For somebody who calls himself a “marketing geek” there is nothing nerdy about Omar Johnson, CMO at headphone and speaker brand Beats by Dr Dre. He is extroverted yet understated; cool and sophisticated, but without being arrogant.
Just like Johnson, brand owner Beats Electronics – started by music producers Dr Dre and Jimmy Iovine in 2008 – likes to do things in style and at scale, an ambition made all the more real thanks to its $3bn acquisition by Apple in 2014.
“We love the big stages,” says Johnson, who has led marketing for Beats by Dr Dre since 2010. “Whether it’s the Olympics, the Grammy Awards or the Brit Awards, that’s where we want to be because culture tends to focus on those big stages.”
The brand’s latest global platform was the Rugby World Cup, perhaps not the most natural fit for an American business given the sport’s limited appeal in the region, but a strategic move that Johnson says has introduced the brand to a new audience and help extend its reach in Europe.
“As a North American brand, we don’t know loads about rugby but we learned a lot about what we were doing along the way. We went to the best rugby players – Richie McCaw, Chris Robshaw, Courtney Lawes – a few ex-players and commentators, and then we spoke to the rugby fans. They all became the ingredients that built the campaign,” says Johnson.
These “influencers” play a critical role in all Beats campaigns, as Johnson believes they help the brand anticipate and react to what consumers want.
“These people live in culture, music, sports, art and fashion, and as much as we’re good communicators, our strongest muscle as a brand is our listening muscle. We listen to influencers, we talk to them and build relationships,” he explains (see The art of listening, below).
Johnson hosts what he calls “moments” such as “amazing dinners” with influencers to strengthen and develop these connections. “I always tell my team if it’s in Wikipedia, it’s not an insight because the rest of the world has it. So we’ve got to dig out that next thing that always comes in the second half of dinner,” he says.
“During the first half you hear the same things but when you get to the second half it’s like ‘yeah, I really hated that coach’, or if you’re talking to an artist they might say ‘I loved that song but the label killed it’. You start to pull these insights out of the people that drive influence over the masses. We try to put that into our work – the things that people think but nobody says.”
Beats’ deep understanding of the celebrities it works with means they in turn have a greater connection to the brand, he says, which was particularly apparent during the Rugby World Cup.
“We saw people asking [players] not to wear Beats but they said this is a company that supports me and is telling my story from my point of view so I’m going to wear them,” Johnson claims.
The involvement of players such as Robshaw in Beats’ ‘The Game Starts Here’ campaign reportedly caused friction with the likes of English rugby’s governing body, the Rugby Football Union, and sponsor Samsung.
Beats’ focus on Robshaw in its World Cup advertising somewhat backfired after the England captain decided to pass up the opportunity to secure a draw against Wales with a last-minute penalty kick, opting instead for a failed attempt to win the game with a try. The resulting defeat proved decisive in England becoming the first host country to go out of the World Cup in the first round.
Although Johnson admits England’s early exit from the tournament was “a bit disappointing”, he stresses that the brand “bet well” overall with its choice of ambassadors, specifically McCaw, who captained the New Zealand team to victory.
“When [looking for an ambassador], it’s always interesting because people suggest the biggest player or the fastest player or the blackest player and we get those recommendations because people think they’re going to like hip hop or garage music. But
we say no, we just want the best guy. Everyone told us that McCaw was that guy and he demonstrated that.”
After the All Blacks beat Australia in the final of the tournament, the brand projected an image of McCaw wearing a pair of gold Beats headphones and the caption ‘Long Live The King’ on landmarks such as the Tower of London.
Johnson describes the moment as the “exclamation point” of the campaign and one that will encourage consumers to see Beats as “a brand of winners”. The notion of winning is critical to the culture at Beats.
