6 things startups should consider when partnering with brands

Last week I attended the iStrategy conference in Amsterdam -- a digital marketing event which attracted about 300 senior executives, marketing VPs and entrepreneurs to discuss business opportunities on the web.  

From keynote speeches by Randi Zuckerberg and Jimmy Wales, to workshops on topics such as social advertising and social media in the offline world, to name a few, for me iStrategy was a great opportunity to get some good insights into the web dynamics of brand building.


It would be a challenge to review the entire conference (if you want to get a feel for what was discussed, check #istrategy on Twitter, or read the istrategy blog), so I am going to mention only a small -- but extremely interesting -- part of iStrategy, the panel discussion How brands can work with startups.


Moderated by CMO of an online French retailer Vente Privee,  Julien Zakoian, the panel consisted of Thom Cummings from Soundclowd, Chris Maples from Spotify and Anders Sjoman from Voddler.


The discussion focused on partnerships between startups and established brands such as joint marketing campaigns and advertisement deals.


Chris Maples from Spotify gave an example of a brand partnership between Volkswagen and Spotify, which started off as an ad hoc collaboration, and ended up as a show on MTV. Involved in the ideation stage of this joint project, Spotify helped VW create a social media campaign whereby VW fans with profiles on Spotify contributed to the list of Driving Track Confessions -- songs they would be embarrassed to admit they sang while driving.

Here's more scoop on this campaign:

The panel on brands and startups was extremely interesting for me mainly because 1) I often work with startups helping them create and implement brand strategies for growth and profits early on, and 2) because brand partnerships is such a hot topic in branding and marketing in general. You might have noticed this from my previous posts.


Is it important for startups to think strategically about their partnerships with brands?


My short answer is YES. Whereas from my experience I can say that most startups don’t think in terms of medium or long-term brand strategy, and often tend to go after opportunities which will bring cash fast, thinking strategically can help them create long-term brand value.  Having a brand strategy is not a luxury, it's an extremely useful and necessary framework for startups which enables them to decide upon each new partnership and select those which will enhance, not diminish, startup brands.


This is one of the main reasons I’ve intentionally changed the word order in the topic of this blog post. Whereas the discussion panel at iStrategy was called how brands can work with startups, I found it more logical to talk about how startups can work with brands. Big brands are in a good position to choose their partners, but as a startup, you also need to be perceived as an equal partner, and do what works for you in the long-term.


Here are some of my tips for startups which will help them consider brand partnerships that will work in their favor:


1) Keep in mind that each brand partnership with an established brand will signal something about your own brand and create brand associations for your consumers. To put it simply, their reputation will become part of yours.


2) Make a list of criteria for brands to partner with -- they should fall nicely into your overall brand strategy (and please don’t tell me you don’t have one! :) )


3) Don’t concentrate only on the big and powerful brands with lots of cash. Someone on the panel said that every startup brand would probably like to partner with brands such as Coke, but this is really not the only approach you should concentrate on. Focus on the brand power, not only cash, that your partner can deliver to you.


4) Explore the unexplored -- seek partnerships based on contrasts, not similarities.


5) Seek brand partners with different target audience than yours.


6) Finally, partner with authentic brands, leaders within their product categories. This is often easier said than done (the truth is, big brands like to partner with... other big brands, and in order for them to explore startups, the latter need to convince them of benefits), but you should set your goals high.


For more details on the last 3 points, check out my previous article 3 co-branding rules for bigger profits.


For more on co-branding, see my previous blog post 8 examples of co-branding and brand partnerships.