7 Lessons From A Battle Between Headphone Brands

The 2016 Presidential campaign between Hillary Clinton and her Republican challenger (insert name here) will no doubt be ferocious. But that head-to-head contest could hardly be as savage as the current brand battle between Beats Electronics’ Beats by Dre headphone line and the venerable audiophile company, Bose.

This past month, the media have covered football players flouting Bose’s exclusive National Football League deal as the “official sound of the NFL” by wearing Beats by Dre headphones. What followed was the NFL’s response on behalf of sponsor Bose – levying a $10,000 fee against players who defied the ban and dared to listen with Beats by Dre headphones on-camera. The NFL’s effort to defend Bose’s investment by punishing athletes for going brand AWOL boomeranged into a PR bonanza for Beats by Dre. Supported by celebrity endorsers from Kendrick Lamar and Justin Bieber to Pharrell, Serena Williams and Ed Sheeran, Beats is now conquering Bose not on quality, comfort or price, but on Beats' mastery of new marketing strategies.

So how can your company avoid falling prey to the mistakes that put the $2.5 billion giant Bose – one of the consumer electronics industry’s most acclaimed technological innovators – off its game? Here are seven suggestions for brand survivors:

#1. Keep All Eyes On Your Visual Branding

In this age of Pinterest, Instagram, Vine and other visual branding channels, Bose has struggled to find graphic images that will reinforce – rather than undermine – its appeal to today’s consumers. Meanwhile, the marketers at Apple, which purchased Beats Electronics for $3 billion this year, demonstrate why they and the Beats by Dre team are the Leonardo da Vincis of visual iconography. 

Serena Williams - Beats By Dre

Consider: Until recently, the visual image at the top of Beats by Dre’s Twitter page featured an electrifying full-color photo of tennis superstar Serena Williams (above), her muscles rippling as she listens with Beats by Dre headphones. The image was sexy, powerful and massively cool. What’s more, that Twitter profile image is integrated visually with her “Nothing Stops Serena” video (now at 1.3 million views on YouTube), which shows her training for a match, propelled by the music in her Beats by Dre headphones.


In contrast, Bose’s Twitter, YouTube and Facebook pages had been topped by this image - a bleakly depressing, black-and-white photo of what looks like a parking lot next of a half century-old office building (above). If there is any joy to be found in listening to music through Bose headphones, you wouldn’t know it from this image of a lonely building that sat – dark, abandoned, glum – at the head of Bose’s social media channels.  Clearly this image must resonate with some executive inside Bose headquarters.  Alas, this picture did nothing for the consumers Bose might wish to attract, who are now running feverishly toward the photo of Serena Williams’ astonishing torso. The lesson? The visual look of your brand is not about you or your CEO’s affection for your storied past; it’s about images that inspire your target consumers - today.

#2. Be Ready To Evolve Your Market Position

“Better Sound Through Research” is Bose’s marketing theme, a throwback to its late founder, MIT professor Dr. Amar Bose. This charmingly nerdy championing of acoustic research has served Bose well in the past – and the past is where Bose’s social media marketing is aimed. On its Facebook page, Bose’s “About” profile confides: “A dedication to research and excellence, it’s the Bose approach to better sound, and it has been since our founding in 1964.” If you didn’t fully comprehend that Bose was around when Lyndon Johnson was president and the Beatles were still performing, its Twitter heading hammers it home: “The First 50 Years of Bose.”

Gwen Stefani and Lil Wayne

Compare that look back in Bose’s rear view mirror to six-year-old upstart Beats Electronics, which offers this Dr. Dre quote as its market position on Facebook, “With Beats, people are going to hear what the artists hear, and listen to the music the way they should: the way I do.” The company’s marketing gestalt is rabble-rousing, trash-talking and celebrity-obsessed (as in Lil Wayne and Gwen Stefani above). Beats by Dre associates its headphones not with acoustic technology, but with all that is physical, sweaty and exultant. In the admiring words of my 20-year-old son, a hip hop and rap fan, its market position highlights Beats by Dre’s embrace of “sex, athletes, rappers and badassery.”   Which brings us to. . .

#3. Flip Your Competitor with Judo Marketing

When the NFL signed its sponsorship deal with Bose, the marketing warriors at Beats By Dre scored publicity points. Players flouted the deal’s “product exclusivity” language, which prohibits them from showing logos of a competitor’s headphones.

The value of the Bose sponsorship began imploding when San Francisco 49er quarterback Colin Kaepernick wore his Beats by Dre headphones post-game. The NFL fined him $10,000 – a punishment that generated millions of dollars worth of media coverage for Beats by Dre, with headlines trumpeting the Beats brand by name.

