We live in an era where brand collaborations are increasingly commonplace. While this may seem like a recent trend, brand partnerships have been around for decades.
One of the most prominent examples is Betty Crocker partnering with Hershey’s in the 1980s to include chocolate syrup in its signature brownie recipe. Consumers were delighted with the coming together of two classic brands to create a single (delicious) experience. The partnership proved to be so successful that both still collaborate on new co-branded products to this day.
Brand partnerships have evolved in the last decade. From collaborations between similar category brands (Starbucks and PepsiCo), brand partnerships now span across categories (Netflix and Ben and Jerry’s), across seemingly contradictory brands (Supreme and Louis Vuitton), and across multiple partner brands (Manchester United has partnered with 22 brands globally).
Brand owners see partnerships as a strategic way to boost awareness, build brand associations and target new segments. As marketing guru Mark Ritson once said: “success in co-branding is about as good as it ever gets in marketing terms”; it is no wonder then that almost every major global brand seems to have at least one brand partnership running at any given time.
While the potential upside to brand partnerships is clear, misguided collaborations can be costly in terms of a brand’s reputation. One prominent example was Lego and Shell – despite having a successful partnership for decades, Lego terminated its partnership in 2014 because of the mounting negative publicity it was receiving due to Shell’s drilling activities in the Artic Ocean.
With so much at stake, there are a few factors that brands should consider before initiating a partnership.
Brand fit plays a key role in determining the success of a brand partnership. The more complementary consumers perceive the brands to be, the more likely that the partnership will succeed. This perception will also colour consumers’ perceptions of the product or service created from this partnership.
Research conducted by Casey E. Newmeyer, R. Venkatesh, and Rabikar Chatterjee in 2014 identified two dimensions of brand fit: functional fit and hedonic/symbolic fit.
- Functional fit: The degree to which the partner brands fit in terms of functional capabilities (i.e., how a product performs)
- Hedonic or symbolic fit: The degree to which the partner brands fit in terms of the image and/or feelings they elicit with consumers.
The theory goes that the more overlap there is, the higher the likelihood of success. For example, the partnership between BMW and Louis Vuitton proved to be successful because consumers associated both brands with travel, luxury, and craftsmanship.
There is also a different view that partnering contrasting brands can produce the best results – for example, while mass-market fashion retailer H&M may seem a world away from luxury brands, its collaboration with luxury brand Balmain was wildly successful. In such cases, each brand is looking to benefit from the other’s relative strengths – the mass brand provides the luxury brand with a wider audience, while the mass brand benefits from upscale associations.
What is clear is that the idea of brand fit can be fluid and elusive to define. When considering a partnership, it is therefore critical for brand owners to understand how consumers perceive the proposed brands individually, to ensure that there is a strong perceived fit across relevant attributes.
NATURE OF PARTNERSHIPS
Apart from ensuring that there is alignment between brands, the nature of the brand partnership is another key determinant of success. Each brand must bring value to the relationship for it to succeed.
PepsiCo and Starbucks, commitment to creating a ready-to-drink version of the iconic frappuccino established this brand partnership as a market leader in a newly created category – a position it holds to this day. Not only did this partnership create value for each brand, it also brought value to customers in the form of a new product innovation.
Often partnerships go poorly when brands do not bring enough value to the partnership, or do not think through the nature of the partnership and/or the product service being created. One of the more infamous perceived failures was that of Taken 3 and LinkedIn in 2015. While there was engagement from the LinkedIn community, consumers wondered how a character who killed a lot of people would be appealing to business professionals.
NUMBER OF PARTNERSHIPS
Another factor that brands should consider is the number of partnerships they are engaging in. While more partnerships can result in increased brand benefits, there is a possibility that varied partnerships can cause confusion or message dilution among consumers.
Some aspects that brands should consider before adding an additional partnership are:
- Target group: Who is the partnership targeting? Will the addition of this partnership create over-exposure and fatigue within the target group?
- Type of partnership: How do the perceived values of the partner brand fit with the values of the other brands we are partnered with?
- Resources: Do we have the resources to effectively execute this additional brand partnership? Will we bring value to this partnership?
THE ROLE OF RESEARCH
Brand partnerships have clear potential upsides, but they are not without risks. As researchers, we would always say that strong consumer research should play an informative role before partnerships are undertaken, to understand both the benefits and the potential drawbacks.
Research is particularly important in understanding how the potential partner brand is viewed and who its core audience is – having these facts will guide brand owners on whether a potential partnership is worth pursuing. Research can also capture direct consumer feedback on a potential partnership, for perceptions of brand fit and general positivity. This will give a preview of how the partnership will be received if launched.
Overall, while brand partnerships are a positive tool for brands, the consumer perspective needs to be at the centre of partnership decisions to help maximise their value and limit potential brand damage.
By Satpal Daryanani LinkedIn, Research Manager at 2CV Asia