Guerrilla marketing: Colin Kaepernick wears Beats headphones after 49ers game, but Bose has exclusive NFL advertising deal.

Why Colin Kaepernick's Pink Headphones Got Him Into Trouble

Why Colin Kaepernick's Pink Headphones Got Him Into Trouble

Moneybox
A blog about business and economics.
Oct. 15 2014 3:56 PM

Beats, the NFL, and Guerrilla Marketing

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His preferred color is pink.

Photo by Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images

This article originally appeared in Inc.

Determining what your brand stands for is Marketing 101, but you shouldn't overlook the importance of deciding what it opposes. Brand identity expert David Brier offers three examples:

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  • Apple opposes technology that gets in the way of user experience.
  • Nike opposes couch-potatoism.
  • Dyson opposes technological complacency.

Recently Beats Music, which Apple acquired in January for $3 billion, has demonstrated that it, too, has a firm grasp of what it opposes. Specifically, Beats has positioned itself as a brand opposing institutional authority. What could be a better, brasher position for an audacious company co-founded by music mogul Jimmy Iovine and hip-hop immortal Dr. Dre?

Here's how Beats did it: Shortly after the San Francisco 49ers defeated the Kansas City Chiefs on Oct. 5, quarterback Colin Kaepernick wore pink Beats by Dre headphones to his widely televised postgame presser. Kaepernick has an individual sponsorship deal with Beats.   

The problem? The NFL has an exclusive sponsorship agreement with Bose, another maker of headphones.

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While at first it appeared as if Kaepernick's wearing of the headphones might have just been a coincidence rather than a deliberate guerrilla marketing ploy on Beats' behalf, the latter soon emerged as a distinct possibility. Here's what happened, according to ESPN's Paul Gutierrez:

And while his headphones were bright pink, purportedly to pay homage to Breast Cancer Awareness, Kaepernick paid for the indiscretion. He said Thursday the league fined him $10,000. So did Beats, with whom he has an endorsement deal, pay his fine? "I'm going to let that be unanswered," Kaepernick said.

In other words, Beats (in all likelihood) did a masterful job of guerrilla marketing. The media coverage of Kaepernick's harmless rebellion has easily exceeded whatever publicity $10,000 could buy. More than this, Kaepernick inspired the NFL-defiance of two other quarterbacks: Carolina Panthers QB Cam Newton and New England Patriots QB Tom Brady both sported Beats during their pregame warmups on Sunday, Oct. 12.

Another player, Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman, did the same thing during his pregame warmups, three hours later. (There's been no word, as yet, about whether Newton, Brady, and Sherman were handed the same punitive measures.)

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On Monday night, Oct. 13, following the 49ers victory over the St. Louis Rams, Kaepernick struck back, with humor. At his postgame press conference, he once again wore his pink Beats headphones. But this time, to avoid a fine, he put white masking tape over the Beats logo, which is a curling lowercase B. Talk about letter of the law. 

Interestingly, the NFL has taken some heat for fining Kaepernick. The general sentiment has been this: Doesn't the $10 billion NFL, with all of its off-the-field problems, have more important things to worry about?

It's not the first time the NFL has come under fire for seeming greedy. For example, when the NFL announced in February that it was adding Thursday nights to its TV schedule, the reaction from fans and observers was not one of unmitigated excitement. You might recall Mark Cuban himself, owner of the NBA's Dallas Mavericks, told ESPN that the NFL was breaking a cardinal rule of good business:

Just watch. Pigs get fat, hogs get slaughtered. When you try to take it too far, people turn the other way. I'm just telling you, when you've got a good thing and you get greedy, it always, always, always, always, always turns on you. That's rule No. 1 of business.

When this is how a wildly successful entrepreneur like Cuban critiques your league's business decisions, chances are that the general public is also leery. Realizing this, Beats knew football fans would be sympathetic to Kaepernick's opposition—perhaps even more so if the NFL fined him for it. 

To be sure, Bose has done nothing wrong here. And the NFL would also be behaving badly—like a poor sponsorship partner—if it didn't somehow respond to Kaepernick's actions. Beats took advantage of this quandary and, in doing so, proved again why it's not only an audacious brand, but also a smart one.