Marketing as a discipline is growing in breadth and scale with every passing day. It comprises everything from digital marketing to TV, print and the recently resurgent out-of-home, along with a myriad of other approaches and models.

However, over the last 10-15 years, as marketing has evolved and our collective focus has shifted onto the direct performance of campaigns, one field in particular seems to have been left by the wayside: brand-to-brand partnerships.

Why is this? Is it because brand partnerships simply aren’t useful anymore?

Before we look at the why partnerships might have lost their lustre, let’s explore what a partnership within marketing actually is.

What is a partnership?

“Partnership” is a broad term and generally covers any of the different types of brand-to-brand partnerships that exist. Simply put, a partnership can be described as “when two companies form an alliance to work together, creating marketing synergy”.

There are 10 common types of partnerships, some of which you probably wouldn’t even realise are a form of partnership:

  1. Affiliation

Affiliate marketing is one of the most common types of performance marketing. One business drives leads to another, and takes a commission for its help.

  1. Content

Co-creating content with another brand or through link-sharing where a second partner promotes the content. Particularly seen in SEO.

  1. Distribution

Where one partner agrees to cross-market or bundle another partner’s product or services into their own distribution channels.

  1. Charitable

A primary brand sponsors or markets itself with a charitable organisation or cause. In turn they seek exposure and promotion via agreed marketing channels.

  1. Joint products

When two companies team up to create a new product or alter an existing one.

  1. Licensing

A business arrangement in which one company gives another company permission to manufacture its product using its brand image for an agreed payment or partnership.

  1. Loyalty

A loyalty partnership enhances a business’ usual retention marketing techniques by offering customers offers from partners to increase longevity and frequency. Think frequent flyer programs.

  1. Product placement

As obvious as it comes. The “subtle” placement of a brand or product within a media channel. Often seen in TV and film… James Bond films in particular.

  1. Shared stores

Can either be online or offline, where one brand agrees to a space being used for another brand. Cosmetics in department stores is one common example.

  1. Sponsorship

They’ve been around since the dawn of marketing and are one of the most successful ways to create or support awareness for a brand.


Some stand-out examples of partnerships

Nike & Apple

These two giant brands have been working together since the early iPods were released – can you believe that was in the early 2000s?

The partnership started as a way to bring music to consumers’ workouts, and then evolved into basic fitness trackers before the tech was integrated into sneakers and clothing. It has now grown into its own product, Nike+.

Using activity-tracking technology built into athletic apparel, workout data is recorded and synced with the user’s iPhone app. These trackers can be built into shoes, armbands, and even basketballs to measure time, distance, heart rate, and calories burned – anything really.

It’s a genius partnership that has helped both parties provide a better experience to the customer. It also allowed Nike+ to get ahead of the curve, emerging onto the market well before the mass-popularity and adoption of other fitness tracking technology.

Google & Star Wars/Stranger Things

After a long wait, Google launched its augmented reality stickers on its range of phones in partnership with Stranger Things and Star Wars.

We were able to pull up cartoon versions of the Stranger Things kids and the Demogorgon, as well as a handful of Star Wars characters and creatures, including Stormtroopers, R2-D2, BB-8, and porgs.

This was a great example of two huge brands coming together with new technology to create exciting experiences for users while building and capitalising on fan-driven interest for both products.

GoPro & Red Bull

These two brands probably have the most in common out of these examples. GoPro doesn’t just sell portable cameras, and Red Bull doesn’t just sell energy drinks. Instead, both have established themselves as lifestyle brands – specifically, lifestyles that are action-packed, adventurous, fearless, and usually pretty extreme. These shared values make them a perfect pairing, especially among action sports fans.

The initial partnership was fairly simple; GoPro equipped athletes and adventurers from around the world with the tools and training to capture things like races, stunts, and action sport events on video – from their own first-person perspective. At the same time, Red Bull used its experience and reputation to run and sponsor these events.

We’ve seen this partnership move from this initial stage to become much more ingrained and symbiotic, where you rarely see a Red Bull video without some sort of GoPro branding or equipment – and vice versa.

Perhaps the biggest and most visible partnership ever between these two brands was when they worked together on “Stratos,” in which Felix Baumgartner jumped from a space pod more than 24 miles above Earth’s surface with a GoPro strapped to his person. Not only did Baumgartner set three world records that day, but he also embodied the value of reimagining human potential that defines both GoPro and Red Bull.

The unsung hero of today’s hyper-connected markets

But despite some of these great examples, it’s probably fair to say that partnerships have taken a back seat in the marketing world. Have a search on Google or Amazon for a marketing book and you’ll find hundreds of books on digital, social, strategy and branding, and yet amongst these you might only find the odd reference or two to brand synergies or partnerships.

It’s a bit confusing, as there are thousands of global brands that actively participate in some form of partnership, from Virgin to Google, Pepsi to Optus, and Apple to American Express.

I believe that partnerships are a wrongly overlooked subject that can benefit many, many brands; especially as partnerships begin to move beyond marketing and into a collaborations involving services, technology or even more.

One early mover in this space was the much-maligned fast food restaurant, McDonalds. The burger giant had been looking to create a delivery service (which I’m sure was to cater to all the hungover people in the world) and had trialled several different approaches, including its own roll-out of “McDelivery” in Sydney in 2013.

As the service struggled to find its footing, McDonalds realised that starting something from scratch, where they had no expertise, was a bigger task than they had perhaps anticipated, regardless of how successful their trials had been. So they decided to partner with Uber and its UberEats platform to help make the idea of home-delivered Maccas a reality.

At iProspect, we’ve seen brands partner closer and closer with media and technology suppliers. It’s something we welcome and even encourage, as it allows us to develop bespoke, out-of-the-box solutions for our clients – which in turn helps to drive longer-term results.

With media continuing to change, everyone has become more connected. And as the platform-based model continues to see big increases and decreases in popularity, the need for collaboration will expand as brands fight to survive and capitalise.

We can be sure that over the next decade or two we’ll see an even faster advancement in technology and connectivity – this will naturally improve the consumer experience, but as we’ve seen from Uber’s own experience with challenger brands vying to topple it, the side-effect of expanding into such highly customer-driven niches is even higher rates of competition.

Businesses with common aims should stick together, collaborate, and share resources. Sharing and benefiting from each other’s propositions will start to take more and more prominence. For those businesses that want to not only survive but thrive as we enter the third decade of the 21st century, partnerships are a great way to get ahead.

Iain Addy

Iain is the National Head of Paid Media and Partnerships at iProspect Australia. Iain works closely with key partners to implement market leading strategic media and technology partnerships that deliver a step change to iProspect and the businesses of our clients.