What we're talking about  

When two (or occasionally more) brands put their heads together and work on a project, something beautiful can happen. It might be as simple as featuring in each other’s newsletters, or as adventurous as making a new product together – the possibilities are almost limitless. It’s a complementary relationship as two businesses combine skill sets, audiences and, normally, budgets – all while working towards their own respective goals. 

There’s a subtle difference between the terms ‘partnership’ and ‘collaboration’: a partnership is generally more formal and longer term, while a collaboration could be a one-off effort and might happen mostly behind the scenes. However, for the purpose of this piece, we’ll be using the terms interchangeably. 

Why it's important  

Businesses of all sizes have woken up to the benefits that collaboration can bring. Research from advisory company Forrester shows more than three quarters of businesses now see partnerships as central to their sales and marketing strategy. For small businesses, specifically, they present a simple yet effective route to growth. Partnerships can help you build out your brand and make exciting, creative decisions – with a much lower level of financial risk attached. A successful collaboration not only gets your brand in front of new audiences, it also strengthens your brand’s reputation in the minds of existing customers.  

Nevertheless, collaboration requires effort and there are some risks. You don’t want to do all the work while your ‘partner’ reaps the benefits; and you don’t want poor organisation to damage a relationship with another brand. Partnerships need to be coordinated correctly because, whether they’re strong or weak, they affect the core identity of your product or service – and how both your employees and customers perceive it.

Things to note

There are many ways brands can partner up. Broadly, you can split collaborations into those that make something new (eg, co-creating a product, an event or a campaign), and those that boost distribution or marketing for a pre-existing resource (eg, republishing content, social media shout-outs or distributing another brand’s products). What you do will depend on your business’ needs and where you are in your life cycle, but it should help you capitalise as much as possible on your partner’s assets. Overall, a multifaceted strategy where you’re open to anything – like distributing a company’s products and shouting about them on social – will deliver maximum impact for both parties.

Cash isn’t always involved. You’re more likely to have funds involved if you’re making and co-branding something new with your partner because of manufacturing, distribution or marketing costs and the like. But brand partnerships don’t need a big budget to have an impact. In fact, they’re a great way to make waves without spending anything. Who needs an Instagram ad budget when you can make use of another account whose followers fall into the demographic you’re targeting?

You don’t have to partner with a similar-sized brand. It might feel natural to buddy up with another small business, but big brands have a lot to gain from partnering with newer companies. They might want to reinvigorate their image, show support for emerging ventures, or reach groups of people they haven’t thought about before. Leveraging a big brand’s following and expertise can lead to big wins, but you need to make sure your business gets its fair share of profit or benefit, and that your values align with those of your prospective partner. No short-term growth is worth compromising your brand’s long-term image and integrity.

You’re not confined to your own industry. A critical yet often overlooked aspect of brand collaborations is the wow factor. You want to draw attention with your partnership: the kind of attention that will ultimately lead to an increase in revenue. Therefore, whatever you put out needs to be exciting and prove your value. That’s where cross-industry collaboration can come in. That’s most often seen when brands look to push social goals – on topics such as sustainability, diversity or mental health.  

How to set up a successful brand partnership 

1. Establish your business’ values and needs. Clarify what you wish to gain from a partnership. Analyse what your business is lacking at the moment – from engagement with a specific niche, to a compelling social media presence – and how a partnership could help you get there. Additionally, note the values you aren’t prepared to compromise on and consider what your customer base would expect from your brand. 

2. Pool some initial ideas. It might be that you have a specific idea in mind as to the kind of partnership you want to pursue, and can approach brands with a fully formed idea. That’s rare, but it’s definitely worth coming up with some potential ideas before you get into any conversations. Get together with the rest of your team to pool ideas, taking into account what other players in your space might have recently worked on, or simply other recent partnerships you think were effective. 

3. Search for collaborators. Start scoping out partners-to-be. Remember to think beyond the walls of your own industry and size, and avoid brands that are too similar or totally irrelevant. Your own network is a good place to start: ask customers about the other products and services they use, and colleagues and contacts about referrals they might be able to make. Networking events or local business communities are handy places to meet people you might be able to work with. Instagram is also a helpful tool to find interesting businesses, and to see whether they’re involved in partnerships and therefore open to collaboration. 

4. Draw up a shortlist. Analyse each potential partner using the KARMA model: that they’re known (recognised by your audience), additive (bring new qualities), rare (not associated with many other brands), matching (in terms of price) or attractive (desirable enough to change buyer behaviour). Land on a list of around 10 collaboration options. 

5. Do your research. Now do some detailed reconnaissance for each potential partner. Don’t just look at the number of social media followers they have, look at the level of engagement their posts are generating. If they have a media kit, download it to understand their reach. Look up key team members on LinkedIn; ask previous collaborators what their experience was like. 

6. Get in touch. Reach out to your preferred options first, and don’t write anyone off because you don’t think you’ll get a response; it really is a case of don’t ask, don’t get. Check the brand’s website or LinkedIn to see if they have a specific partnerships lead, and get in touch with them directly if so. There are some handy tips on how to put your best foot forward in our guide to sales outreach. You’ll make the key decisions together with a partner further down the line, but don’t be too speculative in your email; give the contact reason to get excited and reply. 

7. Get together. If and when you receive a reply, organise a meeting. Here you can check whether their values align with your own, and discuss different ways you can help each other meet respective aims. Make sure you keep the conversation as open as possible – you might come prepared with some ideas but the best collaborations are often the result of organic chats. 

8. Land on the right project. Your conversation – and it may well be ongoing over a prolonged period of time – should point you towards a clear project that makes sense for both businesses, and is actually achievable. At this point, you need to clarify who will contribute what. Both parties should be left with a concrete set of to-dos, tailored to your respective skill sets.

9. Make it official. Time to get the proposal down on paper. This should include the time frame, what needs to be delivered when and how you’ll measure success. Unless you’re doing something more ad hoc, you’ll need to draw up some official legal documentation here – to formally clarify aspects such as costs, benefits and rights. There’s a helpful toolkit below, but it’s certainly worth getting a legal professional involved if you’re working on something major – and particularly if your funds are at stake.

10. Clarify the key dates. Brand partnerships can wither and die before their time if teams take too long to get going – or you don’t have an exact launch date to work towards. Plan coordinated announcements for key moments in the partnership; if you’re creating a product or campaign, work out when everything needs to be ready and how long you want it to be available for. For a partnership to work smoothly, you need to outline a roadmap that both businesses can work towards.  

11. Prepare for launch. Get thinking about your launch well in advance. Our guide to getting press coverage will be useful here. You need to make sure whatever you’re working on is seen by the right people, and that both businesses are synchronised in their communications. 

Key takeaways 

• A successful brand partnership can help you create projects you might otherwise be unable to, reach a whole new audience, and strengthen your brand in the minds of existing customers. 

• Choosing the right partner is key. That means considering goals, team chemistry, skill sets and community engagement; don’t just opt for the biggest name. 

• Getting clear on who will contribute what – and when – early on in the process is essential to prevent problems further down the line.  

Learn more 

Perspective. This bumper guide by Brian Peters was written when he was strategic partnerships lead at social management platform Buffer. Building on meetings with other experts in the field, Brian outlines his approach to strategic marketing and product partnerships. 

Example. For a comprehensive overview of current brand partnerships, subscribe to Content Commerce Insider, a newsletter that regularly publishes best of brand collaborations roundups.

Tool. When it comes to putting together a partnership agreement, there are certain key clauses you’ll need to include. UK-based Harper James Solicitors has a helpful checklist for the uninitiated. There are online collaboration agreement templates available, such as this one.

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