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Founder and CEO of Schieber Research, a leading market research company located in NYC. Trends and innovation expert and keynote speaker.
“Originality thrives in seclusion,” said famous inventor Nikola Tesla, and some of the best creative minds of past generations echoed that idea, solitarily looking for those eureka moments that are few and far between to fuel innovation. But then came social media. The flow of ideas — followed by an influx of creators, brands and a new platform for commerce — made co-creation, or collaboration, into one of the best strategies for today’s marketers to get noticed, spur excitement and remain relevant.
Creative collaborations, long common in fashion and beauty, are now a given in virtually any industry. They can provide the parties involved with faster access to marketing channels, consumer groups and content. They often include a unique line of products and services that can support the partners’ positioning, market share, sales and differentiation. They are agile by nature: They respond to trends and ideas, and these tend to require flexibility and quick thinking.
Through my company’s research, we’ve found that the best collaborations start with the consumer: They create delight and offer meaning, uniqueness and customization — all of which seem to be prerequisites among Gen Z consumers. They allow partners to create something new, play with their shared values and equity, and explore out-of-the-box thinking. Collaborations can empower consumers by providing them with solutions and tools to fit their lifestyle (e.g., Wyndham Hotels and Rover pet care service) or cater to their search for self-care through rituals (take Colgate’s collaboration with Headspace to create “mindful moments” during teeth brushing). They can engage a bigger market toward a shared purpose (the launch of Peloton and Beyonce’s partnership was meant to honor historically Black colleges and universities), approach new consumer segments (as with the North Face and Gucci collaboration, targeting Gen Z consumers), or create delight and surprise to rise above the competition, build awareness and drive sales (think Oreo’s Lady Gaga limited-edition cookies).
The upside of collaboration as a strategy is undeniable, whether for iconic brands pursuing relevancy with a new generation of consumers or for trend-leaning brands aspiring to avoid becoming a passing fad. In recent years, my company has documented hundreds of collaborations encompassing many industries, categories, people and markets, a collection of which can be found here. We’ve found that companies that use collaboration as a strategy are the ones that, to quote Crocs president Michelle Poole, treat their brands “as a blank canvas that can fuel the latest trends or conversations.”
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Indeed, Crocs uses collaborations to remain consumer-focused and relevant and to gain cult-brand status after rebounding from a “near death experience.” The brand has collaborated with fashion brands like Balenciaga and food brands like KFC. It’s also successfully collaborated with Post Malone, Bad Bunny and Justin Bieber. These partnerships are creating “surprise and delight” for consumers and no doubt contributed to the company’s record earnings report in 2020.
Companies like Levi’s, IKEA and Adidas are using collaborations to respond to mega trends and ideas like sustainability and inclusion and diversity to appeal to new generations of consumers and shoppers. For example, the collaboration between IKEA and designer Virgil Abloh made art accessible to more people through the MARKERAD collection, and IKEA and Sonos worked together to re-create premium speakers as part of a line of affordable furniture pieces.
Meanwhile, Levi’s president and CEO Chip Bergh acknowledged that “collaborations continue to generate brand heat, as well as drive traffic in sales.” Levi’s has collaborated with Google to create a “smart” jacket. The brand also has worked with Target to create a sustainable home collection. In two other interesting fashion collaborations announced in the past year, Levi’s launched a rental denim collection with Ganni and partnered with Miu Miu to upcycle “pre-loved” Levi’s jeans.
Adidas’ collaboration with Kanye West might be one of the most successful collaborations for the company in terms of buzz, market relevance, awareness and sales creation. It’s part of a detailed open-source mindset strategy that includes collaborations with creators, athletes and partners. Among other things, it calls for “placing internal value on newness,” “being comfortable with unpredictable outcomes” and “letting go of control to learn a new process.” From what we’ve seen, these are some of the roots of successful collaborations.
I think this mindset can help companies develop their collaboration strategies through characterizing different partners, channels and outcomes. Above all, understand what you are trying to achieve. Yes, sometimes, the goal will be merely to achieve that hype or coolness factor. But other times, consider channeling the IKEA spirit of “collaborating with creative thinkers to solve urgent and future problems in order to create a better everyday life for the many people.”
To sum up, these are the three C’s of a successful collaboration that we’ve identified:
• Consumer: Be consumer-obsessed. Aim to add value to both parties’ consumers.
• Control: Be willing to let go. This is a place for experimentation.
• Creativity: Dig deep. Don’t be afraid to get “weird” with it.
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Author: Hamutal Schieber, Forbes Councils Member