How Do You Create a Successful Brand Collaboration in a Crowded Market?

Experts say brands should opt for functionality over buzz for long-term impact

Dating app Hinge teamed up with Headspace to launch custom meditations designed to calm pre-date nerves and self-doubt. Hinge and Headspace
Headshot of Ian Zelaya

Even during a pandemic, 2020 has shown that brand collaborations aren’t going anywhere. Brands teaming up on campaigns or products to gain new customers can be met with fanfare—or apathy, and even straight up ridicule from consumers.

Take Cole Haan’s new partnership with Slack, in which the nearly 100-year-old footwear company debuted $120 sneakers featuring the workplace messaging app’s corporate logo and four signature colors. Cole Haan’s objective for the partnership was to reach younger consumers by presenting a shoe that nods to the app’s goals of fostering workplace creativity and productivity.

The partnership was a head scratcher for some. GQ described the collaboration as bizarre and “way past the point of irony,” while a few folks on Twitter mocked the corporate pairing.

So how can marketers create a successful brand collaboration during a time when tone-deaf marketing is not only unacceptable, but can lead your brand to get swiftly dragged on social media?

Authentic and functional

Anne Marie Neal, global business lead at Omnicom and global CMO at its agency Rapp, said brand mashups need to foster excitement but extend that into long-term customer loyalty and preference. To do this, Neal said collabs must be authentic and culturally relevant.

“Unless you can prove through data that there is some level of authentic offering that meets a customer need, don’t do it,” Neal said. “The brand trust between consumers and brands is so waning right now. When you do something that’s inauthentic and lacks any sense of cultural relevance, you’re only going to create distance from the brand instead of affection and loyalty.”

Christie Nordhielm, a marketing consultant and associate teaching professor at Georgetown University, added to this sentiment, noting brands should consider the long-term value of the partnership rather than just jumping in with the goal of creating short-term buzz.

Cole Haan/Slack

“The [Cole Haan and Slack] promotion seems like an example of desperation and overreaching,” Nordhielm said. “Unlikely partners or weird collaborations are going to happen for awhile because they capture attention. But they’re going to run their course because they’re super tactical and promotional, as opposed to strategic.”

Nordhielm said brands will find success with collaborations that offer their target audiences functionality, or products that are useful in the current moment.

Dating apps Hinge and Bumble recently demonstrated this strategy by partnering with online meditation platforms to provide mental health and self-care resources to members as they navigate dating in a pandemic.

Hinge teamed up with Headspace to launch custom meditations designed to calm pre-date nerves and self-doubt. Bumble partnered with Calm to give members of both apps content for boosting bravery and mindfulness when it comes to dating, and a 40% discount on Calm’s annual subscription.

The Bumble and Calm partnership was sparked by Bumble’s survey of more than 4,000 users. Seven in 10 reported 2020 had brought significant changes to their dating lives, and one in four reported being newly single after experiencing a breakup during the pandemic.

Bumble and Calm launched a partnership in October.Bumble

“We understand that the pandemic has transformed how we connect with others and, during a time of such change, we want to give the millions of people on our app the tools to incorporate mindfulness and courage into their personal lives,” Bumble’s head of insights Jemma Ahmed said.

The Calm partnership isn’t Bumble’s first sparked by the pandemic, either. The dating app teamed up with canned wine brand Babe to cover moving costs for people going through a pandemic breakup, complete with a branded pink moving truck.


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ian.zelaya@adweek.com Ian Zelaya is an Adweek reporter covering how brands engage with consumers in the modern world, ranging from experiential marketing and social media to email marketing and customer experience.
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