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Why brands are using cultural partnerships to go direct to consumer

18 September 2020

This article first appeared on Advertising Week. Written by our Creative Strategy Director, Nick Blenkarne.

We’re all familiar with what a new-world tech launch looks like. An auditorium packed with specialist journalists. A Steve Jobs-esque lone figure on stage. The latest shiny new toy on a podium under an intense spotlight.

So far, so predictable.

But we’re seeing continued momentum in the movement of brands turning to partnerships and collaborations, tipping the typical launch formula on its head to deliver serious cultural impact.

Take a major mobile network, tapping into the glamour attached to the biggest show in fashion: London Fashion Week, as just one recent example. A seemingly unexpected place to demonstrate the power of the new 5G network, but that’s exactly where Three chose to do in 2020. Forget technical demos and download speeds, Three gave a preview of how 5G will revolutionize our world in ways we could never imagine.

The brand partnered with Central Saint Martins to create an event that culminated in an empty catwalk as a 5G-fuelled virtual version of Adwoa Aboah showed off the last outfit of the show. Watched by the model herself who was present on the front row, it gave the audience a preview of the network in action, live and direct through 5G handsets.

Similarly, back in April last year, Top Boy, the Netflix reboot of the Channel 4 series, premiered its trailer at Drake’s London concert. Drake, being a massive Top Boy fanboy, and a key contributor to getting it funded by Netflix, made this partnership both relevant and authentic to the audience.

We’re seeing continued momentum in the movement of brands turning to partnerships and collaborations, tipping the typical launch formula on its head to deliver serious cultural impact.

Like Samsung, Netflix released exclusive material directly to the audience they want to target, creating a memorable, shareable experience with a nice boost of organic social reach and all with the validation of a globally recognised musician. It subsequently went on to become the UK’s most-watched show on Netflix the week it was released.

Brands are keen to embed their products this way because of where consumer attention now lies and who consumers trust. They are borrowing from the cache of celebrities, artists and social media influencers, and aligning themselves with those they believe their audiences admire.

When done well, collaborations and unique brand experiences can be effective at both brand building and revenue-generating – satiating the audience thirst for exclusivity. And the more thoughtful and innovative the partnership, the more people see your product who might never have shown an interest before. It is of enormous value for brands looking to engage with audiences outside of their usual and often saturated, channels.

However, choosing your cultural partner is something you must do very carefully. It is an arena that is already being bombarded with partnerships that feel inauthentic and end up doing more harm than good.

In May 2017, as part of a collaboration with Andrew Lloyd Webber, California streetwear brand The Hundreds announced on Facebook: “Streetwear without culture is just fashion”.

Their lookbook included hoodies emblazoned with masks from Phantom of the Opera and huge yellow eyes from Cats as well as a passionate blog post written by the founders of the brand, explaining the cultural backstory and influences behind the collaboration. But any cultural meaning was lost when the context of that blog post was removed. People couldn’t see that on the clothes, and they judged them on mere surface value. The partnership became irrelevant, confusing and inauthentic.

Human Made x KFC was a very similar story. The clothes, otherwise plain but with the KFC and Col. Saunders imagery writ large, felt very forced and faux.

When done well, collaborations and unique brand experiences can be effective at both brand building and revenue-generating – satiating the audience thirst for exclusivity.

To get it right, you must find something with a cultural overlap and then create something with genuine depth and storytelling at its heart. Adidas x EA Sports worked brilliantly because the products launched had a direct relevance to the popularity of creating teams in the game. Both brands were aware that players love to customise their teams, so fuelling this with an exclusive new way to do so fits neatly. It felt more authentic and provided customers with something they didn’t know they wanted but were suddenly interested in buying and were unable to resist sharing.

When creating Major League Baseball’s (MLB) event, London Yards, last year we spent a lot of time considering the cultural pillars we needed to tap into when reaching and introducing the sport to a new audience. We wanted to create something that really piqued a sustained interest and could be shared with friends and family.

With baseball culture permeating music through fashion – see Jay-Z’s trademark New York Yankees hat – we knew we had to think strategically when it came to our media partnerships. So, we decided to work closely with Hackney-based online radio station, NTS, who curated the music for the event, broadcasted it via their own channels and produced a show there. We wanted to reach out to music fans who may not have known baseball but recognised its cultural significance to someone they admire and therefore might be more likely to check the sport out.

We featured restaurants launching street food stalls, some for the first time, giving their own takes on the classic food staples found across American baseball grounds. The exclusivity was a massive hit with foodies who wanted to try their favourite restaurant’s take on something new. Alongside that, we invited people to have a go at hitting a home run themselves inside a super high tech batting cage, which meant you could use a real bat, ball, and helmet, but strike into a virtual stadium with the same dimensions as the real thing.

London Yards drove people to the MLB league game held in London’s Olympic Stadium the day afterward, which was a sell-out. The demographics were interesting too – very similar to our first MLB event, Battlegrounds – which had an audience that was 51% female, and 83% under the age of 40, having never been to a baseball game before.

Collaborations will continue to boom, in fashion, especially, but in other sectors too. Pernod Ricard’s partnership with Boiler Room last year was a landmark event and I am sure we will see more like it. What made that work so strong was that by creating the partnership with the umbrella brand, they were able to launch four different and unique branded events for Beefeater, Jameson’s, Ballantine, and Absolut.

As marketers continue to press for authenticity and cost-effectiveness, it is very likely that we will see more direct to consumer events being launched by umbrella brands, and targeting separate audiences using the smaller brands within their arsenal.

It is also a period of flux. Brands are willing to deviate from their traditional heartland to attract new audiences and they must because people are faced with so much choice.

To ensure that brands are heard among the noise it is vital to create something authentic, exclusive and with a really strong first impression. The experience needs to generate interest by providing a new way to interact with a brand or product that people have not encountered before. And then ultimately, this needs to be designed with a long-term plan in mind, continuing a campaign of collaborations across sectors to keep hitting new audiences at different events.

Whether it be a short-term pop-up, an amazing activation or indeed a spot in TV’s most glamourous night of the year, what will make the best brand experiences stand out is the feeling of relevance and authenticity. No amount of money spent on paid reach will work if this is lacking. Brands no longer need to entirely own their own story. The key to success will be creating experiences that create a win/win for both brands that partners and consumers get access to.