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5 Best Olympic Marketing Coups

Beats by Dr. Dre

What it did: One by one, athletes kept appearing at Olympic events sporting Dr. Dre “Beats” headphones. Beats Electronics — co-founded by hip-hop artist Dr. Dre — was handing out freebies to star athletes, MacMillan says. British soccer player Jack Butland tweeted: “Loving my new GB Beats by Dre #TeamGB #Beats” before deleting it. The list of Olympians wearing Dr. Dre’s Beats headphones was worth millions of dollars in free publicity, says MacMillan: “So many prominent athletes wearing Beats was a great piece of ambush marketing.” British diver Tom Daley, British tennis player Laura Robson, Michael Phelps and American swimmer Cullen Jones were just some Olympians who’ve been photographed wearing Beats. (Robson also tweeted about receiving a free pair of Dr. Dre headphones; she too later removed the tweet.)

The payoff: Beats already accounts for 53% of the $514 million premium headphone market in the U.S. (pairs that sell for $100 or above), according to market researcher NPD Group. But analysts say this was a rare chance to appear on a global stage. “This guerilla marketing gave Beats tremendous visibility and access to a market beyond 24-year-old Americans,” says NPD analyst Ben Arnold.

Why it worked: Some athletes say the headphones help them mentally prepare by protecting them from the noise of cheering crowds. “No other unofficial brand was featured so prominently, particularly in the aquatic center where athletes walked out wearing Beats,” MacMillan says. He says Beats’ infiltration of the Olympics began in Beijing when LeBron James wore them in interviews. Another reason for the publicity coup: “They’re just cool,” Brown says. “Olympians simply want to wear them.” An IOC spokesperson says the Olympics takes a “pragmatic approach” when it comes to asking athletes to cover up brands, so as not to interfere with their warm-ups. (The company did not respond to requests for comment.)

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  • Pay Dirt examines the millions of consumer decisions Americans make every day: What to buy, how much to pay, whether to rave or complain. Lead written by Quentin Fottrell, the blog examines these interactions, providing readers with news, insight and tips on shopping, spending, customer service, and companies that do right – and wrong – by their customers. Send items, questions and comments to quentin.fottrell@dowjones.com or tweet @SMPayDirt.