4 Lessons On Using Co-Branding To Co-Crush The Competition

Celebrities are no longer just endorsing products, they are now full-blown branding partners. And that can be a very good thing.

To build your brand, sometimes you have to share your brand.

And increasingly, big companies like Budweiser and Harley-Davidson are choosing to co-brand with celebrities like Justin Timberlake and Kid Rock through relationships that range from sponsoring each other's activities to the celebrity taking on quasi-roles such as strategic counselor or creative director.

But for co-brands to endure beyond the superficial level of a one-off press release, both parties need to stipulate realistic goals and they need to co-create value. Those are among the lessons iCrossing and Jermaine Dupri have learned through an unusual co-branding relationship that has helped reinvent Dupri's image as a technology leader, increased membership for his Global 14 social media community, and developed iCrossing's image as a creative, socially savvy agency. Within 10 months of forming our relationship in February 2012, we boosted membership for Dupri's Global 14 community by 43 percent, improved Dupri's Twitter following from 381,000 to 620,000, increased iCrossing's own Twitter following by more than 40 percent, and, most importantly, gave both iCrossing and Dupri recognition among mainstream influencers.

Here's what we've learned along the way.

Define Realistic Goals

A co-brand starts with an understanding of what you both want out of the relationship before you start working together. And your expectations need to be realistic. In 2011, Madonna and Smirnoff formed the Nightlife Exchange with goals of building digital reach for Smirnoff and generating business for both Madonna and Smirnoff. According to Christopher Swope of Live Nation, the relationship (which featured a special global dance talent search in 2011) has helped Smirnoff achieve double-digit sales growth in key markets (with the help of a specially branded Madonna VIP Access Smirnoff Limited Edition pack) and generate 1.8 billion media impressions. The relationship also helped Madonna make her MDNA tour the highest grossing of 2012. Not bad.

Co-Create Value

Co-creating means co-developing products, services, and ideas. U2 and Apple ignited the flame of celebrity/corporate co-creation in 2004, when they collaborated on the launch of the iPod U2 Special Edition, housed in a special black case, and laser-engraved with the signatures of each band member on the back. As part of their co-brand, Apple and U2 also made U2's single "Vertigo" exclusively available on iTunes as well as a first-of-its kind digital box set of U2's catalog. What made the arrangement special was that two icons were sharing their most prized assets to create specially branded products, a model that we've often seen emulated, a recent example being Kid Rock and Harley-Davidson agreeing to offer limited-edition, co-branded Rebel Soul merchandise featuring a line coined by Kid Rock: "I can't hear you over the rumble of my freedom."

Co-creation is at the heart of the iCrossing/Jermaine Dupri partnership, but we've taken co-creating a step further by creating original content such as thought leadership about social media, audience insight, and creativity. For instance, we've created blog posts together on topics such as business lessons for start-ups and video interviews on creativity and social media. We published a point of view about the secrets of creating engagement on your own social community based on Dupri's experiences with Global 14. We also made a co-presentation about social media and audience intimacy at the 2012 PSFK Conference San Francisco. This thought leadership provides valuable insight to iCrossing clients and helps us meet the goals we defined.

By co-creating content, we are both developing a product to support our goals--akin to Justin Timberlake and Budweiser actually making a beer together.

Find Natural Areas of Interest

A hip-hop mogul and a digital agency. The mogul runs a record label. The agency helps companies like Coca-Cola build connected brands. What do they have in common? Well, it didn't take long to find out. Dupri loves social media and technology; so does iCrossing. Dupri hustles content ranging from his blog posts to Instagram photos. So does iCrossing. We've defined a credible intersection of our shared pursuits that makes sense for our brands.

Finding common passions makes for a more authentic relationship. For instance, Dodge Ram and country musician Zac Brown have successfully joined forces around a common interest: community goodwill. In 2010, Ram and Zac Brown launched the Letters for Lyrics partnership to deliver 1 million letters to U.S. soldiers, and in March Brown and Ram joined forces to put up for auction his own Ram truck in order to benefit Camp Southern Ground, which provides programs for children including those with learning disabilities and behavioral disorders. The relationship is no gimmick--Ram has a history of working with country artists to support charitable causes, and Brown founded Camp Southern Ground. Theirs is a relationship centered on a true passion for both brands.

Defining common areas of interest also helps you rule out activities that don't help us meet our goals. We're focused only on the activities that make sense for us both.

Be Committed

One announcement does not make a relationship. A co-brand, like a garden, needs to be nurtured to grow.

Certainly Nike and Michael Jordan created the gold standard for a committed relationship between a company and a superstar individual brand. After launching their relationship in 1984, the two brands embarked on a journey that helped change the way brands and celebrities work together--and a journey that has endured highs (six NBA championships for Jordan) and unexpected turns (such as Jordan's shocking but temporary retirement from basketball to play professional baseball). Jordan did more than collaborate with Nike on the launch of a line of shoe wear; he literally became a business partner. The Jordan Brand, a division of Nike, helps Jordan earn $80 million annually in retirement. And Nike has obviously benefitted, releasing its 28th shoe in the Jordan franchise in 2013 and commanding 58 percent of the shoe market in the United States according to SportsOneSource.

Relationships are going to experience occasional hiccups, such as the awkward moment that occurred when it was reported that Alicia Keys used an iPhone after she signed a co-branding deal with Blackberry. No relationship is perfect, and you're both going to need to be open to learning and growing together in order to succeed.

--David Deal is the Vice President of Marketing for iCrossing.

--Jermaine Dupri is the CEO of So So Def Recordings and Global 14.

[Image: Flickr user Horia Varlan]

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