Steve Miller ’08 leans back in his chair on the patio of the Cha Cha Chicken restaurant, speaking above the din of Caribbean music and weekend traffic along Santa Monica’s Ocean Avenue. He’s talking about how he puts the yin and yang of a psychology major and art minor to work on a daily basis as consumer insights specialist for Red Bull North America. 

WM: You’ve been working for Red Bull since January 2017. Is it as cool as it seems?
It really is. It’s been a great fit. They take care of their employees. We go to tour events because they want their people connected to it on a deeper level. Being out to research our sports events as well as the product is a nice balance.

Prior to Red Bull, you worked at Mattel?
For three years I worked on Barbie and a couple other fashion-doll brands. I know (laughs)—a strange transition to go from fashion dolls to energy drinks…

Which are totally different…
It’s funny you should say that. The brands I worked with were all female brands. The things that they were requesting around the brand are the things we are hearing from female consumers of Red Bull, too. Red Bull is a very male brand and we are trying to move beyond that and appeal more to women.

Red Bull has been very good at brand construction. Is it hard to change the way you do things?
If you think about the energy drink category, it was started by Red Bull about 30 years ago. It’s still quite young. Things have worked really well, but now there are other brands and competition.

How important is your art background to you now?
My art background has added more fuel to my career than just about anything else. Psych majors are pretty common in this business. You don’t have a lot of people with an art background. In terms of interpreting data and visualizing data in ways that other people can understand, it’s been a huge, huge factor for my career. It’s made learning the tools and output a lot easier. I have that training and talent. I’ve found something that really works for me. It stokes my analytical side and my creative side.

It must feel empowering to sit in a room, take the data, and bring it to life in a story.
Everywhere I’ve gone after school in this business, people are like, “Wow, you are really good at this. Give it to Steve and he’ll do it.” I really enjoy that part of it. It’s helped me to stand out in an industry of people with similar backgrounds. It gives me a chance to be creative in my job. That’s not something many people get to have.

When you work at a corporation like Mattel or Red Bull, is it hard to relate to an individual customer?
That is a phenomenal question. In my role right now I really appreciate that one-on-one conversation and I’ve seen the power of the deep ethnography. You go talk to somebody for three hours and get a sense of who they are and understand the tensions between individuals. You can understand how complex people’s lives are. It’s not so easy to decide, “Yeah, I like this brand.”

This type of interaction—listening and caring about the consumer in a deep way—is what I love about this role. I get to be the person who says we need to think about who we are selling to and why they should matter. It shouldn’t always be about the brand leading; it’s about listening better and offering something that has meaning to the consumer.

Was there a moment where you felt like you’d found your legs as a professional?
When I was at Bluewater we did this project with an iconic shoe brand and the value proposition in the T-shirt business. We knew what the client wanted to learn. Understanding what the research was telling us, I was able to visually explain it to them in a creative way.

This research was the path forward for that brand in the T-shirt business. That was the moment where I was like, ‘Wow, this is pretty fun.’ We have a process for researching, but, ultimately, the result is this creative learning.

People talk about the creative vibrancy of LA, as well as the competition. Some are very positive, while others are negative. Where do you stand?
I appreciate the drive people have and the desire to be better and chase a goal. I’ve seen how it takes advantage of people, too.

My wife, Laura, and many of our friends are in the entertainment industry. The wins are few and far between. Success can mean a lot of different things, but they all share some kind of emotional turmoil along the way.

Through our Red Bull Media House we are a player in the entertainment space, so I’ve got a toe in it. At the end of the day it’s entertainment, it’s not life and death. How you can beat someone down while you are climbing up is so foreign to me. That is against every value I’ve ever had.

If I’m going up, you are coming with me. That’s how I’ve always done things.

Interview by Richard Paige

Another Wabash Connnection
Graduating in the middle of a recession, Miller simply needed a job in the spring of 2008. He was alerted to an opportunity in market research at Walker Information with Mark Ratekin ’88.

“It seemed like a chance to explore my curiosity Research was my first job and it kind of snowballed from there. I didn’t expect to turn it into a career, but here we are.”