Business, Economics and Jobs

Thailand: a Red Bull magnate's caffeinated legacy


A memorial photo of Red Bull co-founder Chaleo Yoovidhya, among Thailand's wealthiest businessmen, posted to a Thai-language Red Bull Web site. The billionaire passed away in March, 2012, at the age of 81.

Red Bull's billionaire co-founder, Chaleo Yoovidhya, has passed away.

The sickly-sweet, caffeine-charged beverage that transformed him into a billionaire is a globally recognized brand. But it's difficult to underestimate its effect on Thailand, Red Bull's birthplace, where the drink's price, taste and consumption trends are fairly unique.

Allow me to borrow from "Energy Drink Nation," a report I wrote in 2010:

No country consumes more energy drinks than Thailand, where the average adult consumer drinks a staggering three gallons per year — four times more than in America, according to Zenith International, a U.K.-based market research firm.

The drinks are cheap (33 cents), spiked with caffeine and sold in five-ounce chug-and-toss glass bottles. Decorated with flying tigers and buffalo skulls, they’re sold under a variety of tough-guy titles: Shark, Magnum .357 and “Raeng,” which is Thai for “power.” Most share the same nearly indistinguishable taste: a non-carbonated, jolt of sweetness reminiscent of liquified gummy bears.

Thai Red Bull, and its competition, are associated not only with hard partying but with hard workers: taxi drivers, construction workers and the like.

Chaleo didn't just give rise to a new segment of the beverage market. He gave rise to a consumer item seen as indispensable among many in the post-agricultural laboring class, who often need to push through long shifts for little pay.

As a study of energy drink culture conducted at Bangkok’s Mahidol University put it: “The popularity of energy drinks has grown in parallel with the need to work overtime."