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The anatomy of a great collab

Have we overdosed on collabs? What makes (or breaks) a partnership?

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Have we lost our minds?

Dior taps A$AP Rocky.

LVMH appoints Pharrell.

ALD and Porsche filmed a campaign in Greece!

Joe Fresh and 7-Eleven collab.

Mr. Beast is Shopify’s new ambassador.

Pizza Hut made its own merch.

There isn't a day that goes by where some brand or creator announces another "collab", "drop", "capsule collection", or "partnership". Have we lost the plot?

Feels like collabs used to mean something.

The more noise there is, the higher chance there is that we're losing the meaning of what makes a great cultural collab.

So, what are the rules? Are there rules?

  • Does a great collab need to be ironic?

  • Do you just slap a logo on it?

  • Do you have to take me on a journey?

  • Make me feel something?

  • Do hoodies and hats count?

  • Or do I just know it when I see it?

These are all questions that run through my mind now and again. So, today we do something a bit different. I’d like to reframe how we think about collaborations, drops, and partnerships et al.

To guide us, I'm highlighting experts across media + advertising, fashion, and brand marketing. These are people who get paid to share their perspectives on this topic.

And so I asked them: what makes a great collab?

Philip Pirkovic, Director of Brand at Shinola

On whether we're over-collab'd or not…

We are. It feels like people and brands are partnering up for the sake of saying they partnered. Collabs have gone mainstream; you see them everywhere. And because we’ve seen so many, it’s getting difficult to stand out from the noise.

On whether there are guiding principles for a great collab...

For me, all great collaborations come down to four key principles:

1 / Authenticity: Is this something genuine to both brands/parties involved?

2 / The why: Ask yourself, why is this collab happening? Why now? Why this specific project/campaign? (If you can’t answer this, then you probably shouldn’t move forward)

3 / Unexpectedness: Great collaborations bring outside worlds together. The more unexpected, the better. I love when you see a collaboration that would most likely never exist or happen.

4 / Novelty: Lastly, what you end up creating should be something unique, new, and preferably never done before.

What’s your money collab?

You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who knows collabs better than JoeFreshGoods. I’ve been a huge fan of Joe for years. One of my favorites is when he and Freddie Gibbs teamed up with J.P. Graziano’s, an Italian grocery & sub shop in Chicago.

From Joe’s IG Caption (link here):

This checks all the boxes.

  • It’s one of Joe’s favorite places to eat in his hometown of Chicago, so it’s authentic.

  • The why? Joe gets to go back to pulling off crazy ideas with his friends and gets to show off his beloved city of Chicago by highlighting local community staples (something Joe has done in the past).

  • Unexpectedly, a little local Italian grocery and sub shop would collaborate with one of the hottest rappers AND one of the best streetwear designers in the game right now, respectively.

  • Last, the novelty was that JFG worked with J.P. Graziano to create his own sandwich, taking things to another level.

Victoria Buchanan, Trend Forecaster at Nike

On partnerships evolving from nice-to-have to must-have...

Brands once had to rely on themselves to create products and customers to buy them. Brands could also rely on competitors to do the same. Today, a web of interdependency is emerging in which a brand’s competitors are its new collaborators, and customers are the new designers, marketers, and retailers. Until recently, these relationships have been novel and voluntary, but today they are essential for survival.

On the overuse of the words drop or collab...

I get why another "drop" or a "collab" feels grossly overused, but the bigger point (in my view) is that these words represent the death of the old fashion system, which we all agree was broken anyway. What we see instead is a new model for brand-building and a symbiotic approach to doing business.

Today brands want to get their product in front of new audiences, and because people are building niche subcultures and communities online, these collaborations are a great way to pursue new audiences and new revenue streams.

On what makes a great collab...

The best collaborations deploy the right level of irony and surprise to challenge traditional brand codes. They borrow from the best of both brands to create an entirely new language, offering a cultural flex for those in the know. They give people new ways to engage and interact with a brand more intensely.

In 2016 Adidas shifted its mindset to become an open-sourced business. They wanted new perspectives from outside thinkers, so they started working with Kanye West & Pharrell. All of a sudden, the market shifted from typical celebrity licensing deals and they started going into profit-sharing agreements.

On collabs that Victoria loves...

I loved when American fast-food chain White Castle celebrated its 100th birthday by partnering with designer Telfar Clemens, founder of neo-luxury label Telfar. The fashion collection – created for employees and the general public – includes hats, hoodies, and T-shirts, and proceeds went towards the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Liberty and Justice Fund, which works with local activists to enact positive change in governments and corporations.

Another one was Max’s Sandwich Shop in London, which released a T-shirt in 2020 to help bolster staff wages and pay overheads during the pandemic. This increased their revenue as a result. The move was so successful it enabled the brand to support other local independent food brands, and even led to a Junya Watanabe collaboration.

Michael Miraflor, VC at Hannah Grey

On whether we're over collab'd or not; and what makes a great collab...

I'm not sure if we're over-collab'd because the term has become a blanket term to include what in the past would have been considered simple merch and licensing deals. But I will say this: you can tell when collaboration is true vs. vanity.

True collaborations, to me, are when both parties take an active role in the development and creative direction of the product. Anything less is window dressing and vanity play, and yes... we're seeing many of those cash-grab-type deals right now!

On separating the good from great...

Legit collaboration leverages and increases the value of each partner so that 1+1 = 3, and all parties involved benefit from leveraging each other's strengths. It also benefits the consumer... I think savvy consumers’ expectations are elevated RE: high-end collaborations.

They’re less likely to invest in obvious cash-grab schemes. Great examples of this type of collaboration are Nike x Tom Sachs, Salehe Bembury for New Balance, or Barbour and Engineered Garments teaming up.

Tom Sachs for Nike

Salehe Bembury

On the strange spectrum of collabs...

There is something to be said about low-end collabs, which is merch with a high degree of novelty or nostalgia (think Pizza Hut merch). These trigger instant gratification.

On the other end, luxury collabs are dominating the market. Both have been successful throughout the pandemic for different reasons. One thing seems clear, though: the middle-of-the-road strategy isn't a winning one and should therefore be avoided.

The takeaway

Perhaps the biggest takeaway from all of this is that collaborations are not just important for a brand; they are essential to its success right now. You can’t get by doing things the old way, in a silo.

Consumers are savvier than ever, and they want a partnership.

They want innovation.

So, as you look ahead to future collaboration opportunities with brands or creators, think about:

  • What plays into your strengths?

  • What’s unexpected, in a good way?

  • What triggers novelty or nostalgia?

  • What’s authentic?

Answering these will help guide the way you interact with other brands and consumers, one collab at a time.