A Red Bull energy drink mixed with vodka.
A Red Bull energy drink mixed with vodka. - 
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KAI RYSSDAL: Bartenders have been watering down drinks for as long as there've been bars and people drinking at them. But this week has brought the practice into the cold, hard light of brand identity, thanks to the energy drink Red Bull. The super-caffeinated pick-me-up goes for about 2 bucks a can, retail. It's become popular in nightclubs, too, where it's mixed with vodka. Or at least people have been asking for Red Bull. One Chicago club's been ordered to pay more than half a million dollars in damages for trying to pass off a cheaper imitation. From New York, Marketplace's Jill Barshay reports.

[Sound of Red Bull pull tab]

JILL BARSHAY: That's the sound of authenticity. Red Bull comes only in a can. Company spies in Chicago knew something was up when the drink they ordered came gushing out of a beverage gun. It was actually rival Roaring Lion.

Rob Frankel is a branding consultant. He says the courts require companies to monitor their brands.

ROB FRANKEL: Even though you have a registered trademark, if you don't police it, you can actually lose it.

Companies are getting more vigilant. Elaine Carey's head of investigations at Control Risks. She says she's doing big business trolling the Internet for counterfeits and inspecting supplier factories.

Elaine Carey: Companies have to be more proactive and send people out into the field. Large corporations will easily spend several million dollars in a year to improve their brand protection.

But high-profile suits may not be the answer, branding consultant Frankel says. They could damage Red Bull's popularity. He says the company's better off training customers to insist on the real thing.

I'm Jill Barshay for Marketplace.