Making Sense of Luxury Brand Collaborations


Guy Salter | April 06, 2009

Guy Salter analyses the art and science of successful luxury brand collaborations.

Guy Salter analyses the art and science of successful luxury brand collaborations.

LONDON – To some, talk of ‘collaborating’ may have a whiff of wartime Vichy France. For the luxury industry, it describes the brave new world of co-branding. No longer a new phenomenon, luxury collaborations have been gaining steam in recent years, especially in these current economic conditions which favour cost-effective marketing solutions.

But can these collaborations sometimes do more damage than good? Are there secrets to doing them well? While there are no definitive do’s and don’ts, here are some observations, based on my own experience, as well as that of colleagues in Walpole and in the industry at large, on how to make luxury collaborations work best.

What’s in a name?

Recently, I have noticed that all sorts of disparate activities are lumped together under the moniker ‘brand collaboration.’ But, on closer inspection, some of these turn out to be nothing more than old-fashioned direct marketing exercises aimed at snaffling additional names for the customer database. There is nothing wrong with this, of course; given how hard it is to find affluent consumers of the right type, data-swaps can be cost-effective and useful. However, using grandiloquent language to dissimulate simple mail shots only serves to debase the real thing.

Another misnomer is calling the hiring of a guest designer for a new line a collaboration. If that designer also happens to be a brand (e.g. Stella McCartney) then maybe the case for collaboration can be argued. But the Kate Moss/Top Shop tie-up, for example, is essentially a celebrity endorsement, albeit one that demonstrates how a relatively small exercise in product terms can impact on the whole business.

Similarly, sponsorship is a paid-for association, not a collaboration. Linking up with a charity is a great way of enriching something a brand is already doing by incorporating an element of generosity or contribution; but this does not usually constitute a genuine alliance. Neither does paying a brand to supply product (e.g. those fancy little toiletries in a hotel bathroom), even if it is dressed up in the press release as such.

Why is the nomenclature important? As collaborative activity proliferates, we need to make a distinction between the pure version (in which the alliance itself is the main purpose) and other marketing activity with collaborative aspects. As Frances Page of Liberty puts it, “There are so many different levels of collaboration, but it is the deeper collaborations that are so effective at positioning Liberty and driving traffic.”

She cites Liberty’s partnership with the V&A;’s China Now exhibition as a good example of a multi-layered joint exercise that entailed window displays, a satellite of the exhibition in the Liberty store, collections from young Chinese designers and even a pop-up tea bar. Liberty is also partnering with the Liberty and China Design Now They are also partnering with the Savoy on a number of two-way initiatives for the relaunch of the legendary hotel at the end of the year.  One of these is a capsule collection including a tie and silk scarf for the hotel’s staff in bespoke colours that reflect the Savoy branding.

So what are the elements of true luxury brand collaboration?

A marriage of equals. The best luxury collaborations are an alliance of equals or near equals. Equality does not strictly mean an exact match in size or fame. Rather, what is key is a balance of power. A very large brand can balance one that brings creativity, coolness or aspiration; in other words, a brand strong in one category and seemingly very different can balance the strengths of the other. Finally, at least one of the brands should be a luxury brand, but both need not be.

A perfect example is the Jimmy Choo/Hunter Boots partnership. As Joshua Schulman, CEO of Jimmy Choo, describes it, “There was no compromise from either brand; Jimmy Choo on aesthetics and Hunter on functionality. The result, after a long design process and several trials, is a completely new unique British product in which each brand’s integrity complements the other.” The best specialist Japanese retailers understand this very well with Tommorowland, Beams, United Arrows and especially Hirofumi Kiyonaga’s Soph producing nuanced collaborative products year after year.

The child. The purest and best collaborations at their heart have something real. Ideally a product you can point to and say ‘we did this together.’ It is relatively easy and cost-free to say you will work with another brand if you don’t have much at stake. But once you actually produce something together, the reputations of both partners are invested in something tangible.

On the other hand, co-branded products that are nothing more than a stock item with some superficial changes or, worse, one in which one partner has clearly done all the real work and the other has simply lent its name, do not constitute a real collaboration. One example of this is some of the mobile phones which have just been re-skinned with luxury branding.

This is not to say that a limited edition with a few tweaks is in itself a poor collaboration, so long as it is clear that the product is a variant of an existing line (not masquerading as a completely fresh item), and furthermore, that the design changes are thoughtful, imaginative and true to the partner brand.

However, the best product collaborations are undoubtedly those where both parents start from scratch and work together, resulting in a product that is the child of the two, containing the clearly identifiable DNA of each. Bremont, the niche British luxury watch brand, is deep in development on a new collaborative product with Martin-Baker, a little-known British company that makes eighty percent of ejection seats used in fighter planes.

As Giles English, co-founder of Bremont, explains: “We wanted to create a better watch rather than a short term PR hit. Working with Martin-Baker means that not only do we gain from their technical know-how, but we could target the core aviation market.”

