Does every x lead to gold? The best and worst of brand collabs
Two brands hooking up is nothing new – Stan Smith and Adidas were kicking around together in 1965 – but these imperfect marriages have exploded in recent times. Paul McEntee picks out the hits and the misses.
In the past 10 years alone, Google search data shows that there has been an 1150% increase in interest for the term ‘brand collaborations’ and we, the consumer, can’t get enough of them, salivating over the content and collateral they can produce to feed our frenzied minds. But how many of them actually succeed?
I've taken a look at the brand collabs that border the bonkers and the brilliant and rated them accordingly. My rating system goes like this:
Five stars – Goldstrike
Four stars – Piping hot partnership
Three stars – A meaningful match
Two stars – A confusing coupling
One star – Serious spam
The Boozy One: Heinz x Absolut
After initially lending itself to being filed under ‘so random’, this collab subsequently transpired as super smart. Taking its lead from Gigi Hadid sharing her vodka pasta recipe on Instagram a couple of years ago, the combo picked up steam on TikTok as a trendy recipe. Absolut and Heinz leaned into each other's iconic advertising to create something which felt genuinely new and served both audiences. And it turns out this dish was a thing in the 80s. Hurrah.
Score: Five stars – Goldstrike
False Promises: The Nike x Tiffany
Normally the masters of cool, Nike misfired on this collab. Creating a trainer inspired by the Tiffany colorways, came under fire for lacking imagination. Sneakerheads in particular were not impressed, saying the collab was lazy and one-dimensional. What’s worse, creators took to AI to demonstrate how the collab could have looked, creating ambitious and inspirational product concepts that played more into the heritage of the two brands – for example, shoe laces with bejeweled sections.
Score: Two stars – A confusing coupling
The Fugly One: Greggs x Primark
Love it or hate it, the high street giants of affordable fashion and affordable snacks created an internet sensation when it dropped its clothing collab. Now onto its third iteration, the merchandise capsules featured co-branded swimsuits, sliders and socks. We’re yet to see anyone of any clout wearing them on the streets, but at least you can’t feel guilty for dusting off your vegan sausage roll crumbs while attired.
Score: Three stars – A meaningful match
The Foursome: Gymbox x Surreal x Numan x Cheesegeek
This imagining of what may be the world’s first-ever four-way brand collab remixed the most famous Daft Punk song to remix it as ‘Harder, Feta, Faster, Stronger’ – promoting each of the brands’ USPs.
Score: Four stars – Piping hot partnership
The Nation’s Fav: Airbnb x Coronation Street
Airbnb is a master of brand collab by shrewdly making unobtainable locations ‘sleepable’. It nailed this particular hook-up by allowing one lucky superfan couple to reside on the famous cobblestone streets. Cue a pint at the Rovers Return and brekkie at Roy’s Rolls.
Collab Score: Four stars – Piping hot partnership
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The Litigious One: Aldi x Brewdog
Aldi, purveyors of treading a legal fine line when ripping off the IP of the nation’s favorite FMCG goods, copycatted a Brewdog IPA. Said beer brand then launched litigation, resulting, hilariously, in the brands teaming up to create a beer brand collab, with all proceeds going to a good cause.
Collab Score: Three stars – A meaningful match
The One for Nerd-Core Fans: Francois Bourgeois x Gucci
It didn’t take long for the smart suits at Gucci to identify Francis Bourgeois and his disarming charm as a trend that was firmly on the way up. Niche became the new mainstream as an ad campaign and clothing line with North Face dropped – all based on the romanticism and adventure of train travel. Ahoy.
Brand Collab: Five stars – Goldstrike
The Misstep: Yeezy x Adidas
Where to start? A phenomenally successful partnership until the personality side of it made repeatedly unacceptable comments that sit particularly awkwardly with the brand and its origins. Cue $1.3b of unsold stock.
Brand Collab: One star – Serious spam
The One for Gamers: Balenciaga X Fortnite
In the metaverse, brand collabs can happen quickly but not always slicker. This is exactly what occurred when this fashion house made a line of wearables for in-game Fortnite. Cue goliath digital OOH media buys to bring it all to life in classic larger-than-life metaverse style. But could anyone afford it?
Collab Score: Two stars – A confusing coupling
The Social Activism One: Burberry x Marcus Rashford
Post-Black Lives Matter, consumers wanted concrete ‘receipts’ from brands - evidence they are at least trying to make the world better. Burberry responded in style, teaming up with man-of-the-moment Marcus Rashford while also partnering with black-owned storytelling platform, PRIM
Brand Collab: Four stars – Piping hot partnership
The Learning Bit
The results show that brand collabs, while an appealing route to market, are fraught with dangers. Choose the wrong partner, and your brand is forever tied to it via the proxy of the internet. But strike gold, and a brand collab can be up to 25 times more cost-effective than buying digital advertising around your product (according to Boston University).
Here are some top tips on how x can lead to gold:
1. Find a brand that makes sense
When it comes to choosing a brand to team up with, opting for a surprising partner isn’t always funny anymore. Show integrity by joining forces with a brand that matches your values.
2. Don’t rush the product
Collaboration is a means to an end, not an end itself. Create something that reflects both brands, but looks like it couldn't have been made without the help of the other.
3. Combine your resources
When it’s GTM time, pool your resources, creatives and ideas rather than relying on the marketing machine of just one of the brands.
4. Keep it special
Reserve collaborations for the right time and use them sparingly. Don’t resort to churning them out to try to get quick clout, as you’ll soon cannibalize each collaboration and make them less impactful.
5. Make it accessible
The hype bubble can ratchet up demand, but what is the point when the collab is unobtainable? Some of the best collaborations democratize luxury by making it affordable via a more mainstream partner.
6. Give back
For bonus points, make sure your collaboration offers something beneficial beyond creating a new product. Whether it’s bringing a relevant charity into the mix, supporting one another’s causes or putting people over profit, prove that we’re truly better together.
Paul McEntee is the founder of PR agency Here Be Dragons. Download ‘Brand Collabs: Does every x lead to gold?’