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Brand Partnering Can Be Powerful If It’s The Real Deal

Embracing the uncomfortable has become part of the job description for marketers seeking to better connect with demanding consumers. When CMOs are increasingly tasked with understanding not just how their brand fits into their customer journey today, but how it will in the future, collaborating with a diverse range of companies, talents, and skill sets has never been more important for success.  

Yet, while collaboration has risen up the marketing agenda, the majority of headlines have focused on established brands partnering with startups in a bid to provide a shortcut to the “move fast and break things” culture so beloved of the startup community. Unilever’s Foundry is the most high-profile example of this genre (as CMO.com explored here). Many in the industry, however, advocate embracing a more holistic approach to collaboration if it is to deliver seamless experiences to the consumer long term.

Collaborative Innovation
There is an argument from industry insiders that, to be truly effective, collaboration must move beyond the realms of stand-alone innovation hubs, labs, or innovation projects. Jim Prior, CEO of brand and design agency The Partners and branding agency Lambie-Nairn, says consumers are becoming more focused on finding the best solution to any given problem rather than being fixated on individual brands. “They want holistic, joined-up solutions that simplify their life,” he explained. This is a shift that demands a new approach to collaboration.

As the Internet of Things moves from the realms of marketing sound bites to consumer reality, opening up your brand to competitors is key. From Levi’s partnering with Google on Project Jacquard to create smart fashions (pictured below) to the iconic partnership of Apple and Nike, brands are embracing collaboration to better connect with consumers.

Seamless Experiences
This drive towards seamless technology-driven personalised experience presents a wealth of new opportunities for brands to open up their software in order to improve customer service. It is a trend that is not just about established brands partnering with startups. For example, as consumers embrace connected cars, there is a possibility for a car marque such as Ford to partner with the likes of Starbucks to ensure a seamless personalised drive-through experience is just one potential tie-up.

The green shoots of this new approach to collaboration are already sprouting, but consumers aren’t impressed by any given partnerships.

Thom Newton, CEO and managing partner at Conran Design Group, explained: “Consumers are increasingly discerning and brand savvy—they will work out very quickly if brands are only collaborating for PR purposes. If brands want to enter this world, then they need to do so on the consumers’ terms. A brand’s associations need to be relevant and meaningful to the audience, otherwise they will be seen as inauthentic and quickly dismissed.”

Virtue Signalling
Nonetheless, many established brands have embraced the marketing power of collaborating with startups as a form of virtue signalling. It is notable that some of the most forward-thinking technology brands have been on the front foot when it comes to forging new partnerships. James Kirkham, head of YouTube football channel Copa90, explained: “Technological advances are often at the heart of collaboration. This always works best when the consumer is given an augmented life experience, making their every day a more seamless moment and where utility wins.” Spotify’s partnership with Uber is an example, when the two brands tied up to ensure that consumers’ playlists would be continued when they stepped into an Uber car.

This utility must also extend to collaborating with companies of different sizes and scale, and even consumers themselves, in order to create and design products specifically around consumers’ needs in any given moment. Jerry Daykin, global digital partner at media agency Carat, believes the industry has realised that startups aren’t a magic fix to all their challenges, and that their products are rarely instant solutions to their problems without a lot of time and collaboration. However, he says that this is now changing, and there are now a range of new-style partnerships evolving with much more established businesses that can still bring different perspectives. “You can see this in high-end product collaborations such as Apple and Hermès, through to content and communications partnerships such as Mondelez and BuzzFeed,” he said.

Open Marketing
The drive towards greater collaboration is not without the bumps, and the industry is awash with tales of the structural challenges of established brands seeking to team up with startups. Robin Gadsby, CEO of agency Forever Beta, warns that tech startups are in their nature immature. He said: “There’s no doubt the people working for them are often brilliant, but their processes are often ill-defined, their structure less so, and the impact this creates can put more pressure on an organisation willing to get into bed with them. Being mindful of this, and planning for it, will allow each party to understand the impact on their collective businesses.” 

Established brands also have their shortcomings and complicate the process of collaboration with their legacy systems, compliance, and unnecessary secrecy. Richard Dunn, chief strategy officer EMEA at Wunderman, explained: “Too large or complex team structures can slow down the process. Speed is critical, and this means the focus should be on small, agile teams, with the right sort of experience from across the client business and its agencies.”

Scratching The Surface
There is no question that the future of marketing demands more meaningful collaboration—a shift that asks marketers to move beyond surface-level partnerships towards longer-term, consumer-facing marketing solutions. Luke D’Arcy, president, U.K. at Momentum Worldwide, warns that, in the world of business, the focus tends to revert straight to the “what’s in it for us?” “The challenge is that collaboration is as much a thought process and journey of exploration before you even get to the possibilities,” he said. “Many opportunities are killed before they even start.”

To date, deeper examples of marketing collaboration are still in short supply. Matthew Heath, chairman and chief strategy officer at agency Lida, summed up much of the frustration in the industry when he said: “I still seem to go to plenty of presentations that excite themselves over the Apple collaboration with Nike+ launched over 10 years ago.” A decade on, and many brands are guilty of failing to exploit the opportunity that collaboration affords. The risk remains that brands that don’t open themselves up to this change risk being overtaken by those who do.

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