This is a tale of two personal audio brands. One that provided a superior listening experience with finely engineered headphones. The other that achieved great fame and fortune with a less-than-perfect product. In this piece we explain some of the reasons why Beats became the best-selling brand of its category, and what it can mean for any consumer brand.
The story of Beats by Dre is rightfully admirable. Jimmy Iovine and Dr Dre revolutionized the personal audio space during the rise of the iPod with the idea that headphones should deliver studio-quality sound from compressed digital files. Dr Dre’s vision, Iovine’s constant promotion, and the beautiful aesthetic design of Robert Brunner’s Ammunition Group provided consumers with a mind-blowing alternative to the tiny, white earbuds Apple shipped in-box. Beats became so ubiquitous, ultimately owning over half the high-end audio market, that Apple bought them for $3 billion in 2014. Despite the brand’s rapid growth and popularity, however, reviewers widely panned the quality of the Beats Solo, their best-selling product.
Logitech acquired the Ultimate Ears audio brand in 2008, seeking to take advantage of its standing among professional musicians, and to expand into the high-end personal audio market. One of the best-known and oldest consumer electronics brands, Logitech had both the money and the distribution leverage to present a premium product and lead the market. The UE 6000 was Logitech’s answer to the Beats Solo. The headphones were beautifully designed and received good reviews as a solid, even superior, audio experience.
Both products were made by the same contract manufacturer.
Both carried similar components and build of materials, suggesting similar manufacturing costs.
Both retailed at $199.00, and could often be found side-by-side on the shelves of Best Buy and the Apple Store.
So why did the Beats Solo sell tens of millions of units, becoming the top-of-mind personal audio product, while the UE 6000 was ultimately destined for obsolescence? In a word, marketing….
- PACKAGING: Consumers absolutely judge a book by its cover. Taking a cue from the company that eventually bought them, Beats invested heavily in packaging design and quality. The exterior graphics were 8-color and popped out at buyers from the rack. Beats featured almost-breathing images of current artists, versus UE’s dark sea of raised zombie-like hands. The Beats box was hand-crafted with straight seams and hidden magnets. It was designed in such a way that the buyer felt they were opening a treasure box, revealing a great pearl inside. The UE 6000 box, comparatively, was difficult to open. Beats used earth-friendly mulch trays, versus UE’s cheap plastic, sending a clear signal of quality and social responsibility. Beats’ three-button cable was of the highest quality, not sacrificing any of Ammunition’s design intent, and coiled tightly. UE’s cable was of inferior quality, and it was glued poorly to the tray. Logitech chose to instead allocate hardware spend to a confusing in-box cable splitter (why provide the ability to run two headsets with every unit sold?). Your box is advertising ideas that your brand represents. Little details matter in packaging, and Beats nailed this above any other brand.
- CELEBRITY EXPOSURE: It doesn’t hurt that one of your founders is the greatest hip-hop artist ever, but UE had roots with Van Halen and failed to take advantage of this. Iovine did the ultimate job of making sure that Beats were seen on all the right people at all the right times and all the right places. When he judged American Idol, Jimmy wore Beats. When she got spotted out, Gaga wore Beats. When he battled robots on the big screen, Hugh Jackman wore Beats. When he decked out the entire Ohio State football team with headphones, LeBron wore Beats. Any time anyone had an excuse to wear headphones, they had the red “b” on them. Iovine saw no shame in incentivizing his celebrity partners to popularize the brand, and it worked marvelously. Trusted popular names touting UE 6000? None.
- MEMORABLE CONTENT: If content is king, Beats is God. Never short of advertising ideas, Beats created beautiful featurettes that took the viewer on a journey. The Beats YouTube Channel, boasting nearly 500K subscribers, provides hours of content; vignettes that deliver a specific message, and a story that stays with you. They appeal to a variety of people and styles. Kaepernick’s Hear What you Want piece (I’m the man, I’m the man, I’m the man). Nathaniel Rateliff rocking out Japanese rockabillies. JJ Lin taking us on a world tour, in Mandarin.
- GUERILLA TACTICS & SPECIAL EVENTS: One of the greatest coups in marketing history, Beats made custom headsets in the colors of the biggest countries competing in the 2012 Olympics, flew their marketing team to London, and gave them out to athletes for free. Beats were seen on the world’s most famous athletes at the opening and closing ceremonies, and before the hottest events. For a few hundred thousand dollars, Beats got tens of millions in exposure and billions of eyeballs, circumventing IOC bureaucracy in the process. UE 6000? Maybe some print ads, some press releases, old advertising ideas and the hope that their distribution channel and the Logitech name would carry them far enough. The lesson for today’s brand is that special events help underscore your message.
These points are far from the whole story, and Logitech wasn’t the only victim of the Beats machine. It’s impossible to get the entire marketing masterpiece that is Beats into one blog post (we could do a chapter alone on CMO Omar Johnson). But the clear lesson is that today’s brand must take a whole-body, cross-platform approach to marketing if it wishes to successfully compete. The old days of build, box, ship and pray no longer work, even for the established brand, and Upstarts can compete when they do marketing smart. Beats blew out Bose and Logitech, as GoPro blew out Sony. No other brand had a chance against the creative and promotional team led by Jimmy Iovine.