Beats By Dre Twitter

“It’s marketing gold for Beats,” Zimmerman Advertising Z Sports & Entertainment agency’s Scott Becher told Advertising Age. “How many millions of dollars of exposure are you giving the marketleader by outlawing them?” Photos of NFL players wearing the forbidden Beats by Dre headphones, with the offending logos mischievously covered with tape, swept the Web. 


Bose could have predicted this judo-style marketing attack. Ambush marketing is nothing new for Beats by Dre’s founders.  During the London 2012 Olympics (above), it was Dr. Dre (not an Olympic sponsor) who handed out his headphones painted with the UK’s colors to British athletes – sparking tweets from the players about how much they loved their Beats by Dre headphones. Yes, Dr. Dre’s sampling was a violation of Olympic Rule 40, which prohibits athletes from talking about brands on social media, which have not paid to be official Olympic sponsors – but even that violation was “on brand.”

All in all, the NFL/Bose debacle reinforced the Beats brand message and left Bose looking punitive and uncool, even if it was their partners at the NFL who did most of the damage.  

#4. YouTube Can Be Your Brand’s Best Friend

Both Bose and Beats by Dre use music-infused YouTube videos to reinforce their brand positioning. Unfortunately for Bose, it's walking into the YouTube wrestling ring to fight against two World Champions: 

  1. Beats’ Jimmy Iovine - producer for Bruce Springsteen, U2, Tom Petty and Eminem’s movie, 8 Mile.
  2. Beats' Namesake Dr. Dre - producer of multi-media rap stars Snoop Dogg, 50 Cent, Eminem and others.

The sheer numbers on YouTube are telling: Beats by Dre has 261,953 subscribers to its YouTube channel, compared to Bose’s 18,259 subscribers.

But it’s the video content on YouTube which underscores Beats by Dre’s marketing savvy. Check out the Beats’ video, “Hear What You Want” (above). It enticed 4.6 million consumers to watch a clip depicting how San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick uses his Beats headphones to stay calm in the midst of rioting, Walking Dead zombie-like “fans” attacking his tour bus. The use of rapper Aloe Blacc’s song, “The Man,” is exquisite and the search optimization of the video is masterful.

Even that success is dwarfed by Beats by Dre’s 5-minute “The Game Before The Game,” which has generated a staggering 24.8 million views on YouTube. “Good Lord, Beats by Dre is getting great at sports commercials,” AdAge cooed, after Beats by Dre issued “Game Before The Game.” The video was tied to the World Cup and featured Brazilian soccer god Neymar Jr. Sure, the video is helped by a descriptor box that’s rich in searchable key words and cameos from celebrities such as Nicki Minaj and LeBron James. When you see the Hollywood-style movie poster created to promote Dre’s “The Game” video, you realize you are witnessing YouTube marketing of the highest order.  

In contrast, most of Bose’s latest YouTube videos were uploaded last May. Its signature #ListenForYourself video (above), has earned barely 24,000 views for its footage of BMX bike riders doing cycle stunts. Like your Uncle Melvin sporting a U2 T-shirt, Bose’s attempt to be “cool” by associating its brand with BMX biking teens feels forced – and the shrill, indie rock music the young man in the clip is listening to may be the only genre of music that would render a Bose headphone unnecessary. It’s worth noting that the most recent #ListenForYourself tweet posted on Bose’s YouTube page is three months old. Another Bose video featuring a BMX biker, “Do What You Love,” has managed to pull in fewer than 7,500 views and this Bose SoundTrue headphone clip with an anonymous guitarist has scraped up barely 6,800 views – all of which suggests that the content of these YouTube clips is not resonating with Bose’s audiences.

Given that Beats by Dre owns the youth-obsessed, bass-heavy world of hip-hop and indie rock, it’s puzzling why Bose isn’t fighting back by touting its superior sonics to fans of jazz, classical, folk, blues, world-beat, 60s rock and other non-rap music – an audience that may count few BMX bikers among them.  

#5. Prepare Your Social Media Channels Before You Need Them

It’s on Twitter and other social media channels that Beats by Dre most undercuts Bose’s ability to support its headphone brand. When the NFL “We’ll Fine You If You Don’t Wear Bose Headphones” crisis hit, Bose appeared unprepared to connect with consumers via social media, while Beats was ready to mercilessly stomp on Bose online.

