How Beats Tapped The Stories Of Sport To Sell The Emotion Of Sound

Chief Marketing Officer Omar Johnson talks about building on a product-driven success story and finding the brand content gold between sports and music.

How Beats Tapped The Stories Of Sport To Sell The Emotion Of Sound
[Photos: courtesy of Beats by Dre]


It may have been the first time you heard “You big gorilla motherf*cker” in a commercial.

Back in November 2013, Beats by Dre launched its “Hear What You Want” campaign with a spot featuring Kevin Garnett blocking out media naysaying, vicious Knicks-fan heckling and more, with the soulful tune of Aloe Blacc’s “I’m the Man,” played through his Beats headphones. It immediately announced Beats by Dre as a creative marketing force to be reckoned with. The brand had already become a success via world of word of mouth marketing, not-so stealthily seeding its products to popular athletes and artists to gain immediate attention, and a groundswell of street-level popularity for its big, round, and now ubiquitous, headphones. This ad added a new layer to the Beats brand story. A brand built on product was now a powerhouse brand content creator, making ads that went beyond marketing and actually became part of pop culture. Sports blogs and music sites weren’t posting it (and comedians parodying it) because they liked the headphones (or ads) they were doing so because the ad was a cultural talking point, and cool as hell.

For Beats’ Chief Marketing Officer Omar Johnson, that was the point all along. In Johnson’s view, the best way to market Beats’ product is to make cool things people actually want to watch. And with Jimmy Iovine and Dr. Dre as founders, and hands-on creative decision makers, the brand has a finely tuned ear for, and ready access to, quality cool. “We get a lot of artists coming to our office and they play us music before they even play it for the labels because they want to make cool videos and content, but labels don’t have that budget,” says Johnson. “They’re playing us their new album, giving us unreleased music, and we’re becoming that place where athletes and artists are coming to first to make cool things.”

Omar JohnsonPhoto: Meeno

Seven of the last 10 songs Beats has used in ads have hit numbers one, two and three on iTunes. “Aloe Blacc’s ‘I’m the Man’ is a song the record label wouldn’t even put on the radio,” says Johnson. “It was on the label’s floor. We made it a sports anthem and No.1 on iTunes.”

Selling sound can take many shapes, but what makes Beats’ recent creative success unique is that the brand looked to a very specific place for inspiration and struck marketing gold. “It’s easy to slip into some complicated, new age explanation but in all honesty, it’s very simple,” says Johnson. “If we think about what music does in culture, it’s a source of truth, storytelling, things people can relate to, a lens through which to view the world, and music will always be at the core of the brand. When I got here in 2010, I saw this potential in music but I also saw sports as a powerful platform.”

The first series of ads for the “Hear What You Want” campaign–with Garnett, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, Seattle Seahawks’ Richard Sherman, and Barcelona FC’s Cesc Fabregas–created with agency partner R/GA, all went viral and set a very high bar for Beats advertising. Then, just ahead of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, the brand somehow cleared the bar with an unprecedented combination of sports and music stars, all assembled seamlessly into a five-minute short film.


Beats helped spark the explosion in premium headphones back in 2011 and still accounts for about 70% of the market. Initially, the brand building was done by the company’s now legendary ability to get global sports and music stars like LeBron and Lil Wayne to wear its products, while also making deals with other brands–like Chrysler, which featured Beats-branded sound systems in its cars–to further its reach. As co-founder Iovine has said, “We sold half a billion worth of product before we paid for one ad.”

Now, as part of the Apple empire, Beats is making and paying for plenty of ads–ads that felt like a natural extension of the product, instead of, you know, ads.

The Truth is Dirty

Johnson says the key to Beats brand identity is truth and authenticity. Before you can unroll your eyes, he acknowledges these words are too often said, but seldom lived by. “The whole concept of truth and authenticity is easy to say, and it’s in a lot of marketing decks, but so many brands are actually afraid of the truth,” he says. “Truth has a little dirt on it, it’s not always clean or politically correct.”