“We don’t try to make things that are good; if it’s not great, we don’t release it”
Omar Johnson, CMO, Beats by Dr Dre
“If you think about Jimmy [Iovine] and Dre and what they’ve done in music, there has always been an aura of winning and success. When you look at the people we surround ourselves with, there’s an [essence] of winning that infects our culture and I continue to try to find ways to inject that into our group. It’s what makes us different from other brands. I watch people settle for okay work, retail fixtures, strategy or talent; we demand a lot from each other and everything around us and it keeps that spirit of winning alive.”
Curiosity and creativity
As well as asking people to “live their jobs”, one of the key attributes Johnson looks for in order to maintain this culture of winning is curiosity.
“If you’re curious, you can learn about anything,” he says. “I’m a huge sports fan but I didn’t know a lot about rugby so I learned about it. Curiosity is a very important trait when I’m recruiting because you might not know the hottest talent in alternative country music but if you have that curiosity, it becomes your job to find it.”
The debate over whether creativity or data should reign in marketing continues to rumble on but Johnson is clear that from his point of view the starting point should be creativity.
“You have to lead out front with ideas. The way you validate them and prove whether it’s something you should reinvest in is with data. I see marketers who start with data but if your starting point is data, you’re looking in the past, [and] if you’re always looking backward, how will you ever progress?”
He believes data can be more significant for well-established brands, however, as they are further along in their life cycle. “When you’re trying to build the foundation of a brand, there are so many things you have to tell your consumers. It will take us the next five to 10 years to really establish this brand and once we do that I’m sure data will become more important.”
Although Johnson has ultimate responsibility for marketing, he says his approach is very open and inclusive, based as much on listening as it is on directing, as he believes marketers tend to have patterns of thinking that can restrict their creativity if they don’t embrace others’ opinions.
He says: “Our rule is the best idea wins – there’s no ego, politics or bullshit. We don’t care where it comes from, it could come from an intern or someone [outside marketing] because that’s how you get truly breakthrough ideas.”
Despite his slightly unconventional approach to marketing, Johnson has “a very traditional, technical background” having worked at brands including Kraft Foods and Campbell’s before moving to Nike in 2005, where he says he learned how to tell stories.
He has learned from the music industry too, particularly from Beats founders Iovine and Dre, who he says never cut corners when producing an album, always using the best people for the job – a philosophy that Johnson adopts when creating campaigns.
“In music you find the best of what you need and pull them together, whereas on the big corporate side you might use a proxy, an agency or someone that is on staff. It’s a different approach. We have all the fundamentals in place, but what’s different is our relationships and how we leverage them. We go for best in class, whether it’s insight, idea or execution. That’s a big part of the difference between big brands and the way Beats works.”
Unconventional marketing tactics
He does, however, believe the way people approach marketing is changing as a result of the influx of tools and platforms available. “There are many more people who call themselves marketers today. Marketers traditionally just did advertising, now we look at every consumer touchpoint and that excites me,” he says.
Simply making a TV ad is therefore no longer the go-to option, since a primarily visual medium will not capture consumer attention for a brand that is essentially trying to market sound. Indeed, Johnson believes audio equipment is one of “the hardest things to market” because you cannot demonstrate what it does in images. “I can show a picture of a speaker but you’ll never hear what it sounds like. And if I make a video of my speaker, the sound is defined by the speaker [of the device] you’re watching it on,” he says. So the brand has to be far more creative in its approach.
One example of Beats eschewing the obvious approach was its campaign concept to support last year’s release of the film ‘Straight Outta Compton’, which tells the story of Dr Dre’s hip hop group of the 80s and 90s, NWA. Johnson says “as our insight started to sharpen, we thought Compton isn’t a place, it’s a state of mind”, which steered the brand away from doing a photo shoot and buying traditional media.
He believes social media is “the best way to get people to broadcast your idea”, so Beats came up with the ‘Straight Outta Somewhere’ meme generator that enabled people to fill in their home town and share their story.
