Brand Strategy

How to pull off a successful brand collab

Execs from brands and agencies like Doritos, Magnolia Bakery, and Digitas shared their secret sauce for collaborations.
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Amelia Kinsinger

· 5 min read

Some brand collabs, like Doritos and Taco Bell, just make sense. Others are more…surprising, like Balenciaga and Crocs, or Crocs and Hidden Valley Ranch, or Hidden Valley Ranch and Van Leeuwen, or Van Leeuwen and Kraft Macaroni & Cheese. We could continue the chain, but we’ll spare you.

The popular move, which some marketers said originated in the fashion and sneaker industries, ideally benefits both brands involved. But some have also gone awry (remember Target and Neiman Marcus, or Lego and Shell?).

“Setting out to do a collab just to say you’ve done a collab—and I do think some brands do that—it never works, because people see right through that,” Stacy Taffet, SVP of brand marketing for Frito-Lay, told Marketing Brew. “If it’s not something that is giving your fans, giving your consumers something of value…it’s probably not worth doing.”

So when is it worth doing? Marketers with experience crafting collaborations told us it’s important for brands to focus on creating a unique offering and finding brand alignment, even if that means turning down partnerships from time to time.

Nothing Something new

Frito-Lay isn’t “interested in partnering for the sake of partnering or borrowing equity from another brand,” Taffet said. Instead, it focuses on “unlocking a new experience” that it couldn’t offer on its own. For instance, when Doritos partnered with Skullcandy earlier this year, it was able to offer limited-edition gaming headphones to its fans, many of whom are gamers, Taffet said.

Last year, the brand teamed up with Netflix for season 4 of Stranger Things, offering entertainment in the form of a livestreamed concert featuring Charli XCX and other artists that was viewed by more than 17 million people, resulting in 4.4 billion earned media impressions. It led to an 11% increase in dollar sales for Doritos during the promotion window, plus a bump in market share, per Taffet.

“We were hitting on not only conversation and cultural impact as we measured it, but also we were selling a lot of Doritos, which is always a good thing as well,” she said.

Chris Furnari, communications manager at Athletic Brewing Company, said the nonalcoholic craft-beer company tries to make “something unique, something that’s going to cut through the noise.” One of its recent collabs—a “pre-workout brew” made with bottled-coffee brand Super Coffee—sold out in 10 days and “went a little bit viral” in terms of media mentions and social shares, Furnari said.

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Ultimately, marketers seemed to agree that brands should aim to offer something original or unexpected that people can’t find elsewhere when crafting co-branded experiences. Danny Weiss, VP of social strategy at Digitas, said brands that are collaborating should make sure that “they’re bringing something new to the table” for both their core demographic and any potential new audiences they intend to reach.


Collabs are all about “synergy,” a term used by more than one exec. Taffet said that’s one of the first things she discusses with potential brand partners. Take Doritos and Stranger Things: Both brands are rooted in nostalgia, with strong ties to the ’80s (the Cool Ranch flavor rolled out in 1986), Taffet explained.

If brand alignment is missing, Taffet said her team will walk away from offers—and has had other brands walk away from them. “It’s definitely not worth hurting the equity of your brand,” she said.

Sara Gramling, VP of PR at Magnolia Bakery, which has co-released products with companies including Tula and Casely, also said she’s learned to “be comfortable saying no.” Magnolia has been “thrilled by the response” to its most recent collab with luggage brand Monos, which resulted in about 45 different media stories and about a 350% spike in traffic to its social channels the day it debuted, Gramling said.

Alignment doesn’t necessarily mean the two brands need to be in the same industry or have the same audience demographics, according to Sandra Habib, strategy director at global brand experience firm   Siegel+Gale. They do need to have shared goals, she said, and at least some overlap in target audience, “otherwise it doesn’t resonate.”

Angela Vranich, co-founder and chief product officer of Little Spoon, an organic baby-food company that has done collabs with brands like Andie Swim, Compartés Chocolates, and Banza, said she’s always looking for some sort of crossover in terms of demographic, and finds the partnerships that stand out the most “are extremely relevant to our target audience.”

“I can’t tell you how many people…texted me or emailed me because they were so excited to see the Banza partnership, because it’s a product and a brand that our parents that buy Little Spoon are already buying for themselves at home,” Vranich said.

“It’s really just [about] making sure that there is some synergy there. We’re not just doing a collab for the sake of doing a collab.”

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