, more relaxation. The company is rolling out a new line of hemp-infused drinks from its Rockstar Energy Drink brand. Rather than focusing on upping energy levels, these sugar-free beverages are aimed at helping people wind down, but without causing them to nod off entirely. Infused with ingredients including hemp seed oil and B vitamins, each 12-ounce can of Rockstar Unplugged also contains 80 mg of caffeine, about half the dose of other Rockstar energy drinks.

PepsiCo is best known for its sugar-laden offerings like its iconic namesake soda, but it has been moving aggressively into the better-for-you realm in recent years. It has purchased snack and beverage brands like at-home water carbonator company SodaStream, as well as CytoSport, a maker of protein powders and shakes under the Muscle Milk brand. It also created a joint venture with Beyond Meat to develop, produce and market snack and beverage products made from plant-based protein.

The first round of relaxation drinks came onto the market several years ago. They often were linked explicitly to recreational drug use with names like Purple Stuff and Drank, both vernacular for the practice of mixing prescription-strength codeine with soda or juice. The drinks now attaining popularity are marketed as mainstream products for busy moms, stressed professionals or those with sleep problems.

Now, as consumers are increasingly warming up to drinks that could fill the chasm between taking medication for anxiety or sleep problems and doing nothing, energy companies have a real chance to revamp their energy-at-any-cost reputation by tapping into the trend.

3. Use the plant-based trend to promote not only health but also sustainability

While new plant-based offerings in the food sector have succeeded as environmental, ethical or healthier alternatives to animal products, the popularisation of plant-based claims in the beverages industry has a generally different intent.

And while ready-to-drink bottled coffee products have reflected trends in the wider dairy alternatives category (with Starbucks notably launching a packaged oat milk-based Frappuccino in 2022), most beverage categories – bottled water, carbonated soft drinks, sports or energy drinks – do not generally have dairy or other animal-derived ingredients, and several of the largest categories – coffee, tea or fruit juice – are inherently plant-based and/or vegan.

In our media research sample, plant-based brand and product claims have come to represent a signifier of lightly processed, “natural” ingredients, formulations and cleaner product labels. A number of media outlets presented energy drinks as undergoing a plant-powered revolution, with coffee, tea and alternative caffeinated plants like yerba mate and guayusa heavily featured in mainstream launches.

However, we found that the bulk of companies’ messaging focused on the personal health benefits of plant-based ingredients, while there’s an opportunity for PR campaigns focused on environmental concerns, as consumers are increasingly considering the environmental impact of the products they order.

Food brands are already capitalising on that by increasingly positioning plant-based options not only as healthier but also as the best choice for the environment, allowing them to reach more people concerned with sustainability and the risks of climate change, who are not strictly non-meat-eating. This has led to more pairings of plant-based food options with broader green initiatives including environment-consciously-sourced produce and environment-conscious packaging options for food service takeaway and delivery.

In our research sample, challenger energy company Tenzing managed to gain influence among long-established brands namely by positioning itself as the first plant-based energy drink, for which investing in the environment was just as important as personal health. The green tea it uses is Rainforest Alliance certified (which means it respects the three pillars of sustainability: social, economic, and environmental) while 5% of the profits – a figure that is set to increase in the new year – is ploughed back into environmental projects.

The challenger brand also made headlines for being the ‘world’s first’ carbon-negative soft drink. The company is offering a local offsetting programme, which means it is investing in offsetting projects “at the source of impact” – for example, it harvests green coffee beans in India and fund a wind energy project in nearby Andhra Pradesh to accelerate the countries’ shift away from coal powered plants.

4. Go beyond sports and double down on functional attributes like immunity

The COVID-19 pandemic boosted the focus on health, as data regarding poor health’s impact on survival chances were widely disseminated across media outlets. This greatly influenced consumers’ approach to eating and drinking, leading to increasing demand for functional food and beverages offering extra health benefits, such as boosting immunity.

