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Three Questions with the Man Who Designed Beats’ Headphones

Robert Brunner explains how he helped make Beats’ headphones fashionable, and what other companies need to do to make wearable tech take off.

Beats Electronics, the headphone and music streaming company that Apple is buying for $3 billion, might not boast cutting-edge technology, but it’s clear that clever marketing and product design helped make the company’s products such a success.

The company’s founders, rapper Dr. Dre and music producer Jimmy Iovine, helped with marketing, but the man responsible for the design is Robert Brunner, founder of industrial design company Ammunition Group.

Brunner, a partner at Ammunition who is stepping down from his role as Beats’ chief designer due to the acquisition, spoke prior to the Apple acquisition with MIT Technology Review IT editor Rachel Metz to talk about how Beats achieved success, and about the importance design and marketing may have to wearable technology.

How do you convince people that a gadget can be a fashion accessory?

If you break Beats down, I’d say there are three things that made it work. One, we redefined audio for a very important audience: a younger audience. We said, “We’re building these headphones to be tuned to your genre of music, by the people who make that music.” So we’re creating the value there.

Then we redesigned the headphone. The headphone prior to that, when I looked at it, was kind of busy and mechanical and articulated, tied heavily to an audio culture instead of a fashion culture. So we completely rearchitected, made it more streamlined, more iconic; just better looking to wear.

And then on the marketing side it was always about pushing it in one part as sort of a movement, right? This is something you want to be part of. And then, just building it up to be aspirational, so this is where Jimmy lovine came in. He used to say, “Our marketing strategy is a lot of people owe me a lot of favors.” Which meant everybody he’s buddies with, from athletes to actors to music people, was wearing them, so it creates this aspirational thing.

What he did was make the headphone the celebrity. That’s Jimmy’s brilliance. And by contextualizing it in the way it’s presented, it creates amazing equity for the brand.

Putting headphones on your head is one thing—people are used to doing that. But it’s a lot harder with something like Google Glass, right?

Someone was asking me about Google Glass and whether it would be successful and I sort of likened it to the problem with Bluetooth headsets. That’s a wearable thing, and what happened with that is a certain class of individual immediately got associated with that, right? The Bluetool, as we called it.

So my thing with Google Glass, [and the] Glasshole thing, is instantly you’re this kind of arrogant techno-twit if you wear it. It has the potential of killing it just because of that social connotation, and that shows you how sensitive that stuff is. The wrist is a little more forgiving than your face or your head, but still it’s there. And if you want it to move into the mainstream the other piece that I think probably needs to be really ironed out well is the connectivity piece, because as you know if you use anything Bluetooth, it’s not 100 percent reliable. If you have to go in and re-pair your watch regularly, it’s not going to fly.

Do people really want to wear another device, though? It means one more gadget to keep track of and charge.

An iPad is a more limited interface, but for a certain number of things it’s perfectly adequate. So for a lot of people who bought computers for e-mail and Web browsing and games, “Oh, I’ll just get this because it’s more mobile, it’s easier,” and so forth. Well, you could see the same kind of thing happening between a phone and a watch. Let’s say with my watch I could easily make phone calls, I could easily get my messages, there’s a certain subset of things that are easier, simpler, and much more mobile, you could make that transition as well. There may be a subset of functionality on the smartphone that a bunch of people buy it for, all of a sudden it moves to the watch, and, great, I don’t have to drag this thing out of my pocket; it’s always on my wrist.

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