In just a matter of days, Beats By Dre headphones have become one of the most visible - and controversial - brands at the 2012 Summer Olympic Games. Athletes like British tennis player Laura Robson and soccer player Jack Butland tweeted their love for the products - and subsequently deleted the tweets, in accordance with Rule 40 of the International Olympic Committee's strict sponsor policy, which forbids athletes from mentioning personal sponsors on social media or promoting products other than those of the official sponsors. (This year's sponsors include Procter & Gamble, McDonald's, Adidas, General Electric, Coca-Cola, Samsung, Visa and Panasonic, among others.)
According to a rep for the company, Beats by Dre has not yet had a dialogue with the IOC about the "ambush marketing" practice of athletes wearing and tweeting about the unsanctioned headphones. But Omar Johnson, Beats senior VP of marketing, tells Billboard.biz that the company works with athletes year-round.
Beats has done a number of custom designs for musicians, and Johson said that many of the Olympians seen sporting Beats headphones had asked Beats about custom designs that could represent their respective sports or countries.
"I'd say we got about 30 requests, and 27 of those were flag-based," Johnson says. "We even found unique ways to work with athletes, like the Japanese team helped us find a designer to make a headphone that doesn't remotely look like the flag but is symbolic of Katana, the samurai sword."
Though no athletes, Olympic or otherwise, are formally paid for wearing their headphones, Beats is happy to customize headphones for certain athletes as gifts - which in turn brings out the competitor in the athletes whose requests they turn down, Johnson says. "The funniest thing about the athlete mind and the way it works is if you don't say yes, they automatically flip to, 'What do I have to do to get them?' " He added, :What they see is typically the winners get what they want."
In recent months, Beats has customized a special line of headphones for the New York Knicks at the request of longtime fan Spike Lee, and will gift a popular baseball team their own customized set on behalf of the team's co-owner in the coming days. "These guys make so much money, it's hard to get them a gift. If you get them another Rolex, they'll say, 'I'll go add it to my chest.' But when you give them that thing they can't buy, it's a big part of the magic - they really covet that."
It's been an eventful year for for Beats By Dre. In the past 12 months the company has received a $300 million investment from smartphone manufacturer HTC, severed ties with founding partners Monster Cable Products this January and earlier this month acquired music subscription service Mog, thus diversifying Beats into becoming an audio technology, content and apparel company.
Beats' popularity has prompted other headphone brands - notably Sol Republic, founded by Kevin Lee, the son of former Beats partner Noel Lee - to up their seeding programs among athletes, too. In fact, Michael Phelps has been seen sporting Sol Republic headphones before several of his swimming competitions this past week. A Sol Republic executive did not return Billboard's request for comment, but Johnson says, "We've seen a few [athletes] go to other headphone companies, and some of them got checks and some of them haven't gotten anything."
As for why athletes have stayed loyal to Beats, Johnson has a theory. "The answer I go back to time and time again is that sports is about repetition, and repetition is about rituals. And if I'm an athlete and I'm training, as I'm doing what I need to do to get ready, this product helps me feel I'm that much closer to my music that helps me perform, helps me figure out if I want to be intense. Whatever I want to be on the court that day, music helps me get there -- not only before the game but after."