Consider: Beats by Dre has 635,000 followers on Twitter (below) for its flow of 20,000 tweets, while Bose has one-sixth as many Twitter followers (101,000) for a tenth as many tweets (1,761). Beats by Dre begins its Twitter profile with these engaging words: “Sound. Attitude. Culture. Join the Beats Army.” But Bose’ Twitter profile struggles with this text, perhaps written by a team of corporate attorneys: “the official account for product launches and keeping tabs on the stuff we love...”

Beats vs. Bose

The official Beats by Dre Pinterest page has 3,573 followers with 110 pins. And Bose? Just 31 followers for its “Bose: Better Sound For Life” page. On Instagram, Beats by Dre’s page has 1.5 million followers with 2,000 posts. Bose has earned barely 20,200 followers on Instagram, with an anemic 176 posts. Bose may have a promotable brand message against Beats by Dre, but the rapper’s social media highway is vastly better developed to get the word out to millions of consumers. We often tell our clients – build robust social media channels now, before a crisis makes you wish you’d started engaging with fans on social media earlier.

#6. Don’t Be a Character In Your Competitor’s Movie – Tell Your Own Story

Where were Bose’s PR counselors when the brand was flailing under Beats by Dre’s attack and watching the NFL fine football players in Bose’s name for daring to listen to their competitor’s products?

“You have a tech company that’s culturally inept,” gloated Jimmy Iovine of Beat’s crisis response. “There’s no one at the company that said, ‘If you ban these guys, you’re going to look bad to the young people, and they’re going to look like superheroes, even though they’re just pure capitalists...you’re going to make them (Beats) look like the underdog.'”

One of the first rules of crisis communications: When under fire by competitors, consumer advocates, regulators or other adversaries, don’t play defense on your opponent’s playing field - by their rules, with their tools, using their vocabulary, in their story. If football players were determined to flaunt Bose’s deal with the NFL by listening with Beats by Dre, Bose’s PR staff would have been smarter to challenge Beats to a head-to-head sound quality and noise cancelling test – a Brand Battle Royale that would move Beats by Dre to the only playing field on which Bose could win.

#7. Perception Still Matters More Than Reality

The most painful part of Bose’s struggle as it fights against Beats by Dre’s celebrity marketing onslaught is this fact:  Bose headphones are, probably, better than Beats by Dre’s products.

C/Net concluded that Beats by Dre noise-cancelling headphones “don’t quite measure up to” Bose’s QuietComfort 15 headphones.  The influential All Things D column chose the Bose brand over Beats by Dre, and  Inner Fidelity said of Beats by Dre Studio products, “the noise cancelling performance is pretty poor – let’s be truthful: these headphones were. . . as much designed to be worn as bling around the neck as it was to deliver thumping bass – they don’t measure up.” In the words of Slate.com writer Jesse Dorris: “Beats by Dre have received, at best, mixed reviews.” Dorris concludes that the act of wearing Beats by Dre headphones is essentially “the ritual of wrapping your head in a gleaming status symbol.”


And that’s the most cautionary lesson marketers can draw from Beats by Dre’s success over Bose: A superior product that’s handcuffed by navel-gazing, self-absorbed marketing is going to wither. A merely okay product with brilliant marketing that speaks powerfully to its audience is going to devour that technically better product.

Remember how the era of Amazon.com, TripAdvisor, Urban Spoon and other user-generated consumer review sites was supposed to cut through marketing BS and ensure that the highest-quality products triumphed via word-of-mouth? But as the late comedian John Pinette would say, “Nay, nay.” Instead, Beats by Dre’s domination of the headphone market proves that without up-to-date marketing – aimed at your audience rather than at your internal stakeholders, employing social media deftly, with strategies that evolve as your demographic targets change – even the best brands can be ravaged by a disruptive upstart.

The Verge

Of course, no matter how much better Beats by Dre’s marketing might be, the ultimate test is: How well are Bose headphones actually selling vs. Beats by Dre products? This breaking news may suggest the direction things may be heading: 9to5Mac.com reports in October 2014 that Apple has removed Bose products from its online store and many of its brick-and-mortar stores. Combined with that loss of product distribution, Bose – which put its global media agency into review last spring – is at a marketing turning point. As a loyal Bose consumer, all I can say is: God help them and their superior products.


Image Sources: i-runway / Merrill Electronics Amazon / The Verge / Luxury Launches / Dr. Jays / Coolspotters / MTV / Beats by Dre Twitter / The Huffington Post / Richmond Classics / The Verge 

About the Author

Paul Maccabee

Paul Maccabee is president at Minneapolis-based Maccabee, a strategic public relations and online marketing agency.

Topics:  Corporate Communications, Brand Strategy

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