But the offspring of such a partnership needs not be a physical product. In one of the most imaginative cases I have come across, Clive Christian Perfume worked with the Royal College of Music on The Sound of Perfume, new compositions of music inspired by their fragrances.

Get-able. A true collaboration must be believable and easily understood in the eyes of the consumer. This requires simplicity and integrity. The acid test is to ask, ‘Does it make a compelling story?’

As Emma Woolley of Smythson says, “We are constantly approached by brands wanting to collaborate but more often than not we choose not to go ahead due to a lack of integrity or link to the product. In the case of our limited edition Fashion Diary to mark the tenth anniversary, the designers were either existing customers or they had a tangible link to the diaries, it was a limited edition and it refreshed one of our most iconic products.”

The Dazzle Stroller & Adjustable Papoose by Bill Amberg

Two other new soon-to-launch examples that I am sure press and customers will get straight away are the collaborations Bill Amberg (a veteran collaborator) is doing with Silver Cross (baby pushchairs and accessories) and Orlebar Brown (swimming shorts). Adam Brown of Orlebar Brown understands the value of imaginative co-branding and, although in business for only a very short time, has already created product for Monocle as well.

Tyler Brûlé, Editor-in-Chief of Monocle is also a chef des collaborateurs. Monocle’s portfolio of special edition products include Porter bags, Valextra notebooks and Comme des Garçons fragrances. Individually and as a collection, they manage to say as much about the magazine as its editorial content or design.

In addition, I suggest there are three additional factors worth bearing in mind:

Be clear on your objectives. Among the reasons the collaboration church is a broad one is the wide range of different objectives, from increasing revenue, raising profile, reaching a wider audience, test-marketing a new product category, providing an injection of creativity — or a combination of many of the above.
Not only is each collaboration different, but the motives of the individual partners can also vary. This diversity of aims is one of the strengths of the collaborative concept, as it allows for creativity and flexibility. Most importantly, it enables disparate partners to find mutually rewarding ways of working together.

In my experience, it is essential that each party has thought through its objective, and shared this with the other. Like any marketing activity, it is crucial to have focus; without explicit goals, there is no yardstick for measuring success. Making that extra effort to be clear on the key metrics helps to avoid confusion and recriminations later. Likewise, this teases out the differences between partners and generates a set of prioritised objectives which can be a sophisticated range of desired outcomes.

As Bill Amberg says, “You need to understand your partner as well as you understand yourself.”

Careful of that brand. The best collaborations are neither too obvious nor too safe, otherwise they won’t generate a frisson with the consumer or adequate interest from the press. However, they must also avoid the risk of going too far, especially at the outset.

This is not just about the product itself, but also about how the two brands will be described and represented on the product. This is where the great debate arises around whether it is labelled as ‘brand X for brand Y’, equal billing, or no billing. I must say it is a bad sign if one party is insisting the other’s brand should not appear on the product at all. Either you are collaborating or you are not.

Once all this has been hammered out, it is important it be reflected contractually. The paperwork needn’t run to hundreds of pages, but both parties need to feel properly protected. This should also cover how the products will be publicised and sold. For in many cases, if the brands are very different, their traditional channels of distribution will vary too. Jimmy Choo’s collaboration with Hunter is a case in point. With the new boot retailing at £235, distribution is being restricted to Jimmy Choo directly operated stores and other outlets in the United States and Britain.

Finally, it is vital to think upfront about possible worst-case scenarios and make contingencies for them from the start. What if your partner’s celebrity designer’s drug habit hits the headlines?

Toe in the water. One of the greatest benefits of collaboration is that it is a temporary arrangement. So if things don’t go according to plan, the damage is limited. However, one can also look at it the other way round. Often, the reason for collaboration is the slight risk entailed, and its experimental or ephemeral nature. In other words, the whole point is to try out new product types, new customers and new talents. That said, it is not until you are actually working with a partner that you can know them fully. So, start small and limited, and if it works, push the boat out further.

So is there a quintessential, benchmark case study for luxury brand collaboration?

Trend watcher Reinier Evers maintains, “the most successful brand alliances are the ones that skilfully craft something bigger, better, and more meaningful than each brand could create alone.” And, although often cited, it is hard to find a better example than the Breitling Bentley tie-up.

Bentley Flying B – Copyright Breitling for Bentley

As Nick Foulkes, author of Dunhill By Design and Last of the Dandies, has commented, “So successful is the Breitling for Bentley partnership, that it is almost a brand within a brand, and yet it remains closely linked to the core Breitling values of rigorous testing, functional design and even aviation.” From the carefully developed and thoughtful product range to the sensitive public relations strategy, this partnership remains a poster child for aspiring brand collaborators.

But, for me, it is something more intangible and elusive that they have got so right. Foulkes sums it up well: “If a car were just a car, or a watch were just a watch, our lives would be a little less amusing.”

By Guy Salter,
Guest Contributor and Deputy Chairman of The Walpole

Arts | Fragrance