The Richard Sherman ad came out just a couple of days after a controversial post-game interview he did went viral, kicking off a media circus around NFL player conduct and racism. “Think about Richard Sherman last year, and all the commentary and things people wouldn’t really address: Is he articulate? Is he a thug? Is he this? Is he that? All these things people had in their head but wouldn’t say,” says Johnson. “Our spot catalyzed those conversations. And we’ve done a few spots like that to start those conversations, which music has been doing for decades, across races, ages, and cultures.”

Johnson’s confidence in the truth comes straight from Iovine and Dre. “What I love about this brand is that the founders of the company–who are still very much part of the everyday business–have this spirit of raw truth and if it’s not real, we don’t do it,” he says. “We don’t force our brand on anyone. We don’t shove in a four-second product shot into an ad if it doesn’t feel right. If it’s really there, cool, but we don’t force that shot and that reflects in our content that feels very natural. I don’t think many businesses have the balls to tell these stories from a raw, authentic perspective and that’s why people are paying attention to the work.”

It’s Never Just An Ad

When team Beats is evaluating potential ad ideas, Johnson says the first priority is to inspire the brand’s talent. “That means, I’m not asking LeBron to make a commercial,” says Johnson. “I’m going to him with a concept that’s so hot, so true to him, and so cool that he wants to make it. We’re always trying to inspire each other and you’d be surprised how much that shifts the dynamic from just paying someone to do an ad, to having them really want to do it.”


When LeBron James decided to re-sign with the Cleveland Cavaliers, after a less than amicable split in 2010, returning home to his native Ohio, Beats’ idea was to create a film, and series of shorter vignettes, that matched the emotion of James’s essay that appeared in Sports Illustrated to announce his decision.

“It became much more than an ad for LeBron, but about his story being told from a very authentic place,” says Johnson. “It’s a story he hadn’t told in a way he hasn’t told it. So when you think of sitting down with LeBron to talk about it, I’m not pitching or selling, it’s essentially just us trying to inspire him to tell a story.”

When it came to the epic World Cup ad, Johnson says the script was very loose. “We just went to our athletes and asked, ‘What do you do before a game? As weird or as quirky as it might be, what do you do? And what do you see other people in your country do before games?’ We’re going to celebrate that. That’s what the commercial was.”


What also made that spot feel so real was the fact the athletes didn’t have to act. It wasn’t pro athletes acting out scenes the agency wrote. “Whether Luis Suarez wrapping his hand and kissing it three times, or Cesc Fabregas kissing the charm his girlfriend gave him with his two kids’ names on it, they’re all real,” says Johnson. “So when I ask them to do that on camera, it’s less about making an ad and more about how to celebrate what they do every day. And that’s flattering on a more personal level. So by inspiring our athletes, it changes the ad making process.”

School of Swoosh

For many fans of sports, music–and advertising–Beats’ ads are evocative of that perennial master of the sports/emotion mix, Nike. Johnson spent six years at the Swoosh and may never have left had LeBron James not given him a pair of headphones.

One of the foundational Beats legends is the one where LeBron liked his Beats headphones so much, he gave pairs to everyone on the 2012 U.S. Olympic basketball team, starting a word-of-mouth ripple of cool across all sports that hasn’t stopped. LeBron’s generosity indirectly led to Johnson’s job. “The first Beats headphone I got was from LeBron when I was still at Nike,” says Johnson.”For him to give us the product and say how much he believed in it, became a big part of the path that led me to leave a really great job at Nike for what was still a startup.”


So it’s no coincidence that Beats’ ads have that same soulful, inspirational approach to sports that we’ve come to expect from Nike. “I definitely spent some of the best years of my career at Nike and learned the art of marketing from some of the best on the planet,” says Johnson. “I learned that you celebrate the founder story. Nike has Bill Bowman and Steve Prefontaine. We have Jimmy Iovine and Dr. Dre. I learned a lot about authenticity and truth; these are things we have in common. We have similar sensibilities. Same reason I don’t ask my athletes to act. They use sport for sport and we use sport as a platform for sound.”

