To Boldly Go: The Rise of Unlikely Brand Partnerships

graphic of men in suits putting together puzzle pieces

By Andy Humphreys, Senior Strategist at Coley Porter Bell

‘If you don’t innovate, you die’, as the saying goes. So, it’s not surprising that in an ever more competitive landscape, brands are placing great emphasis on bringing new products and services to market in the search for growth.

Increasingly, this can mean getting outside of the brand’s comfort zone and moving into new product areas or entirely different categories, in some cases radically different, through a brand extension or brand stretch, depending on the extremity of the move.

Given that between 50 and 80% of brand extensions have failed (depending on which source you look at), perhaps it is little wonder that in recent years we have seen an adaptation to this strategy. Rather than going it alone, brands are partnering with one another to bring a new proposition to market. This approach makes strategic sense, it allows both brands to enter a new market through a credible and trusted partner.

Today, brands are pushing the boundaries of partnerships. We’re seeing a rise in collaborations which take brands into bold new spaces where it is difficult to see how they can retain credibility.

Masters at the partnership, LEGO, have partnered with a multitude of brands from Adidas to IKEA. In 2021 Reese’s, the American candy brand, collaborated with HipDot cosmetics to launch a makeup range, you can see here on CNN. In 2020 Gucci and Disney came together to launch a fashion range, here on Disney.

Whilst these partnerships don’t, at first, seem like obvious bedfellows, each has been highly successful in its execution.

The Old Adage: Look out, Not In

It is one of the most fundamental pieces of marketing thinking, understand your audience, understand what they are experiencing and your role in their lives, and then provide products and services that align to these needs.

As an industry we can sometimes focus too much on our own product and partnership strategy, rather than following our own advice and looking at what it truly adds to the customers’ lives and why they should care.

Looking at the Reese’s and HipDot partnership, the HipDot CEO suggested that the product was a success because Reese’s had spent decades satisfying one sense and now they were taking the opportunity to satisfy the others through a make-up range that took its colour palette inspiration from the confectionary.

However, some commentators have suggested that perhaps looking at the audience and the world they lived in at the time may reveal a more likely reason for success. In 2020 and early 2021 the world was in the midst of the pandemic, was largely stuck inside, and certainly not socialising on a large scale, reducing the need for make-up (sales were down 34%).

Audiences were looking for fun and engaging activities that made them feel good again. A creative make-up range from a brand that stands for indulgence and fun was exactly what they needed, an outlet for creativity, self-expression and simply a reason to put make-up on again.

Stretch, Not Snap

In the past we have often seen partnerships used to access a broader audience base, but of a similar demographic to the brand’s existing audience. The classic example is luxury watch brands partnering with high-end car manufacturers. This type of activity doubles down on existing brand associations and cements them.

What we are seeing now is somewhat of a reversal in this thinking. Partnerships and collaborations are being used to imbue different, and in some instances counter-intuitive associations.

In the past, Gucci would not have been described as accessible, never mind playful or fun. Yet, their collaboration with Disney in China has brought those associations to the brand.

The key to this success, though, is Gucci cleverly retained their premium status. In China conspicuous consumption is far more prevalent than in the West today, especially in the millennial audience. The Gucci and Disney collaboration gave millennials a way to signal their social status, as it was instantly recognisable as Gucci, but in a manner that was different to generation before. It brought an air of self-expression, of fun and of playfulness to the brand, and thus the audience.

Even in the way the collaboration was presented, featuring regular 20-something year olds in the campaign content alongside social influencer and actress Ni Ni. Rather than using worldwide superstars or models, the brand created a more accessible, fun image for itself.

The same approach has been adopted by LEGO in recent times, with a raft of partnerships utilised to bring desirable attributes to the brand. LEGO has always had play at its heart, but previously suffered from feeling a little dated, especially when considering the toy itself. Partnerships with the likes of Adidas have brought a fresh, cool image to the toy brand, without losing the playfulness at its heart.

These examples demonstrates one thing, understanding of the wider landscape. The Reese’s make-up partnership perhaps owes its success, in part, to the social impact of the pandemic. The Gucci collaboration could well have struggled in the USA, but was a hit in China. Partnerships, especially those that are more unusual, are clearly reliant on being appropriate for the context in which they are launched.