“It could be Camden, Hackney, Chelsea or Brooklyn, but we came up with that idea based on what we wanted to get as a brand and company,” he says. “We did a small photo shoot that didn’t cost much and then created an app for around $200,000, which became the mechanism to deploy the campaign.”
The #straightoutta hashtag has been shared more than 300,000 times on Instagram alone, with celebrities including Jennifer Lopez and brands such as Snickers using the template.
More recently, Beats partnered with comedian Tracy Morgan for its Christmas ad, and artists including Coldplay, Selena Gomez and Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats for a campaign to promote the Beats Pill+ portable wireless speaker.
The ad featuring Coldplay, for example, takes scenes from the band’s video for ‘Adventure of a Lifetime’, while the music video itself also includes shots of the speaker.
“If you think about what we’re communicating to consumers, it’s music. To me there is a genre blur – is it a video, is it a commercial? That’s exciting because being advertised to gets boring,” says Johnson.
Using global stars also provides the kind of exposure that an advert is unlikely to receive. “Take the Selena video [for ‘Hands to Myself’, which is also featured in an ad for the brand], it will get double digit million views; Coldplay, same thing. You can’t pay for that kind of presence,” adds Johnson.
Johnson himself has an eclectic taste in music having grown up in Brooklyn, New York in a house “where there was always music playing”, whether it was reggae, hip hop, jazz, R&B or classical. Today, nothing has changed. “I want music around me all day; I want to have different songs to power different moments in my day. The brands that get that right are going to be really interesting,” he says.
Expansion – both geographically, in Europe and Asia, and demographically, particularly among women – is top of the agenda. Advances in wireless technology, sound and computer processing will also be critical to Beats’ growth.
“If you think about what our new parent company can help us do, that starts to become really exciting,” he says, referring to the acquisition by Apple. “We’re in the infancy of this brand. There’s geographic growth, there’s demographic growth, there’s what we can do in genre and the innovation of the technology. I don’t see us anywhere near the ceiling on any of those verticals. We’re just beginning.”
Omar Johnson on Dr Dre
Dre has really inspired me in how we look at marketing from an authenticity and listening perspective, particularly this idea of bringing the best together. Our founders’ story [is the cornerstone of] our product and our bigger mission, which is to bring emotion back to music.
People always presume that Dre is a celebrity that we use to market the brand but as a producer he hears things that other producers don’t hear; that’s what has made him the prolific producer he has become. I try to take the same approach with marketing and storytelling that Dre takes when making an album.
I tell my team when we’re writing copy “if you can’t see Dre standing in front of you saying it, it’s probably off-brand”. As weird a rule as it sounds it’s actually really helpful. He wouldn’t go to London and try to do London slang. He might modulate a little bit but he would say it in his way, so it keeps us within interesting boundaries.
The art of listening
Beats by Dr Dre CMO Omar Johnson says his breakthrough moment as a marketer came when he learned to listen and not take himself too seriously.
“My life, career trajectory and success changed night and day when I learned to listen,” he says. “I was always curious, I always had aptitude, I was always a bit of a communications geek but I spent a lot of time in my younger days trying to prove that I was smart and that I was a good marketer. I would think so much about what I wanted to say but when you do that you tend not to take information in.”
The art of listening is something Johnson has picked up from the “great marketers” he has worked with throughout his career, as well as role models that come from outside the traditional marketing sphere.
“What tamed me and my thinking was being around some super-successful visionaries; today it’s Jimmy Iovine, Tim Cook, Dr Dre. When you’re with those guys, it really humbles you,” he says. “They have taught me to listen. Most people don’t get that exposure so they don’t get that hard lesson, but I learned it really well from those guys.”
It is something that Johnson tries to impart to any young marketer he meets.
“If you start with listening and curiosity, then you’ll always win because when you talk you are pushing information out, but when you listen you absorb it. If you’ve really listened, you’re going to have a better idea.
“I always say that my job as a marketer is not to be a robot; my job is to take input, add to it and make it better. And that’s what I ask my team to do.”