Following George Floyd’s death in police custody in May 2020, corporations and brands felt compelled to jump into the fray with messages of support for the Black Lives Matter movement and antiracism efforts. They took to social media in ways that were often met with eye-rolls, or even open hostility, for their well-meaning but ultimately empty actions.
Marketing Week’s Mark Ritson was so disappointed, he wrote a blistering attack on brands that talked the talk but didn’t walk the walk when it came to their messages decrying racism and a lack of representation. Even Nike, a brand that has arguably done more than most to champion these causes, wasn’t spared Ritson’s venom.
Given that February is Black History Month, we found ourselves wondering: Is it possible for a brand to throw its weight behind the Black community in a way that is seen as meaningful, authentic, and ultimately helpful? And if so, what does that look like?
Beats by Dre, the electronics company co-founded by legendary rapper and producer Dr. Dre, has been wrestling with this question for several years. Digital Trends caught up with Astor Chambers, Beats’ newly minted Global Influence and Social Actions Lead, to talk about how the headphone maker is attempting to carve out a new mission for itself that is equal parts talk and walk.
DT: Hey Astor, can you tell us a bit about your role at Beats? What is a Global Influence and Social Actions Lead and how long have you been doing it?
AC: I’ve literally been here since November — a complete newbie. The role is new, however, the sensibilities that it oversees are not.
If you break it down, global influencers are the collaborations that we do. It’s the thing that’s helped shift and lead culture for years. A big part of the business has been how you align with different creatives from different worlds to stretch your brand into a new space and inspire youth and consumers to be a part of your brand movement.
On the social action side, it’s making sure that the brand is holding itself accountable for the responsibility that it has to be at the forefront of the change that’s necessary. Having one person overseeing both creates an opportunity where you can leverage one to supercharge and authenticate the other. It can really be impactful to help spur the change that we’ve been talking about and seeing.
What are some examples of the relationship between influencers and social action?
Committing to and helping some of the partners that are already within our portfolio, in areas that they have an extreme passion and expertise on is one of the ways we’re doing that. Colin Kaepernick is a brand partner and has been at the forefront with his Know Your Rights Camp. Our Informal series — a content-created platform where we center around educating and discussing implications of social injustice and things to that degree with a number of iconic partners within our portfolio — are just small examples of how we’re going to start to leverage that.
Beats is obviously best known for its headphones, but looking beyond that, what do you want Beats to represent?
We just had a brand reset, where we identified the three values that we’re honing in on to take us into this next chapter of our future. They make it very clear as to why or how you are seeing the brand and the tone that the brand is evoking in the marketplace: Challenging the status quo — being this challenger brand. Amplifying Black culture in the community and the voices within it. And a sharp point on creatives and the other inspiring youth by being relevant to the culture of today.
It definitely goes beyond music. It represents a credible voice within youth culture that encompasses many influences like fashion, music, art, sport, with gaming being at the forefront of that. Given the history and heritage of the brand, we have this responsibility to contribute to the change, and it needs to go further than just campaign executions.
George Floyd’s murder was a turning point. Do you feel that, since that moment, brands like Beats and others are suddenly being held to a very different standard than they were even a year ago?
I think a number of brands, areas, and people are, for sure. Absolutely. Rightfully so or wrongfully so. I think that’s a good thing. We should be challenging each other because we’re all contributors to this thing that we call the world.
The expectation, I think, that brands improve both themselves and society from a social imbalance and injustice standpoint is part of being what we call a progressive challenger brand. We have all the necessary tools to be a leader in this space. It’s an intentional approach that also helps, hopefully, to spark a level of contagiousness, with the hope that we can be the kind of standard that other companies look to follow in that space.
It’s not that Beats has the answers to all of the challenges, however, we are very aware that we want to be a part of the solution.
Last year, Beats debuted You Love Me, a short film directed by Melina Matsoukas that seems to play to all three of Beats’ new values, as well as acting as a manifesto of sorts. Is this Beats’ version of Nike’s Don’t Do It spot?
