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Marriages of convenience

How successful partnerships allow brands to be both refreshingly original and reassuringly familiar at the same time

How successful partnerships allow brands to be both refreshingly original and reassuringly familiar at the same time. 

Brand Partnerships

The most effective brand partnerships accomplish two things – they build long-term brand equity whilst achieving more immediate and tangible objectives such unlocking access to a new audience. They can be inventive and effective in the same breath.

Brand partnerships stretch across a wide spectrum of forms from truly crass to truly creative. At one end, we have the world of uninspiring and opportunistic promotional merchandising. The kind that threatens to a consume us in a toxic cloud of powder blue glitter every time there’s a new Frozen film (Frozen 2-themed Nordic Ware baking spatulas, anyone?). This kind of brand partnership involves one brand rubberstamping its logo across another brand’s products. It’s not so much of a partnership than a takeover.

At the other end of the spectrum, we have unions that are original, memorable and valuable. The Selfridges ‘Pantone 109’ capsule collection, which launched as part of its centenary campaign, featured a series of partnerships with brands including Levi’s, Ralph Lauren, Johnnie Walker, Converse and Coke exchanging their usual brand liveries for the iconic Selfridges yellow. Selfridges gained associative caché from brands with credibility in their own categories, whilst asserting its status as a confident and contemporary brand. Each of its partners benefited from the aura of the Selfridge’s halo, and from visibility in London’s most famous department store.

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Brand value or just brand values?

Selfridges made their partnerships tangible and collectible – otherwise known as a limited edition product line. We have the fashion fraternity to blame for this convention. Collaboration with a fashion brand is like catnip to humdrum CPG brands looking to jazz up their brand positioning. Brands like Diet Coke and Evian are all habitual collaborators, partnering with fashion brands in an effort to persuade us that they’re than just a drink – they’re a lifestyle.

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San Pellegrino’s union with Missoni is one such example. The partnership married two iconic Italian brands in a single, desirable objet d’art. The partnership gave Missoni media reach – in the form of thirty million bottles, rather than a series of overpriced print ads in Vogue. San Pellegrino hoovered up the stardust of an iconic fashion label.

Apple’s collaboration with Hermes to launch a series of Apple Watches with luxey-leather straps enabled a value exchange between two very different, but apparently complementary brands. The collaboration was billed by Apple as “the culmination of a partnership of parallel thinking, singular vision and mutual regard”. That makes the whole thing sound like a philosophical – even poetic - exchange of values. In truth, brand partnerships are much more pragmatic – they’re about evolving customer perception, reaching new customers, or driving value and profitability.

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Apple, purveyor of the world’s most ubiquitous tech products, was able to elevate a product line to speak to a new set of customers who wanted to signal their unique status within the herd. Hermes, for their part, were able to weave the credentials of the world’s most innovative tech brand into the fabric of their own story: a fashion house whose reputation is built on legacy and tradition.

That’s not a values exchange, it’s a value exchange.

Tell me something I don’t know

But in truth, the old model of simply partnering with a brand that has a like-minded attitude or shared value set seems a little dull. What makes brand partnerships really sizzle is when they do more than simply affirm what you knew about the brand already, but communicate a new benefit, or reveal something previously unknown. Google’s partnership with Domino’s is one such example. In this activation, the Google Pixel phone was shipped to consumers with a Domino’s pizza – to demonstrate the hands-free capability of the phone.

2+2 = 5

Great strategic brand partnerships are more than the sum their parts. They augment the associations of both brands involved, advance their strategic agendas, and unlock new customer bases. Airbnb’s partnership with Blue Apron was the result of identifying a customer problem, then partnering with a brand expert to solve it. Many people staying in Airbnb rentals only stay a few nights, so don’t want to stock up an entire pantry to cook a couple of meals. Blue Apron solved that, giving the (struggling) brand access to a wide customer base, and polishing Airbnb’s perceived halo as a thoughtful metaphorical host.

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Give me more, done better, with bells on

In the war for attention, another Supreme collaboration doesn’t really cut it anymore. We’re becoming more demanding. We want more from brand partnerships than mere brand wallpaper and opportunistic logo-stamping. We want KFC giving us chicken-flavoured nail polish in collaboration with OPI. We want Dolce and Gabbana SMEG toasters in our suburban kitchens. We want to log onto Airbnb and book a night in a Van Gogh painting. We want a man leaping into the earth’s stratosphere with a Go-Pro on his head, brought to us by Red Bull.

Fresh yet familiar

Here’s the paradox that brand partnerships can resolve. We live in a changing world, so we seek out continuity. But we are simultaneously addicted to novelty, so we value brand experiences that surprise us. Brand partnerships offer an opportunity for brands to respond to both these contradictory needs: to be disruptive yet reassuring; surprising yet constant; and multi-faceted yet single-minded. They are the perfect vehicle for balancing long-term equity with short term engagement - fresh with familiar.

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This article was taken from issue 6 of Marketing Society publication EMPOWER. Read past issues here and see articles from the issues here.