Interbrand’s Masahito Namiki explores the WARC Awards for Asian Strategy winners which used partnerships to create surprising experiences that drove distinctiveness and engagement.

In a world of noise, nobody is listening. This doesn’t mean you should stop expressing yourself as a brand, but it does require that you place the things you say into the context of a holistic, corporate-wide experience that attracts, stimulates, and envelops your target audiences. Once they feel themselves to be part of the experience, they’ll commit, and they’ll keep coming back to renew that relationship.

Fine in theory, but where’s the magic wand to make it happen? Marketing departments can struggle to reach the very people who would respond with enthusiasm if only they were invited to engage. It’s not enough to have a user experience playbook, vigorous online engagement, or seamless customer experience programmes. When every other brand in your sector has built or is building those same things, they simply become a different type of noise and audiences find new ways to stop listening.

In essence, the smoother your experience, the more slippery it risks becoming. So why not add a little friction?

‘Good friction’ as literal brand grip

The very idea of friction is anathema to most marketers, which means that ‘good friction’ is surely an oxymoron. Stress is to be avoided at all costs. Purposefully adding friction to the brand dialogue goes against market expectations and the norms of society.

However, positive tensions between your brand and its audiences can wake up consumers and compel them to pay attention. Moreover, it places your brand experience outside the sector’s expectations. It demonstrates that you disrupt, that you think laterally or in unanticipated ways, that you are different from other brands.

And there is a magic wand, or at least an astute means of instigating processes and strategies that will achieve brand grip: partnerships with companies that will add surprising new angles to the shape of your experience.

There are three ways in which partnerships can do this.

  • Collaboration, enabling your brand to become bigger than the brand itself.
  • Co-creation, working together to generate something different to both of you.
  • Transformation, elevating your brand to have the power to transform your customers.

Partnerships as collaboration

The simplest way to craft an expanded world is to amalgamate the best of both partners while retaining your individual appeal points and customer perception. Audiences will continue to understand both of you at a glance and will be able to discern just as quickly where your brand fits into the partnership. You still have your authentic brand boxes, but the interplay between them causes all the grip.

This year’s table of winning brands includes a consummate example in KFC’s ‘The growth of Colonel KI’. Online battle arena League of Legends provided the youth-oriented, street cachet world into which KFC could inject itself, and KFC brought in Colonel KI to thrive in that world.

The team-up was unexpected, the success was not. KFC brilliantly scoped out the opportunity and the risk, entered into the collaboration as a clear-eyed means to an end, and controlled every part of the experience.

The result was immensely beneficial to the brand, providing a conduit into a treasured market and a whole new level of context and engagement that it could never have achieved alone. KFC was able to become part of the phenomenon of League of Legends and hence was able to pass onto itself the beneficial associations of the game players’ experience.

Partnerships as co-creation

Partnering to invent an experience separate to either of the source brands, though more jeopardous, offers just as high a reward: a merged brand experience that is greater than its sources and impels audiences to think of you in an entirely new way.

Unilever Food Solutions’ Killer Recipes is an excellent example of the concept in action. Unilever retained its authenticity but formed part of a startling, multi-stakeholder concept of brand-coherent dishes in a contextually disjunctive setting. Customers treasured not just the food, but the journey that brought them to it.

Similarly, Pizza Hut’s Stand-Up Comedy Restaurant saw a well-loved and comfortable brand step outside its boundaries to build a distinctive amalgam. As with Unilever, the brand thrived in what might have seemed an uncomfortable setting, provoking exactly the kind of good friction Pizza Hut needed to transform from commonplace to remarkable. The higher price point for the food was beside the point. Customers flocked to the experience.

Handled with the skill of Unilever or Pizza Hut, the power of co-creation is obvious. However, you do need that skill. The potential downside of a poorly curated experience is damage to all its component brands, injury that is an expensive loss and from which it is hard to recover.

Partnership as transformation

While brand experience is expected to the point that you cannot compete without it, transformation takes you beyond your audience’s assumptions in a way that can be highly beneficial for your position in the market and profound for how your customers think not just about you but about themselves.

Moving from customer experience to customer transformation is most rewarding of all to the instigating brand. The partner that facilitates the transformation is less important, at least in the minds of the customers. They associate the change directly and wholly with you.

We have a fine example among this year’s winners. What are your preconceptions about barbers? Moreover, what do barbers mean in the age of COVID-19? With its Barber Suraksha Programme, Gillette was determined to overturn those preconceptions and meanings and oblige its audience to rethink the values not just of the profession but of the community it serves. Along the way, barbers responded to the pandemic in ways that are sustainable beyond it, rethinking hygiene and sanitation and reimagining themselves.

We are all, as people, receptive to personal change and growth. When a transformation speaks to us from the heart, it beds quickly and forcefully in us. Brands such as Gillette acknowledge those deep human truths and work to shape a brand purpose that talks to us rationally, emotionally, and spiritually.

Whatever the programme, it starts inside the company. Your employees must be the first to feel the transformation, to “be the change you want to see in the world.” Only then will it spread beyond your borders.

Boosting the brand experience

In all these ways, partnerships formed vital conduits for brand impact. With KFC, Unilever, Pizza Hut, Gillette, and many winners, we saw just how spectacular an outcome is possible. These are gold standards, but they can be adapted to every brand in every circumstance.

For sure, it’s a challenge, particularly if you believe in the purity of your brand and worry that partnerships might dilute or impair the brand distinctiveness and personality you already own. But the rewards far outweigh the threat.

Audiences don’t want a slick, slide-on-by brand world. They want to become caught up in your ecosphere, and that means you have to drive true connection on the level that necessitates their attention.

Partnerships add more than just functional possibility. They give you the means to revitalise yourself, re-establish your communication, and, most of all, to add traction to your audience engagement. Because the ultimate brand grip is one that stops them in their tracks.

An abridged version of this article appears in WARC's 2021 Asian Strategy Report.