I don’t know if it’s our version, but it’s such a poignant, touchy, sensitive conversation to have. The code word for this is, “I wish you’d love me as much as you love my culture.” Our culture gets embraced, but not the individuals within it. There’s a disconnect there. That’s a bold statement and very reflective of where we are positioning ourselves moving forward. I truly see that as being the new standard of excellence for us. Even in the conversations I have with my team, I say, “if it doesn’t give you that feel, if it doesn’t hit that mark, then we need to go back and do something again.”
Is it tricky to figure out how to show up authentically in these conversations, in this space without triggering people’s cynicism, or a backlash?
I was always taught that if you don’t have haters, you’re not doing something right. But it shouldn’t stop you from doing what you feel and know is right for the goal against which you are tasked, which is change.
The You Love Me campaign is a perfect example of that. What it took to get to that and then the outcome of that is very reflective of a bold challenger brand stepping out and saying the things that so many people say, whether it’s in private conversations with their friends, families, colleagues, and putting it on a broad stage to really spark more conversation and awareness on the sense of urgency of how this needs to be addressed.
You Love Me feels like it’s the beginning of something. What is Beats beginning with this film?
It is the beginning of a type of tone and feel that will be consistent throughout the year.
I’m saying that very intentionally, especially given that we’re in February, which is Black History Month. And as you can imagine, every brand is scrambling to figure out what their voice is going to be for Black History Month.
You Love Me — for our brand — sets a tone of, how are we writing this book of chapters throughout the year? This is our new “always-on.” It has set the tone for us to continue with this type of conversation in different ways. This month, we have our first big project, or as I like to call it, a chapter of the year. It’s a campaign celebrating Black women as the backbone of our community.
It’s a very natural extension of the You Love Me campaign to not only celebrate and love [Black women’s] contributions, but also love and applaud them as individuals.
So when you asked about the manifesto of You Love Me, you’re absolutely right. That is the beginning of the always-on tone that we are going to have and share month after month, and hopefully, day after day within our walls.
How else is Beats supporting the Black community and amplifying Black culture?
We’re in the second year of our Black Creators [aka Black Futures] program. It’s HBCU-centric (Historically Black Colleges and Universities). We’re tapping into this community to provide Black creatives within this space with an opportunity to work in a couple of different functions or areas of creativity.
One is a sportswriting opportunity, one is creating content, the other might be product creation. The resources and opportunities being given at such an early part of their potential career trajectory provide them with a great deal of credibility, and also experience, in this creative space early in their journey, which is a resource that they never would have potentially had prior.
It provides credibility through the association with the Beats brand. [When] people go into rooms after working with us and mention that they worked on a Beats campaign or a partnership with Beats, that’s credibility, that’s currency. That currency might lead them to get a job with another brand. Or more importantly, it might be the currency for them to solidify the funding for a project that they want to do and they’re passionate about.
Is there any part of this that is a message or a challenge to other brands, other businesses, other individuals to follow in Beats’ footsteps and do the same thing?
That’s one of my goals. Like I mentioned earlier, this is very intentional. For me, success looks like how contagious we can be as a brand for other brands to look at us and say, “What they are doing is spot-on. We need to be more like that. We need to do things like that in this space.” That’s an element I’m holding over my own head of a job well done because that’s part of our greater responsibility of collective betterment. We have to set the tone and the example for something that needs to be done.
How do you measure the effectiveness and influence of something like that?
We’re still drafting up what that looks like. But there are some things that you do and you know that it has an impact. For instance, we have a number of places that have been reaching out to us and needing help from a school standpoint or an education or after-school services of youth who are obviously now having to be at home — and everybody has to be at home, parents, all the other children. So you can imagine the amount of distractions that are present in these types of environments. We have a school that we’ve partnered with to provide noise cancellation for youth in their homes to help them focus on completing their work assignments, learning, or their music classes that they’re having to now take at home. A simple tool like that is going to help with the trajectory of retaining, focusing youth moving forward.