Originally published at AW360 by Brady Sadler

Collaboration marketing is on the rise. Take a look at the fashion industry and you’ll quickly understand why.

The new media landscape that marketers are facing is extremely complex. As a result, brands have been forced to think creatively in order to stand out. Today, it takes more than just a good product to succeed—marketers need to leverage the advantages of digital and social media and use these platforms to genuinely connect with consumers in order to build narrative around their brand’s values. This has been a guiding principle for years, yet many companies have done relatively little to change their approach to brand development. Fearful of risk, they make do with the same approach that they’ve employed for years – and in turn, they see profits dwindle.

On the other hand, those who embrace new media and are not afraid to take a few risks will ultimately see the most success. Engagement and customer experience need to be prioritized, and must be catered to in a way that feels authentic. Collaboration is an ideal solution: a smart marketer’s Swiss Army Knife, brand collaborations both engage and excite consumers, and when executed well, will generate long-term loyalty.

Look around and I’m sure you’ll begin to notice examples of collaboration in your daily life. Perhaps you have a bag of Doritos by Taco Bell chips in your cabinet. A Disney x Dooney and Bourke handbag in your closet? Or perhaps the Beats by Dre wireless headphones (now owned by Apple) and a SoulCycle x lululemon tee in your gym bag? These are just a few mainstream examples, but brand collaborations can also be more nuanced, situational or contextual as our world becomes increasingly connected by technology. With this in mind, companies across all stages of development, from startup to corporate, can utilize a collaborative strategy to grow an audience and enhance their position within their specific niche of the market.

But not just any collaboration will do – brands that partner with one another must also fit.

When there’s fit (shared values, goals and target audiences), brand collaborations not only shape perception, expand awareness and excite existing believers – they give everyone something to talk about. And in today’s media world, if you’re not being talked about, you’re irrelevant. Put another way, brand collaborations provide a simple heuristic link to an overwhelmed consumer: I have an affinity for X, so Y must be worth checking out too. While subtle, this sort of link has incredible filtering power.

In fact, co-branding and collaboration are no longer optional for a brand’s success: they’re a strategic imperative. When executed thoughtfully, with a clear line of communication and well-established mutual goal between both parties involved, these partnerships have enormous impact on a brand’s long-term outlook and profitability.

We can learn quite a bit about collaboration by looking at the fashion industry, a pioneer in new marketing strategy for decades. Leaders in this space understand the power that lies in creatively connecting the dots between various brands, including products, services, individuals, media and technology. Apparel is something tangible and lasting; buying clothing or shoes is an emotional decision and, when worn, becomes an extension of a consumer’s personal brand. Thus, a thoughtfully-executed collaboration of two or more brands, styles or designs can greatly enhance brand recognition and build an audience of like-minded individuals who become loyal to both labels involved.

Brand ‘collabos’ that are produced in limited quantities can be even more powerful. Take for example the much-talked-about Off-White x Nike sneakers. Virgil Abloh’s influence brought the classic Air Jordan style to new heights, and the limited-edition styles have flown off Nike’s shelves. When only small quantities are produced, these collaborative products are seen as ‘iconic’ and rapidly increase in value, even turning into collector’s items.

Kanye West’s partnership with Adidas is another good example in footwear. The “Yeezy Effect” brought in $2 billion more in sales for Adidas in 2015 than the company had averaged prior to the partnership, and has boosted the brand with a halo effect that is likely to stick around for at least a few more years. In April 2018, Kanye took to Twitter announcing that the Yeezy brand on its own will hit $1 billion this year.

Here in my backyard of Boston, MA, I’ve watched a number of leaders masterfully apply the collaboration playbook, including Mark Bollman, founder of sportswear brand Ball and Buck. Mark and his team have embraced collaboration as a core strategy when it comes to building authenticity and maintaining cultural relevance. The company is still growing and evolving, and Bollman credits collaboration as a key ingredient to his success—both that with other brands, and that which has taken place directly with the customer as a sort of co-creation process (yet another form of brand collaboration).

Ball and Buck’s very first product was a simple t-shirt that buyers could customize by selecting their own fabric, pattern, or color for the breast pocket. By allowing purchasers to influence the look of the product and take part in the design process, Bollman established an emotional connection and began building up the narrative of values behind his product: Specifically, that all Ball and Buck items are constructed thoughtfully, made by hand, and produced in the USA.

Co-creation with customers rooted the concept of collaboration deep into the company’s values, and eventually led to partnerships with other brands. One of Ball and Buck’s best-known products was a sneaker produced in collaboration with New Balance. The sneaker was a variation on the well-known 585 model, incorporating the New Balance silhouette with a Ball and Buck signature plaid, a design representative of the traditional New England hunting estate heritage. This resonated with the local audience and beyond, and the shoe (again, offered in limited quantities) sold out within hours of its launch.

Whether you’re developing a collaborative product or service, a unique experience, or a piece of content, you can significantly increase the likelihood of success by ensuring two things are in place:

  1. Your partnership is based on clear fit
  2. You’re developing something – whether product, service, experience, or content – that delivers value for your collective target audience

Off-White x Nike, Kanye x Adidas and New Balance x Ball and Buck collaborations all adopted this approach. As Mark Bollman explained in a recent interview, “We should only collaborate on a product if the result of the collaboration is better than the product we could have made independently. […] We don’t make shoes, we’re not good at making them and we don’t plan to make them. There’s a technical expertise that we’re not set up to do, and if we tried it wouldn’t be as good as what is currently on the market. Instead, we offer shoes through collaborations with those who do it really well like Danner Boots, New Balance, and PF Flyers.” Like any art form, brand collaborations don’t have to be complicated, but they do have to make sense.

Now it’s your turn. And if you need inspiration, just think about your favorite fashion collaboration and try to reverse engineer the fit and value proposition. I bet you’ll find these two elements clearly on display.