Way back in the distant days of 2010, you might have chanced on a video of Justin Bieber, sitting in a recording studio and speaking—with genuine feeling—about a particular social problem he wanted to make right. World hunger, perhaps? Childhood diseases? Well, not quite. The Biebs was concerned about audio equipment.
"There are so many kids these days who are listening to really cheap headphones," said Bieber in a voice untouched by cynicism or puberty. "They're not getting the quality that they should be hearing."
Fortunately, the pop star had a solution: He teamed up with 4-year-old audio company Beats Electronics to launch his own on-ear headphones, called JustBeats.
Not everyone recognized it at the time, but those $179 purple coconuts were the latest salvo for a brand that Apple would buy only four years later for $3 billion. Much like Bieber himself, Beats went from boy to man seemingly overnight. Today, it controls roughly 60 percent of the $2.2 billion headphone category.
But beyond Beats' meteoric rise there is a bigger wonder: That the audio-electronics category is dominated by a brand that's more about high fashion than high fidelity.
With Beats Electronics, said marketing consultant David J. Deal, "electronics is almost an afterthought. Beats are cool, and they define what it means to be cool."
Audiophiles debate whether Beats got the sound right (it serves up enough bass to land on the Richter scale)—but nobody doubts that Beats got the branding right. Thanks to founders Dr. Dre and Interscope Records chairman Jimmy Iovine, Beats (Beats by Dre, to use the full name) boasted street cred from day one. When you buy Beats, Deal said, "you're buying a little piece of the Dr. Dre brand."
And since Dre and Iovine evidently have a few friends in the music business, the list of artists who've endorsed Beats, used them in music videos, or (like the aforementioned Bieber) designed a signature line reads like the guest list for the Grammys: Lady Gaga, Snoop Dogg, Nelly, Ludacris, Miley Cyrus, Nicki Minaj, Wiz Khalifa, and on it goes.
Beats reached out to the parallel universe of professional sports, too. Paparazzi-pursued athletes including Serena Williams and LeBron James have been spotted wearing the multicolored headphones. Beats virtually took over the 2012 Olympics by giving a customized pair to every athlete, and letting the rest take care of itself. As Mintel senior analyst Billy Hulkower puts it, Beats "connected the urban lifestyle and music to a piece of hardware."
In fact, some speculate that the post-Steve-Jobs Apple was itself looking for a much-needed cool injection by purchasing Beats. (After all, it's not like Apple couldn't afford to design its own headphones.) Time will tell if Beats has enough swagger to keep it up, but Deal still recalls the moment he realized that Beats had arrived. It was when rapper Lil Wayne showed up at the 2012 NBA All-Star game wearing a set of Beats headphones—encrusted with diamonds.
"It didn't matter what Lil Wayne was listening to, or if it sounded good," Deal said. "What mattered was that he was wearing Beats."
This story first appeared in the January 2, 2017 issue of Adweek magazine.