Four Principles of Brand Partnership
May 10th | 2016
by Laura Nelli

Great partnerships are so much more than tit-for-tat relationships, credibility plays or scaling mechanisms.

They have the potential to humanize brands, improve people’s lives and make the unobtainable obtainable. They even have the power to shape culture. At Zeus Jones, we’ve analyzed the mechanics of partnership for the benefits that go beyond their measurable value. We’ve found some principles that make partnerships powerful—and make them more than just tactical business arrangements.

Before we start, a reminder that to partner is to be human.

In 1926, the Wisconsin town of Eagle River was faced with a winter tourism problem: the frigid temperatures and lack of activity meant that no one wanted to visit. The first step toward fixing the problem? Forming a high school hockey team. For a few years, the team played outdoors on a frozen lake, and the tourism situation didn’t change much. But in 1933, one man rallied a group of fellow fans together to build a stunning wooden dome stadium to house an ice rink for the community. Designed by architect Max Hanisch Sr., the stadium was the crown jewel in a larger winter sports complex developed to draw tourism to the area. The key thing to remember is that it wasn’t a corporate or government-sponsored initiative, but rather a grassroots effort led by local residents who chose to work together to create change. In the end, successful partnerships are an innately human action, one that often gets unnecessarily complicated by business mores and jargon.

Principle 1: Partnerships can humanize brands.

It’s common knowledge that consumers are more critical than ever of big food brands, their ingredient choices and their manufacturing processes. There’s a strong bias toward anything and everything that more closely aligns with a purer notion of “real food”—even as fragmented cultural conversations about food make that definition of “real” increasingly difficult to define. So how can a brand gain back its trust and credibility with consumers?

When we worked with Progresso to help consumers understand what actually goes into every can of soup they make, we knew it was critical to cut through the noise and connect on a human-to-human level. We wanted to collaborate with someone who had a rising but dedicated following, rather than a rock-star chef who was a household name already. That’s why we partnered with an independent filmmaker and storyteller named Liza de Guia, whose own skepticism about Progresso made her more (not less) qualified for the job. Although a passion for food ties her work together, her guiding purpose is to learn about people: what drives them, what they care about and how those things come to life in their work. Viewing a major packaged food brand through that human lens proved to be more illuminating than any ingredient deck.

A partnership with the right person can add life to your brand’s creative work while providing third-party credibility that you really are acting on your principles.

Principle 2: A good partnership accomplishes a mutually shared goal.

Often, when people or organizations are approached by a brand, their question is, “What do you want from us?” They see the relationship as purely quid pro quo: a transaction rather than a true collaboration. So how do you get them to think differently?

When we worked with Cheerios and the Family Dinner Project, that’s just what we explored. We knew that it was key for Cheerios to make breakfast at home matter again in an era when families seldom have time to eat together in the morning. The Family Dinner Project was working on a similar goal: getting families to sit down for dinner more often. Through its research, The Family Dinner Project discovered that kids who ate dinner at the table with their parents had better academic performance, higher self-esteem and lower risk of depression, substance abuse and obesity. Cheerios’ own research suggested that eating breakfast was associated with improved nutrition, healthier body weights and better school performance. These goals aligned too beautifully to ignore the natural partnership we could have together. The Family Dinner Project had a community, expertise and a cause; Cheerios had scale and resources. So, in an effort to bring families back to the breakfast table, we worked together to create a guide aimed at making breakfast an enriching time for the whole family. It included a series of activities, conversation starters, tips and recipes to make breakfast easier and more meaningful.

The partnership we created together was the very definition of mutually beneficial, and rallying around the shared goal of helping families added a new sense of meaning and motivation to the work we did together.

Principle 3: A great partnership gives people access to something meaningful.

Many parts of culture are still gated and inaccessible, even in the Internet age. High fashion, for example, has always been accessible only to a few. But when Target created its designer collaboration series, it gave people access to designers they loved at prices they could afford—and, as a result, revolutionized shopping. This approach doesn’t just change culture, it engages people and, ultimately, builds brand loyalty.

We got the chance to provide people with access to something they’d never had access to before: choosing which athlete goes on the Wheaties box. For decades, the iconic Wheaties box has been a stage for our nation’s most exalted sports figures, and athletes know they’ve etched a place in history when they’ve made it there.

In July of 2014, we worked with Wheaties to kick off a campaign called Wheaties NEXT to find the next athlete to feature on the Wheaties box. This time, though, the iconic breakfast cereal was to feature an athlete from an emerging sport, rather than an established one. And it was the fans who got to choose that athlete.

But, in true Wheaties fashion, fans couldn’t just cast a vote with a traditional ballot—they had to cast it with sweat. To access an audience committed to fitness on the level that Wheaties NEXT needed, we worked with the brand to partner with MapMyFitness. For two months, fans of the five athletes in contention for the box logged their workouts via MapMyFitness. At the end of the campaign, Anthony Pettis, a lightweight UFC fighter, was the winner. But the partnership didn’t just get fans involved—Anthony Pettis himself cheered his fans on to greater heights, and so did the whole UFC organization. The fans, the sport, the athlete were all part of the process in a way they’d never been before.

What you give people access to could be anything from an element of culture (like fashion designers) to open-sourcing your own brand assets. A partnership can invite people to participate in new ways—in effect, giving them the reins to make your brand vital and exciting in a way it never has been before.

Principle 4: Partnerships have the power to shape culture, but only if you’re willing to take a risk.

Risk can be a scary thing in the world of business, where you can test and measure almost any idea before launching into it. But taking a chance on the unknown and seeing if it works may be the way your brand creates real impact.

Florence, a sleepy southern city in Alabama, was once a thriving hub of the American textile manufacturing industry. But after the establishment of the North American Free Trade Agreement, Alabama lost nearly 30% of its textile manufacturing jobs. The results of that downturn have been devastating, both to the local economy and to generations of textile workers.

Natalie Chanin grew up in Florence and saw NAFTA’s effects firsthand. That’s exactly why her fashion label, Alabama Chanin (whose clothing sells for upwards of $4,000 per piece at Barney’s), made a risky business decision: to base all of its production in Florence. It was quite a departure from business as usual in the fashion industry, which is based almost entirely in New York City or overseas.

But Alabama Chanin’s work to reverse the outsourcing trend in fashion didn’t stop there. The company forged a partnership with a nonprofit called Nest. Nest works with the world’s most promising artisans to build sustainable businesses that make a positive impact while providing safe and healthy workplaces. Together, Nest and Alabama Chanin are creating a pilot program that provides education to help Florence locals find employment in the textile industry. In other words, they’re empowering women and giving people of all backgrounds the opportunity to become the next generation of production managers, seamstresses and factory operators.

While the results of this partnership are unknown, the hands-on approach Alabama Chanin and Nest have taken has redefined how a business can interact with its surrounding community. If it’s successful, their work has the potential not only to reinvigorate the dying textile industry in Florence, but also to change the fashion industry as a whole.

Putting the principles of partnership into practice.

When partnerships are built with purpose, rather than around campaign communications, they have the power to increase both sales and brand awareness, effectively helping your business carve out a bigger place in culture. Partnerships are a key tool in modern brand development, one that every brand manager, marketer or business owner should be using.

Our principles of partnership work well on their own or in concert with one another, and you can use them as a framework for selecting or evaluating a potential partnership.