In November 2020, Shedeur Sanders sidestepped traditional college football powerhouses to became the highest-ranked high school football prospect ever to commit to HBCU Jackson State University, where his NFL legend father Deion Sanders is now head coach. That same month, Beats by Dre launched a provocative commercial starring Naomi Osaka and Bubba Wallace that directly addressed the gulf between America’s love of Black culture and the systemic racism still inflicted on its Black citizens. These were key moments in a broader shift toward greater empowerment of Black athletes.
Now the younger Sanders has made another ground-breaking move by becoming Beats by Dre’s youngest-ever ambassador, and he stars in the brand’s newest ad.
The ad is significant in another way. Sanders also becomes one of the highest profile college athletes to land a major brand partnership since the NCAA’s new name and likeness policy came into effect July 1. The policy allows NCAA student athletes to monetize their name, image, and likeness. For decades, millions of dollars have flowed through college sports—on the back of the performance and popularity of the athletes—while athletes themselves were forbidden to profit from any of it.
The new commercial, created by Beats’ in-house creative team, features Sanders alternating between training and posing with Jackson State’s marching band in a night-lit stadium. In a voiceover, Sanders talks about why he chose a HBCU over more traditional college football powerhouses. “The choices I make, they matter,” says Sanders in the ad. “I told you I was bringing my talents to Jackson State to help level the playing field. This one is for the culture.” He ends the spot by saying, “Choices make legends. Be legendary.”
Beats CMO Chris Thorne says that by bringing on Sanders as an ambassador, the brand is not only acting on its support for the new NCAA policy, but also its desire to uplift underrepresented voices. “Traditionally, HBCUs haven’t received the visibility and support they deserve,” Thorne says. “Shedeur not only inspires us with his talent on the field, but with the passion he has for the advancement of HBCUs.” Last year the company launched the Beats Black Creators program, to provide recent HBCU graduates opportunities and mentorship in their creative pursuits.
Beats has also made athlete empowerment part of its brand identity. Last month during the NBA Finals, Beats dropped a new spot starring Sha’Carri Richardson, not long after she was banned from competing at the Tokyo Games for testing positive for marijuana. Her suspension was a hot topic of debate, and a huge part of the cultural conversation.
Thorne told Fast Company last year that the brand’s goal was to not only use its voice to amplify broader issues some of the time, but to do it consistently and consistently well. “There are a lot of brands out there who will push and have a voice at certain times,” Thorne said, bringing to mind the empty brand gestures of Blackout Tuesday. “There aren’t many I’ve seen that are going to make this who they are and a constant drumbeat. You’re going to see a lot from Beats…of much more mission-driven storytelling, where it’s us pushing these tough questions, pushing for change. This is where the brand will be leaning heavily. A defiant voice, standing up for what we think is right.”
In Sanders, Beats has taken that message to include showing young fans the power of their choices.