After judging the WARC Awards for Media, Siddarth Sivaprakash analyses the winners that used unexpected partnerships to cut through the clutter and deliver value to both brands and consumers.

Having been invited to judge the 2021 WARC Awards for Media’s Effective Use of Sponsorships and Partnerships category, I was exposed to a slew of really great work put forward by global brands as well as small local brands across geographies, most of whom seem to have one thing in common – unexpected partnerships that helped cut through the clutter to deliver a simple idea backed by meticulous planning and ingenious execution to the right audience at the right time.

The underlying theme emerging was clear: good partnerships work like magic! The synergy created in a well-thought-through partnership can be larger than the sum of its parts when it comes to changing consumer perception and delivering substantial value for both consumers and brands involved.

That said, do most brand marketeers and agency folks turn to partnerships or sponsorships as the last weapon in their arsenal? Given the variables involved in finding the perfect brand fit, equal commitment, intense multi-channel planning and seamless execution, I wouldn’t be surprised that it’s not always the ‘go-to’ solution. And that’s precisely what makes this WARC Awards for Media category so special.

Most of the brands awarded in this category believed in the power of collaboration to overcome challenges that they may not have been able to individually surmount – to target new markets, change perceptions and deliver tangible value through authentic experiences. For my money, I can devise a braver and infinitely more complex approach than rolling out a good campaign with great execution. But then again, higher risk means higher gains!

Having studied the shortlist of the best cases in this category, here is a list of rules that struck me as most evident in forging a breakthrough partnership.

  • Know yourself: Only if you know your own brand DNA can you attempt to identify a partner with shared values and complementary skillsets.
  • Have a clear goal: Nothing is more integral to the success of a partnership than all parties concerned having clear goals which they set out to achieve. This will determine the right fit, the specific audience to target and the metrics you can evaluate success against.
  • Keep it simple: Overly complex modalities can be a barrier for consumers. The simpler the idea and the manner in which the benefit to the consumer is delivered, the better the chance of acceptance.
  • Make it authentic: Partnerships succeed where advertising fails. Brands need to tap into each other’s cultural equity, remain transparent, commit to equal responsibility of driving the partnership and deliver a product, service or experience that surpasses consumer expectations. Layer this with an element of personalisation and it goes a long way. Because few things compare to a ‘win-win-win’ situation.
  • Timing is key: Sponsorships and partnerships deliver true value if they are looked at as a long-term strategy and not just a flash-in-the-pan exercise. Timing also plays an integral role in how relevant your collaboration is to your target audience. From leveraging occasions to sporting events, it helps make your targeting more focused and contextual.
  • Seamless execution: Don’t let the simplicity of the idea fool you. Great execution requires meticulous planning, coordination and a robust channel including how you employ owned assets, earned media and various other consumer touchpoints.
  • Scaling can be deceptively complex: While the main reason for entering a partnership could be to reach a new market, truly scaling it up can mean big budgets on who you associate with or get to endorse the partnership, not to forget the cost of activating the idea across multiple touchpoints. It may mean less spend on media, but higher allocation on content creation, influencers and on-ground execution.

From those awarded in the category, let’s take a closer look at three case studies that topped the list and stood out.

Redoxon: Ramadan Lockdown

This is a delightful example of how an unlikely partnership facilitated and transformed a traditional sampling exercise into a highly targeted and effective collaboration in the middle of the pandemic lockdown.

Redoxon, a challenger brand in vitamin supplements in Malaysia, was tasked with increasing its sales while looking to increase trials and conversions especially among the Muslim Malay population.

However, as per a pre-pandemic brand health study, a critical barrier was the passive behaviour of the Malay population to vitamin supplements, which were consumed only when prescribed a pharmacist or doctor once patients were already ill.

The brand spotted a key moment to challenge this passive behaviour: Ramadan. In fasting for long hours during the holy month, Muslim Malays could suffer from lower immunity on account of lesser intake of essential macronutrients than the recommended daily intake.

