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How Beats is finding a new rhythm for its brand story through rugby and beyond

As big as Beats by Dre has become because of Apple, it’s just getting started, with plans to flex its creative marketing muscle not just in rugby but to target women and older music lovers to propel the brand deeper into pop culture.

“The moment you start to defend yourself, that’s when you start to lose the fight,” Omar Johnson, Beats’ chief marketing officer told The Drum. His riposte to the criticism that the brand’s marketing smothers the poor sound quality of the headphones is also his explanation for why it needs to be famous in areas other than sport.

“The world is our oyster; there’s still so much for us to do,” Johnson claimed. Beats hasn’t done “strong work” around women or with older people yet, he added, with further untapped scope for the brand in grime, country music and K-pop. This widening lens reflects the brand’s rapid shift in headphones from David to Goliath, becoming the top premium brand by sales in 2014, according to NPD, just eight years after it was founded. That’s on top of its acquisition by Apple last May for $3bn that has seen the business move further into music streaming.

But this doesn’t mean sport is no longer a focus. Beats is becoming synonymous with the way athletes prepare, an almost constant presence on the shoulders of stars like Serena Williams and Neymar during those final moments before they compete. And with basketball, football and tennis covered, the brand has set its sights on rugby, hoping that the spotlight on the sport’s World Cup propels its #TheGameStartsHere campaign to inspire casual fans to try the product.

“Making spots about basketball and football isn’t always easy but they’re so popular,” he noted, while discussing how the brand tackled a sport like rugby, which it had no real insights on. “Rugby is niche. We wanted to create something that reflected that it’s a sport not just about the player or the team; it’s about national pride.”

Three films introduce this concept, focusing on half of the six teams tipped to win the tournament in England, France and New Zealand. Each one is peppered with nods to die-hard fans; whether its France’s reputation as the event’s serial underachievers expressed through their cynical supporters, or a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it nod to England captain Chris Robshaw’s father, who died when the player was young.

“We’ve never had to work this hard on a campaign, revealed Johnson. “We weren’t the experts here so we had players and former players helping us. We don’t walk into a room with a script. Instead, we work with these guys to find interesting stories. You find that’s where the magic happens because once they discover you’re cool with how they operate then they tell you things that nobody knows.”

True to form, music will be pivotal to Beats’ attempt to play outside the Rugby World Cup sponsorship rules but not break them. 20-year-old music prodigy Jacob Collier sings a stirring rendition of the Jerusalem hymn during the England spot and there’s more to come from him as the tournament progresses. There’s also some “stuff from the world of grime” on the way, teased Johnson, who hinted that other teams and athletes might feature in the campaign once the matches start.

“We’re not just settling for the niche rugby audience and want to get other people engaged in the sport,” he added. It’s why Beats opted to run its ads exclusively on ITV rather than Sky – “because rugby fans are going to find us either way."

That confidence in the concept’s ability to work on multiple levels is indicative of Beats’ faith in the insights garnered from a crack team of 12 rugby experts along with agency R/GA London.

And Johnson has high hopes for the latest manifestation of the brand. “I think this is probably our best work,” he claimed. It’s a guarantee the former Nike marketer doesn’t make lightly, but shows how far he thinks the brand has come in terms of finely tuning that mix of product placement, word of mouth and strong creative.

That mix is at a point where the brand can relinquish control and give people the chance to personalise its creative. Its 'Straight Outta Somewhere' meme went viral earlier this year with nearly six million personalised album labels shared on the internet with the word 'Compton' replaced by whatever word fans wanted. “We’ve been doing campaigns like this every holiday,” said Johnson. Moving forward, the mechanic will be used more frequently throughout its annual marketing calendar.

“Our marketing works just to get people to try our product, because I know once they try it, our product is going to do the rest,” said Johnson. If you try us and you don’t like it then you’re not supposed to be with Beats. But most people feel something different when they do. Most brands want to be seen. We want you to see and feel our work.”

Seb Joseph

Hi, I'm the news editor at The Drum. Give me a shout if you have any questions about our news coverage or would like to pitch in a story.

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