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Beats by Dre: The Business Behind the Audio Odyssey

Last Updated: October 3, 2023
Beats by Dre has been around for more than 15 years. Today, the brand is looking to continue to improve its product and reach an even wider audience.

Headphones have come a long way since French engineer Ernest Mercadier patented the first pair in 1891. As their design has evolved and technology has developed, one thing remains constant: Quality matters. From portable cassette devices to the iPhone and everything in between, you need the ideal accessory to properly enjoy what cruises through your ears.

Enter Beats by Dre, founded in 2006 in Santa Monica by legendary rapper Dr. Dre and record company exec Jimmy Iovine. After a couple years of development and the founders consulting with fellow musicians (Pharrell, will.i.am), the Beats by Dr. Dre Studio headphones debuted on July 25, 2008.

There were, of course, rival brands that provided competing quality, but Beats by Dre set itself apart with by proximity to celebrity. Being one himself, Dre turned to his roster of famous friends to help get the word out. Thanks to a number of entertainers spotted wearing them and some expert placement in music videos, Beats became synonymous with cool and nearly two decades later, has maintained that reputation.

“Dr. Dre and Jimmy Iovine took a product that already existed, but they just gave it personality,” Chris Thorne, Chief Marketing Officer at Beats, told Boardroom. “It was going to function as a headphone, which you could already find that technology, but they put so much thought into how it was designed, how it would feel, how it would sound to really replicate that studio audio, what the artist intended you to hear.

“We want to make headphones that really represent the exact sound we were meant to hear when someone recorded it in the studio. And then to bring that personality, design, colors, and more so people could use headphones as not just a functional item but also as a form of self-expression.”

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The Power of Partnerships

A major facet of Beats’ success lies in the plethora of partnerships the company has orchestrated. Thorne highlighted two memorable collabs that successfully attracted a new audience. In August 2022, it teamed up with Kim Kardashian to launch a special edition Beats Fit Pro collection. The earbuds arrived in three neutral colors that Kardashian designed, matching the mogul’s signature palette. This past August, Beats entered the beauty space with its first-ever collaboration with Olive and June. The nail polish brand’s first foray into tech, the companies linked up to make coordinated accessorizing dreams come true, with perfectly matched shades of polish, press-ons, and Beats earbuds in new on-trend chrome shades.

“One thing we realized a couple of years ago is that the Beats brand was really leaning much more masculine. But we make amazing products that we hope are great for everybody,” Thorne said. “And so we really wanted to figure out what can we do to make sure that women also see our products as a form of self-expression. We’re always looking to push the brand in new directions. We don’t want to be predictable. We make great products that hopefully appeal to everybody.”

Beats’ superstar list of ambassadors spans the sports, fashion, pop culture, and entertainment worlds. A few personalities that have unveiled custom-made Beats gadgets include LeBron James, Travis Scott, Michael Phelps, Lady Gaga, Neymar, and more.

“I think when it relates to athletes in fashion, you didn’t see as much of that connection 30 or 40 years ago,” Thorne said. “But in recent years that tunnel walk and the post-game press conference, athletes have been on the front lines of showing off new trends in fashion. We always want it to feel like we’re not forcing athletes to wear headphones. We try and make ones that fit into their style, and that means custom headphones.”

Most notably, men’s tennis star Frances Tiafoe became a trending topic in this year’s US Open when his colorful Nike ensemble matched his headphones. Thorne explained that Beats is always looking for the best avenue to help ambassadors express themselves.

“That’s the fun part of it. LeBron James, when he broke the scoring record, wanted to put the number on his headphones as he warmed up for the game. We’re so happy to be a part of that. And those are the partnerships we like to do with our athletes.”

For his work with the brand, rapper A$AP Rocky stared in a self-directed Beats Studio Pro campaign, in which partner Rihanna makes a fun audio cameo, that launched on July 20. In the minute-long spot, Rocky fiddles with his new, Pharrell-produced single “RIOT (ROWDY PIPE’N) in his home studio before Rih exclaims, “Babe! Can you go to the store? We ran out of diapers.” From there, a journey ensues in which the new father of two goes on an adventure to locate the essentials. The Beats Studio Pro headphones retail for $349.99 and arrive in four colors: black, deep brown, navy, and sandstone.

“I’ve been a fan of Beats since the beginning, so this has been a full-circle experience,” Rocky said about the collab. “I had a vision in mind for this project, and they provided the space for me to zone in and fully express my creativity.”

Beats Elite Class of 15

Seventeen years in the game, Beats boasts a healthy relationship with plenty of pros. But what happens when college players are suddenly able to capitalize on their name, image, and likeness (NIL)? The obvious answer is to lock in a deal with the next best in athletics. In August, Beats announced the signing of 15 college football players to NIL deals. The list includes last year’s Heisman Trophy winner, several Heisman candidates, and potential first-round NFL draft picks.

The list of 15 student-athletes who make up the Beats Elite Class includes:

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A prominent theme Thorne reiterated was the freedom Beats representatives get. Members of the Beats Elites Class receive custom headphones for themselves and their teammates.

“We are always looking to keep our brand fresh,” Thorne explained. “The brand’s been around for 15 years and we have so many great customers that have been with us through that whole time as they age, but how do we reach out to Gen Z and make sure our brand is really exciting to them?”

He uses Sanders as an example.

“I think [he has proven] he certainly is a top quarterback in all of college football. And that’s where it started in college for us. Shedeur really enjoys being a Beats ambassador. And we’re having schools and players reach out to us now to say, ‘Hey, can I get into the program? Can I be in the Beats League class?’

The Future of Beats by Dre

What started as headphones 17 years ago has transformed into far more. And Thorne teased that there’s plenty more on the way, touting Apple’s nearly 10-year-old acquisition of the brand as a catalyst for continuous innovation.

“You have the most innovative company, the best engineers in the world and to be a part of that is amazing,” he said. “We’re always looking as we look outward, how do we make better products? Whether that’s improving our current products, whether that’s new products or new categories, we’re always exploring that and then using those products to tell stories.”

Storytelling isn’t just reserved for how an athlete dresses or earbud colorways. Just last week, Beats welcomed a select few to Los Angeles for another installment of its 10-week paid program designed for aspiring creators. Offered to college students, the Beats Academy promises a unique opportunity to create social media content featuring Beats’ college athlete ambassadors. It’s not only a peek behind the corporation but also a way to connect with key decision-makers and fellow creators.

“We have such a responsibility to create those opportunities that wouldn’t otherwise exist, and to give students and young adults a chance to show off their skills and develop their talents,” Thorne said. “But one of the coolest things is Beats wins too. The ideas that come from the people in the Beats Academy are amazing. We learn a lot, especially in design, content, and creativity. And again, we’re always trying to reach out to a youthful consumer to Gen Z and to bring those people in to help us learn too.”

That constant evolution is how Beats has thrived for nearly two decades. And the brand shows no sign of slowing down.

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