Michael Phelps and Headphones

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Two weeks ago Michael Phelps pulled off the biggest coup in Olympic history. Gold medals? I'm not talking about gold medals; I'm talking guerilla marketing. In an act of personal choice, Phelps upset the Olympic apple cart in a big way - he gave a heretofore-unknown headphone manufacturer the most prominent and noticeable product placement of the entire Olympics - and according to the company, it didn't cost them anything except a bunch of sample headphones.

First off, for those who didn't know, only official sponsors of the Olympics are allowed to display their products at the Olympics. Samsung is the official electronics partner, but other brands, including Dr. Dre's Beats, have been giving away earphones to athletes in hopes of getting some airtime for their products. And to some degree their give-away policy has worked, with some recipients tweeting about how much they like their new cans.

But Beats' brief amount of Olympic face-time pales in comparison to the amount of shots of Michael Phelps wearing on-ear phones from Sol Republic. According to the company, Phelps contacted them and they hand delivered a bunch of headphones to him and that was the end of their involvement. Next thing they knew he was wearing them before his first event. And then he wore a different colored pair for his second event and people began to take notice. At first it was bloggers, "Didn't Michael Phelps were a different color headphones for his prior event?" began popping up on Twitter feeds, then entire Blog entries about his Sol Republic headphones appeared.

Getting a high-profile athlete to model your product once for free is a super coup, but getting one to model your whole line of products on the biggest stage in the world is unheard of, but that's exactly what happened at the 2012 Olympics. Later in his competitions Phelps switched to a third and then even a fourth Sol Republic model (or he could have switched parts as they are entirely modular). My fave was the Vera Wangish headband number, but for patriotic fervor, the red, white, and blue set Phelps wore for his last race was a nice touch.

And what can enthusiast audio manufacturers take away from Sol Republic's tale of ultimate marketing luck? Giving away review samples is always a good idea. Getting your product, no matter how, into the hands of high-visibility users who will show it to others is the most important aspect of marketing.

In the high performance audio world, getting a product into a reviewer's hands and becoming their regular reference is, IMHO, the best and least expensive way to promote a product. I can't compare a component to one that I no longer have. Only components that are in my possession can be put into A/B tests. No component, no test.

Recently I had a large multi-national music company request the return of a pair of $179 list price headphones two months after the review was completed. After the administrative and physical costs of refurbishing the headphones for resale, how much profit will they garner from them? $5? $10? Since the earphones are no longer in my possession I can't use them for comparison in future reviews. And while they might be competitive or even superior to other similarly-priced headphones, my readers will never know that because I can't compare them if I don't have them.

Would a mention in a competitor's review be worth more than the $10 the manufacturer realized from their refurbished headphones resale? My answer would be, duh, yes...

While I would never be so presumptuous as to tell a manufacturer that it is in their best interests to encourage long-term use of their products by reviewers, the ones that do engage in long-term loans have a much greater visibility and presence in the marketplace than their tight-fisted competitors. If you think I'm stating what should be quite obvious, you get it. If not, ask someone at Sol Republic if they think giving away a couple of pairs of cans was a good idea...

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