In the ultra-competitive world of advertising, brands are always looking for an edge that can help their product stand out among the rest. One popular move is to enter into a partnership with another brand.
Brand partnerships are sometimes presented as “marriages” between two brands. This analogy isn’t quite right—especially because very few if any brand partnerships are supposed to be permanent. According to Gracie Page, a content marketing expert at Y&R London, a brand partnership’s purpose is “to build a vehicle that allows the user base of both brands to get on board, and go on an adventure together.”
It’s like finding the perfect travel companion: you don’t have to spend the rest of your lives together; you just need to have a great trip. But, like vacations, brand partnerships can either be filled with some of the best days ever or a miserable experience to forget as soon as it’s over.
So how can things go so wrong? (or right)? And why do brands take the risk in the first place?
First things first: why partner?
With plenty of potential pitfalls, why would any brand subject themselves to a partnership and the risks that come along with it? Two words, says Gracie Page: “synergistic momentum.” Essentially, the act of partnering with another brand gives new attention and interest that your brand may not have had otherwise.
This rationale is also described by Melanie Trepanier, brand manager for SierraSil Health Inc., who says that brands join forces “to leverage each other’s expertise in order to build a unique experience for their customers.” According to Trepanier, the experience can give a brand positive new associations from their partner.
While synergy and positive associations are splendid for brands, partnerships can also provide a brand with something even more concrete (and lucrative): new customers. Brand partnerships offer a phenomenal way for companies to engage with a different brand’s customer base.
Ben Guttman, a partner at marketing agency Digital Natives Group and adjunct marketing lecturer at Baruch College, says that “partnering with a like-minded brand can introduce you to valuable new markets” and help brands “engage with new, on-target audiences.”
Trepanier also says that brand partnerships allow brands to keep doing what they do best while still going outside of their usual zone: “Instead of trying to be all things to all people, top brands know they can only be excellent at one thing, so to continue to offer excellent service in a new category they need to partner.”
In short, when it comes to the benefits of a brand partnership, the cup runneth over. Brands seem to have every incentive to partner up. Except for the possibility that things will go terribly wrong.
What leads to a brand partnership failure?
Invariably, plenty of partnerships don’t go as planned and can end up having negative effects on one or both brands. When things go wrong, there is usually some kind of disconnect at the heart of it all.
This can be as simple as brand personalities that just don’t fit, says Guttman. He says that imagining “a hypothetical partnership between the likes of Jeep and Otterbox is easy because they are both rugged brands—however it is much more difficult to imagine either brand partnering with Kleenex any time soon.”
Similarly, Trepanier says that failures can come from poor communication or not having a shared objective. “Very likely,” she says, “a partnership that failed was doomed even before liftoff.”
Now, have a look at some of the most recognizable brand partnerships in history and how they achieved their goals or went horribly awry.
Shell + LEGO®
One of the lengthier partnerships that eventually ended in failure was between prominent Dutch oil company Shell and prominent Danish toy company LEGO. They had a branding partnership that seemed to work pretty well for 50 years. LEGO got to stamp some real-world authenticity onto its race cars and gas station sets, while Shell was able to endear itself to customers from a very young age.
Questions start popping up in my mind.
For decades the partnership was a success, but as LEGO toys emerged from the basement and became a global children’s entertainment brand, Greenpeace noticed this partnership and believed that it was not quite right for children to play with toys that display the name of a petroleum company that had a history of questionable environmental practices and was pursuing aggressive oil drilling in the arctic.
Greenpeace released a widely watched and shared YouTube video that criticized the partnership by enveloping a picturesque LEGO arctic with thick, unforgiving crude oil... all to a melancholy rendition of The Lego Movie theme, "Everything is Awesome."
Public outcry from concerned citizens and parents was swift, and in 2011 the Shell–LEGO partnership came to an end.
Page says that, at first glance, this partnership certainly seemed to make sense to both brands: LEGO enjoyed distribution while Shell received positive brand association.
But, from a consumer’s perspective, Page explains that the pairing was quite problematic: “What does one of the world's biggest (baddest) oil production companies have to do with one of the world's biggest and most loved TOY brands? Questions start popping up in my mind. Is the LEGO plastic made from some petroleum derivative? Is LEGO actually contributing to Arctic pollution as a by-product of their manufacturing? All of a sudden, my brand love for LEGO starts to erode.”
Covergirl + Star Wars
In 2015, the Star Wars brand made a trip to galaxy far, far away: the makeup aisle. In one of the more unique brand partnerships in recent time, the sci-fi brand paired with a major makeup company to introduce a line of nail polishes, lipsticks, and mascaras in the months leading up to the release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
At first glance, it certainly seems like an odd pairing: droids and lightsabers meet concealer and eyeliner? But the partnership was by all accounts a success.
