Unbound Edition. Meaningful conversations about brand, from Davis Brand Capital.

Earning Ear Equity:
Bose v. Beats

In July of 2004, Steve Jobs told Newsweek: “I was [in New York City] on Madison…and it was, like, on every block, there was someone with white headphones, and I thought, ‘Oh, my God, it’s starting to happen’.”

The “it,” of course, was the dawning of the next phase of the techno-cultural revolution Jobs had started when he founded Apple, and later NeXT. Today, a decade later, his white ear-budded mobile products have sold an estimated 1 billion combined units.

In that relatively short span of time, along with transforming the computer, movie, music and mobile industries, Jobs also reset the standard for how we as a culture signal being part of what’s next – that we “get it,” that we are in the club.

The white ear-buds became code (accurate or not) for socio-economic status, discerning musical taste and a burgeoning Microsoft-centered, anti-establishment vibe. They redefined the elusive cool. They established who would own the cultural equity of the ear, and who would not. Apple extended that equity and added some street cred with its recent $3 billion purchase of Beats.

The current patent showdown between Bose Corporation and Beats Electronics misses the importance of this cultural backdrop. While Bose must take a defensive action to protect patents it claims Beats infringes upon, any potential win will be merely – though perhaps significantly – financial.

Bose has long focused on its technical superiority in pure acoustic science, and what it can deliver to the general consumer in the form of benefits such as bass response or noise-cancellation. Bose delivers remarkably on the functional level (I won’t use any other headset for a long day of teleconferences), but that won’t be enough to win a culture war.

There are few companies on earth that can go up against Apple and win. It isn’t just the king of cool, but is the literal king of public companies in terms of market cap. There was a time, though, when something similar might have been said about Microsoft (it was around 1995). Apple was in the tank, despite holding honorable rights to the same claims of technical superiority that Bose now has.

To win, its legendary leader had to transform what had become a beleaguered engineering culture into a design culture. Apple needed to signal its technical superiority, its better functionality, as much as delivering it.  In bringing Apple back from the brink, Jobs added emotional and social brand benefits to the functional ones Microsoft had commoditized. He sold hard and soft. Left and right.

Who knows if Bose will prevail in its actions against Beats and Apple.  But if the company wants more than some cash to get through to a buyout, it will need to win its own Jobs-like battle against the Microsoft that Apple has become. It will need to bring serious design thinking to a culture of talented engineers, and it will need to rethink the full range of benefits the Bose brand delivers beyond functional superiority.

If it does, Bose will learn that designers solve problems equally complex to those engineers take on — and ones that reach far beyond the product. To win like Jobs did, Bose will have to help the consumer signal the wisdom of their choices to buy. If they do, they may create new ear equity that lives alongside the smart, beautiful, invisible, inaudible hum of noise-cancellation. In a noisy world of so many competing beats, is there anything worth more than a moment of silence?


  • John Cornthwait

    I’m a long-time Bose fan, myself. And long-time Apple-bud hater, despite being an iFan in almost every other avenue. Unless Apple knocks it out of the park — and I mean REALLY knocks it out of the park — there’s no way they’ll lure me away from my decade-long Bose love affair.

    Let the form vs. function competition begin!

  • Interesting to read this today as t relates to what Patrick shares in this post. http://www.brandchannel.com/home/post/2014/10/06/141006-NFL-Beats.aspx

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