Johnson also credits his time at Nike for teaching him how to tell a clear story. “Nike is always talking to consumers about human potential and what you can do with your body,” says Johnson. “We’re talking to consumers what you’re missing from most headphones, and that’s emotion. Premium headphones are about emotion. Our headphones sound different from others. It’s that power to inspire you or change your mood. It’s all emotion and we’re always looking for ways to make it the focus of all our communications, and what we do in digital or retail.”

Always Ask Why

Whether it’s LeBron, Sherman, Fabregas, Garnett, or the laundry list of other sports stars featured, the entire “Hear What You Want” campaign revolves around the athletes’ experience outside the field (or court) of play. Johnson says his team got to this point by asking the athletes why they listen to music before going to work, and then kept asking why.


“We don’t just stop at the insight–I tell my team to act like a three-year-old and keep asking why,” he says. “If we ask an athlete how they use music to prepare for a game, they might say they just like it as part of their pre-game, it gets their head ready, helps them focus. From there most brands would ask about what songs they like, the athlete gives them a list and they consider that insightful. We continue to ask why. That’s how we get to interesting insights into how athletes use our headphones.”

There were three things, no matter what the sport, they kept hearing back after delving a bit deeper into that question. Athletes talk about their constant travel and how music brings them back home. It’s stability and familiarity in a line of work that involves a lot of unfamiliar places, from locker rooms and planes to hotels and buses. “The music calms them and puts them into a state to do exactly what they’re trained to do undistracted,” says Johnson.

Another word that kept popping up is transformation. “Athletes say that music is what helps them transform from brother, father, son, philanthropist into the machine, the animal they need to be on the court, field or pitch that day, and the music they choose is a big part of that process,” says Johnson. “They’ll give very vivid examples, to the point where I can watch some of our athletes play and know what they were listening to before that game.”


The last common element is that they use headphones to block out the noise, things they don’t want to hear. “Whether it’s away fans, the media and pundits, or maybe they’re home trying to get ready and they have family asking for tickets and things like that,” says Johnson. “They don’t want to hear that before a game. They use the headphones and music to hear what they want and our campaign is built around that insight.”


LeBron James

Serena Williams

Zou Shiming



Cesc Fabregas

Kevin Garnett


Collaborate to Create

The brand works very closely with its agency R/GA on all aspects of its marketing. Johnson says close collaboration ultimately saves time, builds a stronger creative bond and, ultimately, better work.

“If you think about a traditional process of making a script, it’s Brand X writes a creative brief that goes to Agency Y, which spends some time then comes back to Brand X with some suggestions of what path they should take, the brand agrees with some, disagrees with others, that goes a few rounds and then Agency Y goes and makes something,” says Johnson. “When it’s done, Agency Y sends it back to Brand X and the brand puts it on TV. That model doesn’t apply to us. Nine times out of 10, our ideas or concepts come directly from Beats, or from a Beats athlete or artist.”

The ideas can come from anywhere and Johnson says the brand and agency essentially hold hands throughout the entire process. “We make edits together. It’s a very non-traditional relationship and we really do work as a collective,” says Johnson. “Sometimes the idea can come from us, sometimes them, the agency team builds on it, we shoot it together, we’re all on set. There’s no agency edit, approval, and all that because we’re there the whole time. I like it because the ideas get better at every step.”

It might sound strange, given the role music plays for the brand, but Johnson says the last thing the team does for each ad is pick the song. “If you watch our commercials without sound, we want you to still understand it,” says Johnson. “I push our team to do it that way because I’ve seen brands that depend too much on a certain song or celebrity. We try to make great stories, then sit with Jimmy and his magic iPod to find a great song that lifts it even higher. We use the music to take it to the next level. What song does it need to complete this thought?”


About the author

Jeff Beer is a staff editor at Fast Company, covering advertising, marketing, and brand creativity.


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