Beats by Colt

Beats is a marketing phenomenon. From zero to a $3bn sale to Apple in eight short years. Hitting the market at just the right time, they consistently punched above their weight.  Not only understanding people’s latent desire to move away from generic white earbuds, but also knowing exactly how to bring the solution to market.

I’m not going to go into details here (others have done that already) but their basic strategy of designing a bold product and then borrowing attached meaning from celebrities and sporting heroes was perfectly executed.

Imagine my surprise, when on a recent visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art with my son I discovered that Samuel Colt beat Dr. Dre to this very same strategy over 160 years ago.

Colt, one of America’s great inventors transformed the firearms industry through mass production, the interchangeability of precisely machined parts and the patenting of the multi-shot revolver. He was also a marketing genius.

At a time when war was much more prevalent than it is today, Colt produced custom weapons for the leaders of pretty much every side of every war. He wanted all of their armies to use Colt firearms, in the same way that Beats wants every kid to use Beats headphones. For Colt, kings, generals and leaders of nations were the equivalent of Kobe Bryant for Beats. And for these VIP’s he created beautifully crafted and custom designed firearms like this one at the Met.

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Digging further, I found that Colt was also a pioneer of product placement and content marketing. He commissioned paintings from George Catlin which prominently displayed Colt weapons in variously exotic scenes. He sought out articles and reviews of Colt firearms so that he could have them excerpted and reprinted (sending signed weapons to the authors as a ‘thank you’ for their positive sentiments, a 160 year prequel to paying todays social media influencers) He even paid for a 29 page advertorial in United States Magazine. Commonplace tactics today. Unheard of at the time.

It’s a fascinating story, and a timely one. It shows that combining innovative products with innovative marketing has always been a necessary condition for the creation of powerful brands. Colt wasn’t just a brand for the Tzar of Russia, or the King of Italy. It was a precision firearm for the everyday soldier. Equally, Beats isn’t just for sports stars and music celebrities. It’s an iconic headphone for everyday kids.

Whats fascinating is the way both brands, 160 years apart, tapped into the attached meaning of others to drive awareness and aspiration, while at the same time creating the overwhelming sense that you're buying a superior product.