Brand collabs: How much is too much?

From the C-Suite newsletter: Is the tactic still "cool" now that mainstream brands are flocking to the trend?


By Chelsea Clarke

One scroll through social and you’re likely inundated with a new brand collaboration – some that make perfect sense, and some that leave us scratching our heads.

Whether that’s M&Ms making shoes with Adidas, Barbie designing clothes alongside Paris’ Balmain, Justin Bieber working with Tim Hortons to bake Timbits, McDs making t-shirts with Peace Collective, or Chipotle creating makeup with E.l.f. – there’s been a frenzy of corporate brand collabs over the last few years.

According to Laura Richard, senior executive at Level5 Strategy, company collaborations can shift brand perceptions and provide access to new audiences. But how much is too much? With partnerships having picked up speed over the last few years – depositing as many brands as possible onto its bandwagon – has the strategy become played out?

Choose your collaborators wisely

There are two ways of going about developing collabs. The first is to pair heavy-hitter brands, such as Adidas and Gucci. In this approach, Jay Chaney, partner and chief strategy officer of Broken Heart Love Affair says that “brands net a built-in audience, but run the risk of the consumer viewing the endeavour as a stunt to gain interest.”

On the other hand, some companies may choose to partner with more underground, lesser-known brands to boost their “cool” points. According to Hypebeast, New Balance has exclusively used this strategy, partnering with up-and-coming designers like Jaden Smith and Joe Freshgoods in order to occupy as many subcultures as possible and create an element of discovery.

However, this approach also comes with risks. “There’s nothing worse than a brand trying to act cool by trying too hard, especially when everyone knows that it has no cool credentials to speak of,” says Mark Tomblin, founder of Thinking Unstuck. But, if you know your audience and you choose an underground brand that’s just right, then you’ll demonstrate that you “get” them, explains Philippe Garneau, president and co-founder of GWP Brand Engineering.

Experts advise that when it comes to selecting your partnerships, start by determining your goal.

“Are you looking to establish that you’re big, powerful, and known? Or that you have your finger on the pulse of the up-and-comers?” poses Chaney. “If you’re dependent on the relationship to sell, you may want to borrow interest from a known quantity. If you’re looking to enhance your brand with a ‘cool’ factor and aren’t worried about immediate sales, then it’s probably okay to partner with new entrants.”


Amid saturation, is the tactic still effective?

“In my experience, two things drive the rate of adoption to new marketing approaches: the ‘herd’ effect, and the actual business effectiveness,” explains Tomblin. He believes that the former driver may be the case when it comes to collabs, with consumers (and their falling victim to FOMO) driving brand adoption. However, he says, mass traction may provide inadequate data, and returns can be difficult to track.

“It often takes a few years to set in, as the actual returns – and perhaps more importantly, the opportunity costs of any new type of activity – gradually come to be understood and accepted,” says Tomblin. “While there are undoubtedly some that work well for the respective brand owners, the majority are likely marginally effective at best, and almost certainly, at least in those cases, money could have been better invested elsewhere.”

According to Garneau, just because more brands have co-opted collabs, that’s not to say they should be avoided entirely – there just requires deeper strategic planning. Your first step? Research. “Great marketing is rooted in having a real understanding of your brand’s DNA,” says Tomblin. “[But] you’ll [also] need to have a deep understanding of two brands, rather than just one, if you’re going to make a sensible decision as to whether the investment is going to work for you.”

Richard also recommends creating a tactical game plan: “I anticipate more formalization of decision-making tools for when and how a brand seeks out a collaboration – and clear criteria to inform the characteristics of the partner being sought… The most important factor in a brand collaboration is clarity and alignment between the partners regarding their respective and shared objectives,” she adds.

And because collabs are ubiquitous, your marketing will need to push the boundaries of creativity to make an impact. “The key is in the idea of being unexpected. It does the heavy lifting of generating immense interest,” says Chaney. “Any collaboration is meant to raise both ships,” adds Garneau. “But do it too much with too many collaborators and [you’ll find that] brand dilution can be a signal that all is not quite right with your brand health.”