Brand collaboration is the new innovation for marketers
By Jaime Klein Daley, VP of strategy, CBX
This is a tale of two Goldfish.
The first story starts with a marketing challenge. Back in the 1960s, Goldfish crackers were introduced in America as a snack brand for all ages. But over time, Pepperidge Farm’s cheesy cracker snack became inextricably linked with toddlers. Social listening revealed a consumer request for “riskier” flavors, which would appeal to teens and adults. A need to expand beyond the crowded and restrictive “kid snack” category, plus a consumer push for newness, led Pepperidge Farm to develop a limited edition Frank’s Red Hot flavor Goldfish.
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The second story begins with a consumer truth. As marketers know, millennials are feeling nostalgic and as they’re getting older, looking to connect back to their “simpler” childhoods. So Goldfish decided to up the ante as it relates to spiciness, and develop a line of jalapeño flavored snacks. How? By partnering with JNCO jeans, embroidering the pack design into the fabric, and creating a PR frenzy.
Which Goldfish initiative is “better”? I’d argue that they’re both successful, but they operate on different terms. The marketers behind Goldfish took two different approaches to collaborations—one brand partnering with another, driven by a strategy to broaden its audience, appeal or ability to grab attention with consumers.
What Pepperidge Farm did makes sense when you think of brands as living, breathing things, with a DNA and an essential nature. Brands, like people, fall into habits, and as such often develop reputations over time. The brand “codes” get predictable and their behaviors are step-and-repeat.
Any great collaboration is both a strategic exercise and an executional challenge.
Conversely, brand marketing teams are charged with innovating. But innovation is risky. So to gain relevance, brands look across their proverbial lanes to find partners who’ll help them stretch beyond their brand comfort zones. The effect is something like dating the cool kid in school: added exposure, borrowed interest and renewed appeal.
Or, as cultural anthropologist and “Business of Aspiration” author Ana Andjelic writes, “Collaborations are basically a constant brand re-contextualization: They take (a brand) from one context and put it into another one. In that sense, there isn’t a ‘bad’ collaboration: Collaborations are calculated cultural and business tests … the strategy of brand awareness, market expansion and its fountain of youth.”
For brands in need of that fountain of youth, collaborations are easy ways to gain some notoriety, or at least a second glance from consumers. And for those consumers, purchasing a brand engaged in collaboration is about taking a safe risk—giving you the same thing you’re used to, but with a bit of a twist.
So that’s why the Frank’s Red Hot collab makes so much sense for Pepperidge Farm. The partnership borrows equity and credibility from both parties. For food brands, flavor is an easy way to approach collaborations. Just look at the collaborations between Old El Paso and Takis tortilla chips, Betty Crocker and Hershey’s on baking mixes, and Outshine frozen mango bars and Tajin seasonings.
On the other hand, the JNCO jeans and Goldfish collaboration feels less genuine, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a successful marketing tactic. This collaboration relies on borrowed interest and nostalgia felt by millennials for their teenage years, as evident in the return of Y2K fashion and lunchbox treats. (Dunkaroos, anyone?) The somewhat incongruent partnership between Goldfish crackers and JNCO jeans then operates at a degree of separation from the product itself. But we love it—for a fleeting moment, consumers (and, as you read this, marketers!) have a reason to talk about Goldfish, and maybe even bring the decades-old cracker brand to the front of our minds when shopping. If done for the right reasons—cultural cachet, for one—that incongruity is what drives the collaboration. Or as Andjelic states, “Good collaborations are art, great collaborations are kitsch.”
Of course, the ultimate goal for many classic CPG brands is to achieve some combination of the first and second strategies.
Where we see this type of success most clearly is among the “classics”—brands with very clearly defined visual codes or iconic positioning such as Cheetos snacks, AriZona tea and Dunkin’ Donuts. The products themselves serve as vessels for creativity and inspiration. They are so familiar to consumers that any “twist” on their expression becomes noteworthy. In fact, ColourPop has built its cosmetics business through collaboration. The company develops color palettes based on partnership with iconic brand characters, having found recent color inspiration from Peeps, Hello Kitty and Sailor Moon.
I’m calling this the “blank canvas” model, in which a brand actively makes room for, and develops strategies based on, these remixes with other brands. And the partnerships it develops are based on a deep understanding of its consumers, its role in culture and where it has an authentic reason to show up.
So when Oreo develops pink icing in partnership with Lady Gaga, the delight and sense of newness is bringing incremental growth as it reinforces Oreo’s core business. According to the New York Times, “in the time that sales were up 12 percent for novelty flavors, sales of the classic were up almost 22 percent, according to Nielsen.” Justin Parnell, senior director of the Oreo brand, is quoted as saying, “When we do it well, it drives our classic Oreo cookie as well as the sales of the limited edition.”
Collaborations are particularly thrilling in the world of fashion. Gucci’s recent collaboration with Adidas—bringing the trefoil and three stripes to its sleek tailoring and lush fabrics—is both a commitment to the Gucci DNA and original brand promise, as well as a sign of openness and willingness to re-contextualize.
For this reason, any great collaboration is both a strategic exercise and an executional challenge.
So, you’ve decided you’d like to dip your brand toes into collaboration. You should first ask yourself what a potential collaboration could look like. What brand equities do you borrow? What codes do you combine? Which brand partner “leads” the conversation?
We advise our agency’s clients to establish a consistent brand identity. Once “unpacked,” the brand’s equities often reveal new opportunities for expression, rooted in the fundamentals such as purpose, positioning and values. If your brand has been refreshed in the last few years, chances are that it currently contains a number of these building blocks, which can be re-articulated in fresh ways. It’s from the matching up of these building blocks that brilliant collaborations are born.
For brands in need of that fountain of youth, collaborations are easy ways to gain some notoriety, or at least a second glance from consumers.
The next step is to take a look at your brand assets, with an eye to those that are fixed (consistent, unchanging) versus those that are flexible (open to being changed, added to or rethought)—and deciding which ones to stretch across the collaboration.
If you’ve developed that brand to thrive in the digital world, chances are that the identity itself has been designed to flex and adapt to its environment—whether that be as simple as containing a holding shape (a la the original MTV icon or the LA 2028 logo), or as complex as changing to suit different environments (whether via screen or package). The goal is to start with the ultimate iconic expression of both your brand and your collaborator.
The consumer (and retailer) demand for newness will continue, and the need for innovation will remain central to a marketer’s remit. The good news about collaborations is that they provide an opportunity for your brands to take measured risks and innovate creatively while reinforcing your brands’ core equities. Success requires smart decision-making from both a strategic and executional perspective. But when cross-brand collabs are done right, brands have everything to gain and little to lose.
Jaime Klein Daley is VP of strategy for brand design agency CBX.