Although consumers have become used to living with the virus and are more comfortable, the concept of strong immunity and preventative health still persists – many consumers equate “being healthy” with “having a healthy immune system”, which is the second most popular answer after mental wellbeing in 2022.

In line with the growing importance of strong immunity, an increasing number of companies added new products fortified with vitamins to their existing lines, especially in soft drinks. In addition to the juices and concentrates that are generally high in vitamins, products like bottled water also emerged as a category in which the good source of vitamins claim proliferated. For example, Coca-Cola-owned Glaceau expanded its Vitaminwater range with two new flavours in 2021, while PepsiCo-owned Propel launched a new line, “immune support”, in 2020 to capitalise on this increasing demand for fortified products.

In the energy space, companies have primarily used functionality in the sports sense. For intance, Celsius, Monster and PepsiCo were featured in the media conversation for adding more functional attributions, incorporating thermogenics into their drinks to increase a person’s metabolism to burn more fat and calories when they exercise.

However, challenger brands like Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s ZOA managed to gain influence by promoting immunity as the first benefit of their products. Furthermore, Ramon Laguarta, PepsiCo’s CEO, emerged as the most influential spokesperson in the debate as he presented his company’s new Mtn Dew Rise product – an energy drink developed to offer immune support.

Ramon Laguarta explained that his company identified the morning occasion as an open opportunity that is not well covered by existing propositions. In order to offer a mental boost and immune support, Mtn Dew Riseis is formulated with vitamins A and C, antioxidants, citicoline, zinc and fruit juice.

“T​here are few spaces where we’re trying to move quickly, immunity being one, and we’re seeing that our consumers are looking for immunity more,”​ Laguarta said during the pandemic. He also was cited as noting that the “unstoppable trend” in the beverage category appears to be non-sugar. 

5. Focus not just on the body but also on the brain – especially in new fields like esports

In addition to the increased awareness of overall wellness, the younger market such as millennials (born between 1981-1996) and Gen Z (born between 1997-2012) are looking for products that provide an edge in managing stress and supporting better focus. Beverage manufacturers can capitalise on this desire and move from energy to mental energy and focus.

This is especially true for the emerging field of esports, where there’s been a notable demand for cognitive health ingredients. The sizeable audience of PC gamers, mobile gamers, etc., is made up of a lot of different consumers curious about products that sustain and fuel their lifestyles. The use of cognitive supplements has grown dramatically over the past several years, presenting a huge PR opportunity in the energy space.

The world of esports is a billion-dollar market – over $1.8 billion – and some of the biggest esports teams are sponsored by big-name energy drinks. Energy drinks focus on gamer markets because gamers use them to boost their overall performance. While these gamers may not be physically playing a high-contact sport, gaming still requires high cognition, reaction time, and attention. Energy drinks boost all of these things and also provide fatigue resistance which is necessary for peak performance– even if it’s only virtual performance.

So far, a few big-name companies have been taking advantage, featuring their products in personal streams and large tournaments bringing in lots of revenue.

For example, Red Bull has crafted its image around extreme sports partnerships and entered esports in 2006. At the time, esports were just starting to find an audience and the Austrian company seized an opportunity that continues to pay off. Since then, Red Bull has made a number of high-profile partnership deals such as those with League of Legends publisher Riot Games for a number of global events.

Thanks to its existing support of high-pressure sporting events, Red Bull didn’t have to change much to appeal to esports brands. In fact, Red Bull Gaming’s slogan is simply, “Giving wiiings to gamers!” 

While many energy brands enter esports each year, all of them can learn from the way that companies like Red Bull represent themselves. It’s not sufficient to use gamer lingo in marketing or put a logo on the team’s jersey — brands must offer the same value and enthusiasm as the audiences they are trying to reach.

Energy drink PR is focused around “fueling” and therefore helping a gamer reach their objectives, while nurturing communities through competition and events. Any brand trying to enter the esports space must focus on a value proposition to audiences and not the other way around. By proposing to help gamers through energy, these brands have found success through a mutual passion for competition and striving to be the best.

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