As part of the November edition of Admap, which focuses on partnering for growth, Faris Yakob investigates the different outcomes of brand partnerships – are they mutualistic or parasitic? 

Misery loves company and companies love mitigating risk and costs. That’s why brand partnerships have long been a favored tool of marketers looking to piggyback on cultural trends or each other’s audience. The fruit of these unions range from Nike+ to U2 being forcibly downloaded to your iPhone. From product innovation through content and advertising, these fusions have created new species and a few Frankenstein’s Monsters along the way.

We talk about companies and their brands as though they were discrete entities rather than assemblages. We intuitively think about them as emergent super-organisms, taking on an overall character, and motivations seemingly independent from their constituents. These metaphors help us grasp huge systems beyond our immediate comprehension - it’s the same mechanism brands leverage as they assume the attributes of people. Metaphors can also help us unlock new insight by highlighting the similarities in different things.

When different species partner up in nature there is a spectrum of possible outcomes, from the mutualistic, where each partner gains something, through to the parasitic, where one gains as the other loses. This may provide a framework for considering how such deals are assessed, always in the ultimate hope of creating a higher order idea that transcends both brands yet outshines neither.

Forever 21 has been partnering with all manner of brands looking to tap into their fast and fickle customer base. The stately United States Postal Service launched a fashion mash-up to remind young people, increasingly unfamiliar with tree-mail, how fast they could be. When looking to invigorate their teenage male audience, X-Box partnered with Lynx body wash to keep their gamers smelling fresh. Symbiotic strategies align two different brand’s objectives, exploit the overlap in their associations, and arbitrage opportunities between their audiences. That said, nominal determinism may also play a role, as some names blend better than others.

This summer T-Mobile and Taco Bell celebrated the latest stage in their ongoing partnership with the opening of T-Mobell Stores. Previously T-Mobile subscribers scored one free taco each week thanks to the collaboration. The two Ts then joined forces to create pop-up stores where their combined community could get free tacos, co-branded merchandise and possibly sneak a peak at a celebrity. T-Mobile CEO John Legere highlighted the synergistic strategy and uplift, anchored to the human insight that people like free tacos:

“When we launched free tacos every week on T-Mobile Tuesdays, had its highest online order day ever, and T-Mobile Tuesdays was No. 1 in the App Store. Since then, Un-carrier customers have snagged more than 14 million free tacos from the app! People love tacos. And they love their phones. T-MoBell is the ultimate fusion of those two loves, and we can’t wait to show everyone what we’ve cooked up.”

Mutualistic partnerships create more than the sum of their parts, something that neither could achieve alone. That might be a new way to track your runs, a Febreze fragrant Glad bag, or the limited re-release of Sezechuan sauce at McDonalds, which is technically a three-way partnership. Adult Swim cartoon Rick&Morty featured the sauce, a previous brand partnership created for the launch of Disney movie Mulan, which led to brief re-issuing and subsequent craze and outrage as supplies didn’t last. The two cartoons, separated by decades, were brought together in a short lived sauce. McDonalds then related the story of that in a podcast series, called ‘The Sauce’ [produced in the style of ‘Serial’], grinding more content from the concept.

Whilst mutuality is pleasing, the most effective partnerships, from the point of view of either party, is parasitic. There is great upside with little investment and you aren’t improving the fitness of any other, potentially competitive, organisms. At the beginning of the decade, I consulted on and briefly featured in a documentary by Morgan Spurlock called “The Greatest Movie Ever Sold”. The premise was that it would be entirely paid for by sponsors, while transparently exploring the topic of product placement, sponsorship and advertising in culture. Brands and agencies were wary to get involved with the film because of the director’s reputation destroying McDonalds’ in the breakout blockbuster SuperSize Me. Eventually, after much cajoling, twelve brands came on-board behind presenting sponsor 'POM Wonderful’ pomegranate juice.

I managed a workshop trying to work out how this orgy of brand cross-pollination would be facilitated to create maximum value for all partners. That included Mane & Tail - a shampoo ostensibly for horses that is sold for human use. They didn’t invest any money but allowed the producers to make a commercial for them and promote it in the movie. Their distribution has expanded considerably since, suggesting they got a great deal by not looking a gift partnership in the mouth.

If there seem to be more brand partnerships than ever [ed’s note: we highlighted some before] it’s because there are more than ever, as brands chase audience attention and engagement outside of the cacophony. Why fight for share of voice when you can partner for a share of customers?