In 2008, mere hours before the U.S. men’s basketball team left for Beijing, the Beats got a call. If it could supply 15 pairs of Beats headphones, Maverick Carter, the manager of LeBron James, would get James to wear them when he stepped off the plane in China. And if LeBron wore them, it was made clear, then everyone would wear them.
The team quickly sourced the Beats. And when team USA stepped off the plane in Beijing, they were united by three elements: International basketball stardom, patriotism, and a pair of $300 headphones that would become the most iconic alternative to Apple’s white earbud.
In that light, it makes perfect sense that Apple is strongly rumored to be buying Beats for $3.2 billion. Beats is the closest thing the electronics industry has to a fashion label. But the lesser told, lesser celebrated story within the Beats brand is that most of its promotion has been done for free.
Yes, LeBron James endorses Beats for an undisclosed amount of financial compensation (as does fellow Beats-sponsored superstar Lady Gaga.) But as for every other NBA player walking off that bus in 2008, or any other professional sports player you’ve seen warming up in custom pair of Beats that matches their uniform? They weren’t necessarily paid. Though a few exceptions certainly exist, many of Beats viral sports sponsorships have been donated by stars freely.
The general approach, Beats designer Robert Brunner told me last June, was simply painting the headphones in team colors and mailing them to players. Then the players–who presumably wanted to be like LeBron, or just appreciated a pair of noise-canceling headphones that matched their uniform–wore them on TV for national audiences.
Now, the Beats brand is worth $3.2 billion, riding a half decade of unrivaled pop culture dominance ranging from music to sports. And it’s remarkable to consider what amount of that valuation was built from a few free headphones, painted and passed out to the right people.
[Corrections: The original version of this piece incorrectly stated that design firm Ammunition had fielded a request to paint custom Beats headphones for the 2008 USA Men’s Basketball team when in reality stock headphones were provided by Beats in an initiative unaffiliated with Ammunition. A new version has also clarified that the reporting took place nearly a year ago.]