They identified food delivery as a unique opportunity to stand out and get samples in front of their target segment during the first meal after a day of fasting when their target would be acutely aware of the importance of food and diet. Local food delivery service Dahmakan, a cloud kitchen start-up that prepared and delivered healthy, nutritious food to a more health-conscious customer base seemed to be the perfect fit to form an integrated partnership with to distribute Redoxon samples with every meal order.

This unique partnership helped Redoxon get their samples in front of the right people, at the right time, while strengthening Dhamakan’s reputation of being health conscious. During the activity period, Dahmakan witnessed an 18% increase in web traffic thanks to the positive sentiment being generated across social from people who had seen the campaign. While Redoxon managed to grow their sales by 29% year-on-year for the Ramadan period.

Budweiser: Messi X Budweiser 644

If you’ve read this far, I’m not going to bore you with yet another partnership between a beer brand and football… because football fans love drinking beer.

And that’s precisely why we’re going to look at how Budweiser sponsored one of the most historic moments in football history, turning it on its head and intrinsically coupling it with their product, while celebrating the GOAT.

In 2020, Lionel Messi was on the verge of breaking Pelé’s 46-year-old record of 643 goals for a single club. When the record was broken, everyone would be talking about Messi, so the folks at Bud flipped the script by focusing on the goalkeepers, celebrating all 160 keepers Messi had scored against, highlighting their part in pushing Messi to greatness.

To toast each keeper’s role in history, they produced 644 unique Budweiser bottles, each personalised to one of the 160 keepers it was scored against, with the goal number they represented and a custom quote highlighting a unique match that the keeper faced Messi as a memento to the time they battled the GOAT.

A global PR toolkit was rolled out, providing a range of content to generate campaign longevity beyond the moment itself, with copy being adaptable to ensure local relevance. Focusing on high-reaching football titles, exclusive interviews were also set up with goalkeepers to drive momentum.

Whilst the campaign was about Lionel Messi, the product itself was such an intrinsic part of the campaign that it simply could not be uncoupled from it. This ensured an authentic way to drive associations of the brand with the campaign, more headline mentions and Budweiser being a major, unavoidable, part of all articles covering the campaign.

Without even getting into the stats it turned, this campaign got the podium for me because of its twist in the storytelling, uniting the sporting community to celebrate Messi and keeping the brand at the centre of it all, without losing the cultural connect and authenticity. Not to forget the very complex and clinical planning and execution that went into managing a partnership of such scale and capitalising the timing to perfection.

Molson Canadian: Make it Canadian

By now most of you are probably convinced that the secret ingredient in a successful partnership is finding the right fit – non-competing brands with complementary skillsets and shared DNA being a no-brainer. Well, you might want to leave all that at the door for this next one!

Molson Canadian battles other big Canadian beer brands (such as Labatt’s) and international beer brands (such as Budweiser) for market share. But unlike many countries in the world who pick their own beer first, Canada’s #1 selling beer isn’t Canadian.

With 2020 delivering a difficult year where everything changed, including the closing of the significant revenue streams of on-site bars and restaurants, maintaining share was even tougher – so Canada’s oldest brewery demonstrated that the Canadian spirit of inclusivity and support can be shared by anyone, even business rivals.

Molson Canadian set out to rewrite the David and Goliath story – where this time, the giant helps out the smaller guys. In an act of monumental provocation, Molson Canadian actively solicited all Canadian beer companies to leverage their scale and access to be sold inside a special 24-pack to celebrate the national holiday of Canada Day.

They opened their most ‘owned’ possession – their literal case of beer – to other Canadian brewers, boldly reminding consumers that the company founded in 1786 has always been about way more than just the beer – it’s been about community and connection – making them relevant in today’s world of choice and local exploration.

To me, the above three examples and many more in the category are stellar examples of how brands have moved out of their comfort zones to create tangible value for themselves and their customers. Given that today’s consumer is more likely to be swayed by action than by message alone, partnerships seem to occupy a sweet spot that uniquely combines the reach and efficacy of media, seamless online experiences and strong cultural connections within communities.