There are no silver bullets in the food and beverage marketing world – as marketers, this is good news for job security, bad news for sleep habits. Cutting through the noise is becoming increasingly challenging for food and beverage brands, and as a result, brands spend more and more time focused on how we can best tell our story. The paradox of this navel-gazing is that it actually prevents marketers from uncovering the kinds of breakthrough moments that we – and consumers – all crave. Sometimes, the best way to cut through the noise is to allow someone else – the right someone else – to help you tell your story.
Call it whatever you want – third-party validation, influencer marketing, word-of-mouth. The reality is that consumer trust can’t be earned with your voice alone. Awareness can be bought, but trust needs to be built – and lasting trust will not only stands up but also benefits from the addition of other voices. To make matters worse, telling your own story loudly enough can be cost prohibitive. Small brands, in particular, can’t just build a bigger soapbox. Marketers and brands can’t just turn up the volume. We need to think differently and to get out of our own way in the process. Done correctly, successful brand partnerships captivate consumer attention and cut through the noise in ways that build brand equity, generate shareable content, and increase share of voice. They can be fun and profitable. And, here’s the best part: they don’t have to be expensive.
To start: What are brand partnerships?
Simply put, a brand partnership is when two or more brands work together to pool resources for mutual benefit. In successful brand partnerships, the sum is greater than the parts. While these partnerships can take many forms, two of the more popular versions are co-branding and co-marketing. Co-branding begins with the creation of a shared product or service, while co-marketing is an agreement to promote existing products or services. The partnerships are different, but the rules are generally the same. Let’s start with partner selection.
How to Choose the Right Partner
The natural inclination for most brands contemplating a brand partnership is to think of the largest brand that has anything to do with their business. Developing a cookies and cream ice cream? Let’s call Oreo! Thinking about developing a frozen beer-battered chicken? Better email Budweiser! If the goal is to cut through the clutter, why not try and get the biggest brand to help you to do so? Other than the challenge of getting someone to pick up the phone (or respond to a LinkedIn request), approaching your next brand partner solely because of their size or reach overlooks the most important part of these relationships: the partnership. Brand partnerships don’t succeed because of the size of the brands involved, they succeed because the joint efforts the two brands create can be an experience or a moment in time that neither could create on their own – and everybody wins. The secret ingredient is creativity, but the table stakes revolve around alignment. In the case of brand partnerships, that alignment needs to exist between audiences, companies, and goals. The first is arguably the most important, and the hardest to achieve.
The best brand partnerships are authentic, and they are rooted in shared brand values. You know your brand better than anyone, and likely have an intuitive understanding of your consumer base. Seek out a partner whose audience aligns with yours – but not exactly.
The alchemy of brand partnerships is finding the kind of partner that will be both 1) pleasant and 2) surprising for your respective audiences. Too obvious and most people won’t care (remember when Ozzy and Kelly Osbourne sang ‘Changes’ as a duet? No? Exactly.) Not obvious enough and you lose the emotional connection – consumers don’t want to think about your brand, they want to love it. Force them to spend time learning about your brand partnership to ‘get it,’ and they move on (while not technically a brand partnership, we are still confused by Colgate’s foray into frozen meals). Too off-putting and it can backfire (Apple and U2, we’re looking in your direction).
When you find a partnership in the sweet spot, though, the end result is magic (think Doritos Locos Tacos). It’s a very, very fine line and often worth some experimentation. There is a reason these kinds of partnerships are popular in food and beverage circles: both parties generally understand flavor, and how to combine flavors in new and unexpected ways. There is a baseline of knowledge that allows food and beverage companies to focus on the end result. Start small and iterate.
If audience alignment is critical for a successful brand partnership, partner alignment is equally valuable. A brand partnership is a chance for you and your team to have fun with – and learn from – another organization. So, instead of thinking of the biggest brands in your space, think about the people you already know and like. And make sure they meet the following criteria, at a minimum:
They pick up the phone when you call. This should go without saying – but it doesn’t. Even the best-laid plans can get derailed by circumstances outside of your control. In order to respond quickly, as a team, your partner needs to be accessible.
They respect transparency. At some point, you’ll need to discuss the details of the partnership. Who is doing what, when, with which resources, and for how long? That conversation is not an easy one and is best handled directly. Partnering with someone who understands your business goals is key – and for all of the fun, creative aspects of brand partnerships, they are not without investment of money and time; your partner needs to understand and appreciate your business goals.
They have the bandwidth to focus on the partnership. It’s critical that expectations are established early and monitored throughout the life of the partnership. Yes, you should like working with your partner; you should also have a written partnership agreement. The last thing you want to find out just as the partnership launches, is that your new partner has another, larger initiative on their calendar that will prohibit them from giving you the attention you expected.
Remember – the same criteria applies to you. It’s worth stressing again: choose a partner that you can (or, better yet, do) get along with. This is one massive trust fall, and the potential upside is significant if everyone is aligned around shared goals and commitments. For some brands, the allure of co-branding is so strong that they focus on the partner brand and sacrifice their presence in the process. The minute you start feeling like someone is ‘winning,’ pause – focus on the alchemy in the combination of brands.
Ultimately, like all good marketing tactics, brand partnerships need to be grounded in strategy. That strategy will help define goals and, in all likelihood, help determine whether or not a brand partnership is right for you. As brand stewards, the thought of giving up some control of your brand should make you nervous; brand partnerships are not without risk. In fact, they are one slip-up away from a public relations disaster (and those are not easy to recover from).
For all the reasons described above, though, leveraging the goodwill and talents of the right partner to grow your brand should also make you excited. Done well, they have the potential to excite your team, elevate brand awareness, deepen brand equity, and generate endless amounts of on-brand content. With the right partner, they have the potential to create the kinds of breakthrough moments your brand deserves.
Ethos is a multiplatform branding agency that develops and executes integrated marketing campaigns across multiple channels for companies inside and outside of Maine.
At Ethos, we believe that the most effective way to set a company’s marketing course is by finding its core truth – its ethos. We know that once we discover and communicate that core truth, we can truly make a difference for each client’s unique marketing and business objectives.
With Ethos, you get more than a food and beverage marketing agency. You get a long-term partner whose goals are your goals.