“Star Wars has a bit of a Midas touch with brand partnerships,” says Guttman. He points out the the excitement over the latest generation of Star Wars films is such that they can “even brand fruit” (which is true, though Star Wars grapes were not quite as well received).
Trepanier calls it “a brilliant partnership.” She points out that Covergirl was able to tap “into a pop culture phenomenon,” allowing them to showcase “their products to a wide audience.”
Neiman Marcus + Target
It’s not uncommon for high-end fashion brands to engage in the occasional mass market play. And Target is no stranger to pairing with a designer to feature in their stores. In fact, in 2011 Target worked with fashion designer Missoni to bring a 400-piece collection to their discount aisles.
And yet when Target partnered with luxury department store Neiman Marcus in 2012, the results were disastrous. Commentators and fashion bloggers eviscerated both brands for high prices, mediocre quality, and uninteresting designs.
It was a ‘high-low’ play that went a little too low.
Before long, Target had slashed the prices on the collection by a whopping 70 percent. Just like that, Target had gone from dabbling in designer magnificence to ferreting around in the bargain bin.
This disconnect was clear, says Trepanier: “Unfortunately Neiman Marcus and Target didn’t align in their vision. High fashion is about being edgy and standing out from the crowd, which is misaligned with the trend seeking mass market shoppers.”
The Neiman collection did not do anything to get Target shoppers excited, and was priced much higher than the average Target customer expects to see. Guttman called it “a ‘high-low’ play that went a little too low.”
Louis Vuitton + Supreme
While the Target and Neiman Marcus collaboration showed the pitfalls of mixing two disparate fashion brands, a partnership between luxury luggage brand Louis Vuitton and sneaker and t-shirt purveyor Supreme became a rousing (and surprising) success.
The release of the fashion hybrid created a stir in London as Supreme aficionados gladly stood in line and handed over thousands of British pounds to get their hands on some of the highly sought-after merch. The brand partnership was likely helped by the fact that both brands operate in an elevated market of the famous and fashionable.
Page describes the partnership as the improbable match up of “one of the world's biggest luxury brands, and one of the world's coolest street wear brands.” She points out that Louis Vuitton was able to tap into Supreme’s customer base of “uber rich youth,” while Supreme gained credibility from working with “one of the most prestigious luxury houses of all time.” Plus, the limited nature of the partnership only helped add “fuel to the fire."
In short, Page paints this as the high fashion equivalent of a home run: "It'd be foolish to think this was anything other than perfectly designed by both parties.”
U2 + Apple
Like the Shell and LEGO partnership, the pairing of tech titan Apple with rock band U2 had originally left both sides happy. In 2004, U2 helped herald the iPod age with their hit “Vertigo” in what is still considered an iconic commercial.
It seems the best laid plans of mice and Apple executives often go awry.
What a difference a decade can make. In 2014, when Apple introduced its iPhone 6 and Apple Watch, the company announced a partnership with U2 that would include providing an entire new U2 album for free for all iTunes users, something anticipated as a “remarkable offer.”
But the automatic download into libraries upset Apple’s legions of iTunes users and was called a “$100 million debacle.” Twitter was brutal; said user @lawblob:"I'm gonna break into Bono's house and put my mixtape on his iPod." It seems the best laid plans of mice and Apple executives often go awry.
Page says the explanation of why this particular partnership did not pan out is simple: “intrusion.” She points just how invasive on act this was by Apple: “One of the most personal, intimate spaces a person ‘owns’, or has, is his or her music collection. It's truly personal, curated by one.” Page says it is “unacceptable” for a consumer to have anything pushed into their private music library.
The band’s subdued relevance in 2014 didn’t help matters, says Ben Guttman—“U2 had lost some of their luster and thus everybody lost a little patience.”
Uber + Spotify
While the U2/Apple partnership hit a sour note, a brand collaboration between rideshare app Uber and music streaming service Spotify was music to both companies’ executives’ ears.
In 2014, Uber and Spotify announced that Spotify users with premium accounts would be able to stream their own playlists on Uber rides. The option was extremely popular with Uber riders and the partnership continues to this day.
“This is an example of a partnership that aligns two brands who speak to the same audience,” explains Page. She says that the collaboration resulted “in a greatly enhanced user experience for their content-saturated, hyper-connected millennial audiences, and rings true for both sides of the partnership.”
“It’s about enjoying the ride” says Trepanier, pointing out that it also encouraged Spotify customers to upgrade their account to the Premium service—“so both brands win.”
And when both brands win, you can be sure that other companies will look at that happy brand couple on a customer-sharing, image-boosting adventure and say, “I want to go to there.”