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Talent borrows, genius steals, but brands collaborate

Co-founder at Gravity Road, Mark Boyd on why good brand collaborations are about building brand communities

By Mark Boyd

Have you seen the Barbie Airbnb collab? It’s a real-life Barbie palace with a Margot Robbie tour in Architectural Digest to boot. Did you see the new Barbie Ford Bronco? It’s not, but judging by the fan art it should be. Accelerated by AI, web3 and new tech, brand collaborations are back in a big way and point to a new age of openness in marketing.

Nobody is pretending brand collaborations are new. They’re as old as the Kellogg's or Winston relationship with the Beverly Hillbillies in the sixties, perhaps even earlier than that. Brands have always sought partnerships with other brands to drive saliency and new news. So, what’s different now?

In truth, many partnerships of old were often plain licensing deals. The likes of Pepsi engaged a new generation through link-ups with the biggest artists, borrowing on the talent and the appeal of popular music. Cars licensed the names of contemporary artists. These were consumer brands borrowing from cultural brands. A one-way street in return for hard cash.

Things do seem to be evolving. Consider Pharrell Williams’ recent appointment to Louis Vuitton, which raised more eyebrows than McDonald’s. Does he understand pattern-cutting, they say. I doubt it, though he’s managed a career at the cutting-edge of culture. Louis Vuitton, once famously guarded, has emerged as an energetic collaborator: see its Riot collaboration with League of Legends, from the iconic Trophy Trunk Case, to game skins and a clothing line. Seen through this lens, Pharrell is the most brilliant kind of modern impresario.

The last two decades saw an increase in the number of collaborations in broader culture. “Featuring” or “with” signalled something new, fresh and energetic. But today, it’s brand collaborations with each other that are accelerating, and they’re getting more ambitious, moving beyond the confines of the fashion industry. If Moncler and Mercedes-Benz can reimagine a G-Wagon, and Absolut can create Heinz Ketchup , then Sonos can create furniture with Ikea, and GM can be in new Netflix shows.

Minecraft, the world’s biggest video game, brings its cultural energy to partnerships with the likes of Burberry and Lacoste.. Working as its ‘Beyond the Game’ partner, we recently helped Minecraft and Crocs create a collaboration that would not only work for both brands but also both fan communities. Minecraft players play differently with modes and speeds - Crocs wearers push the strap over the shoe between ‘chill’ and ‘sports’ modes. The ‘Choose Your Mode’ partnership is designed to appeal to the very passionate fans of both these brands. Put your special Crocs on, and customize your special gibbets in AR (if you know, you know) to reveal AR adventure games under your Crocs, including a lava flow, (which sounds more like something to be avoided).

But is the trend more than just a knee-jerk defense to some of the challenges current communications strategies face? Firstly, having switched on social, brands are working hard to fill their content calendars. Salience, at the speed of culture, is a constant challenge. Always-on media has a voracious appetite, and brands seek more meaningful new news because National Sandwich Day is no longer likely to cut it.

Secondly, energy is in short supply. A pandemic, a cost of living crisis and a long period of performance marketing focus at the expense of brand, has left many brands looking for a shot in the arm. Collaborations can deliver that and are often one of the fastest and most effective ways of driving reappraisal. Not necessarily a long-term strategy; more a new behavior.

Finally, efficiency is a real driver. The proliferation of platforms, formats and media, and the challenges of accountability are an ever-growing headache for marketers who already have challenging roles. Being able to pool paid, earned and owned resources with other brands is very powerful. Frictionless access to new customers is attractive. The opportunity then to make money through merchandising sales, moving comms from being a cost to being a revenue driver, looks very smart.

But the opportunity is more than that. Perhaps the most interesting dynamic is the inevitable pull of brands towards openness. Subcultures have always embraced other subcultures. We’ve started to chase brand connections and community over short-term sales and consumers. Confident brands are open to new ideas and partnerships. AI and web3 will only accelerate this.

Now, brand collaborations are fast evolving to be less about the whims of a couture label's head designer and more about the passions of a brands' most active fans. These communities will create trending content and queue around the block for the latest drop. The ones who, after a few minutes on Midjourney, are telling brands the kinds of collabs they want to see.

Collaborations are likely happening on your brands right now and without sign-offs or adherence to brand guidelines. You don’t need a ‘Photoshop for Dummies’ tutorial to design a brand and product mashup with Gen AI.

The opportunity for brands then, is for an end to the age of appropriation and the beginning of the era of true collaboration. New collaborations need to be transparent and equitable or they will quickly be called out.

Collaboration continues to be a potent way of bringing brands and communities closer together. Encouraging openness, it’s a contemporary brand behavior that’s driving business outcomes and will continue to evolve.

Mark Boyd is co-founder at Gravity Road


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