(Bloomberg Opinion): That noise you hear thundering across the brandscape? That’s the hoofbeat of collaborations crescendoing to a deafening roar.
Whereas brand partnerships used to be sparing, targeted, special even — we see now a feeding frenzy of collaborative cross-pollination.
Balmain × Barbie? Sure!
Zara × Everlast? Why not?
Veuve Clicquot × Yayoi Kusama? Come on in, the clicks are lovely!
No collab is too kooky, no partnership too cray-cray in this patchwork harlequinade.
If you thought Gucci × The North Face was awesome, check out Gucci × The North Face × Francis Bourgeois — featuring the adorkable British trainspotting sensation who has 37.2 million likes on TikTok (Gucci has 12.6 million; The North Face 1.3).
As Joe Grondin, senior manager of global collaborations for New Balance (which has partnered with everyone from Bodega and Stone Island to Rich Paul and Kith) explained to Hypebeast:
“We’re just trying to occupy as many subcultures as possible, and picking the most authentic brands to do that.”
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Splendidly, there’s a typographical angle.
Over the past few decades, the breakout stars of the computer keyboard have been the “at” symbol “@” and the hash sign “#” — plucked from obscurity by email and social media, to become as vital as the “?”, “&” and “%”.
But there’s a third symbol to watch, and while it’s often displaced by the letter “x” it should really be the St. Andrew’s cross “×” — our use of which dates to William Oughtred’s 1631 text “The Key to Mathematics.”
You see, brands have traditionally collaborated in the hope of addition. And some (like Halston and Pierre Cardin) have fallen victim to brand dilution’s subtraction. But in an age when virality is the jackpot, “×” marks not just the spot where brands collide creatively, but where they stake their fortunes on multiplication.
In this way, “×” may be branding’s most lucrative symbol: × = ! = $.
Stop, Collaborate and Listen
Brand collaborations arise when two or more boldface entities unite to promote or produce a product or service. As such, the collaborative spectrum covers everything from simple celebrity endorsements (Stan Smith × Adidas) and product placement (Ray-Ban × “Top Gun”) to complex co-creations (FritoLay × Taco Bell).
It’s not hard to see the allure, since effective collaborations create a triple win — drawing customers of Brand X to Brand Y, and vice versa, while luring new followers into the fold. But although “profit” is the simplest explanation for most brand behavior, “Why collaborate?” has a range of interconnecting answers.
The most successful brand collaborations punch way above their weight. Adidas has sold more than 70 million pairs of Stan Smith sneakers since 1978. Sales of Ray-Ban Aviators soared 40% after Tom Cruise sported them as “Maverick” in 1986. In 2013 Taco Bell reported that it had taken less than 14 months (and 15,000 extra staff) to sell more than $1 billion worth of Doritos Locos Tacos. And in 2020, an Instagram post from Justin Bieber merely hinting at a Crocs collaboration spiked the shoemaker’s shares to a 13-year high.
The recently announced collab-à-trois between Yeezy, Gap and Balenciaga illustrates the power of collaborations to extend far beyond the reach of any individual participant. Taking Instagram followers as a marker, this curious thruple instantly established a powerhouse presence …
9.9 million @kanyewest + 3.1 million @gap + 12.4 million @balenciaga = 25.4 million
… to say nothing of the innocent passersby intrigued by the media coverage. As Gap’s CEO Sonia Syngal confirmed:
“Our newest Yeezy Gap icon, the Perfect Hoodie, delivered the most sales by an item in a single day in Gap.com history … With over 70% of the Yeezy Gap customers shopping with us for the first time, this partnership is unlocking the power of a new audience for Gap, Gen Z plus Gen X men from diverse background.”
Collaborations allow established companies to deepen their customer relationships, and neophyte brands to co-opt legacy depth. Such inter-generational partnerships are run-of-the mill in music (Tony Bennett × Lady Gaga) and fashion (Louis Vuitton × Supreme), but they are becoming common in other market sectors. For instance, Leica (whose revolutionary camera debuted in 1914) has collaborated with several modern brands including Mykita eyewear (est. 2003), Hodinkee watches (est. 2008) and Master & Dynamic audio (est. 2013).
Whereas most journalists resist the stenography of “Brand X launches Product Y” PR, there is significantly more “man bites dog” about a collaboration, especially when it’s unexpected or counterintuitive. As a result, brands are becoming increasingly tactical (Mucinex partnered with the designers Steven Alan and Christina Viviani to create a Covid-catalyzed “Sickwear” clothing) and controversial (Liquid Death created 100 skateboards painted with traces of Tony Hawk’s blood).
Collaborations not only allow active brands to co-opt a bigger buzz (Johnnie “White” Walker × Game of Thrones), they give troubled companies a Hail Mary grab at the coattails of pop culture. The photography brand Polaroid, for instance, is casting its relevance net far and wide via collaborations with Fendi, Teva, Fragment Design, Star Wars, Lacoste and even Keith Haring (who died in 1990).
The network power of collaborations means that when Brand X collaborates with Brand Y, it also benefits when Brand Y collaborates with Brand Z. This helps explains the absurdly expensive (and expansive) ecosystem of James Bond product placement — where mid-level brands like Toyota, Heineken, Dell and Moscot bask in the reflected glory not just of 007, but of luxury marques like Aston Martin, Bollinger, Omega and Leica.
Lest we become too cynical, collaborations are also driven by genuine affinity and creative simpatico. The stunningly successful Skims × Fendi collaboration (which earned $1 million in one minute when launched last November) was the result of such “game recognizing game” — as Fendi’s artistic director Kim Jones told Instagram:
“The idea for the collaboration came about when my team and I were sitting around a table at the @Fendi studio in Rome. Suddenly, all the women went silent and started looking at their phones. I didn’t know what was going on, but they were waiting for the launch of the new @SKIMS collection. It was then that I thought: let’s do something together.”
Ben Schott is Bloomberg Opinion's advertising and brands columnist. He created the Schott’s Original Miscellany and Schott’s Almanac series, and writes for newspapers and magazines around the world. This article has been edited for length.