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Retail Partnerships: A Beginner’s Guide to Getting Them to Work for You

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Phil Grossman

11 Mar, 2020

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When The Beatles said “I get by with a little help from my friends,” they weren’t talking about retail partnerships, but they may as well have been! As much as the modern retail landscape is focused on fierce competition, rugged individualism, and gurus who espouse a you-against-the-world attitude, most small businesses would do well taking a small step back and realizing that sometimes two heads (or brands) are better than one. 

This may not be new gospel, but it is something that businesses tend to forget: partnering up with similar brands can take your own in new directions that you may never have imagined. It can show new audiences what you have to offer, build brand awareness, spark new ideas, and help make connections in your industry. 

In this post, we’re going to tell you how these retail partnerships work, how you can make the most of them, and how to enter into some of your own. Even if you’re not ready to enter a retail partnership, this guide will help you prepare for when you are in need of some help in the future.

How do retail partnerships work?

Well, when two brands love each other very, they sign some paperwork, run some advertising campaigns, design some products, and help each other grow their brand awareness. 

That’s pretty much the short and sweet of it. Now for the long and dry of it. 

Retail partnerships occur when two brands have complimentary but non-competitive audience bases. That means there’s some overlap between their target audience, but they’re not directly competing with each other.

Let’s look at exhibit A: a man named Joe. Joe likes beer, grilling, sports cars, and hydrating face masks. To get his fill for each of these, Joe has different brands that he likes. When it comes to beer, Joe likes Guinness. For grilling, Joe likes George Foreman grills. For sports cars, Joe is partial to BMWs. And for face masks, Joe likes Andalou Naturals’ Fruit Enzyme Mask. 

Now, each of those brands has some overlap in their target audience: that’s where Joe comes in. But no brand is going to lose business to the other — there’s little risk that Joe’s going to convert bottle of Guinness into a grill or moisturize his face with a BMW. Instead, these four brands complement each other: Joe can drive his BMW home from work, set up the grill, plop down with a beer, and put on a facial mask while he cooks his dinner. 

This means that these brands would do well working together, aka entering a retail partnership. So what would that look like? Well, it could take the form of an advertising campaign that details an idyllic scene like the one we just imagined, the form of a new product that lets you start your grill when you press the start button in your BMW so it’s ready when you get home, or a contest that gives away a face mask to one lucky George Foreman grill owner. In short, the possibilities are pretty much endless and limited only by the group’s collective creativity. 

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Advantages of retail partnerships

So, what’s the advantage of boarding the partnership with another brand? Well, there are a few.

For one, you can attract new customers. Let’s imagine that Joe hadn’t yet picked his favorite grill brand, but knew he loved grilling. After seeing a hypothetical commercial for a BMW-George Foreman collaboration, Joe looked further into George Foreman’s offerings and picked one up for himself. 

Of course, the world doesn’t revolve around Joe, but he’s a good analogy for this concept: there are a lot of Joes out there who may be interested in your product, but only know about another complementary brand’s products. By partnering up with that brand, you bridge that gap and get those Joes on your side of the fence. 

Next, there’s the simple reality that two heads are often better than one. When two brands come together and try to maximize profits by coming up with a new product that appeals to the center part of their Venn diagram, the possibilities are endless: sports cars with included face masks, grills that turn food into beer, beer that turns food into grills. Or, staying within the laws of physics, maybe just beer that’s specifically brewed to complement the flavor profile of grilled foods. 

Disadvantages

Unfortunately, retail partnerships aren’t all sunshine and glitter. Linking up with another brand brings with it the same problems that can make personal relationships so difficult: differences in goals, vision, or values, unreliable partners, etc. 

Brands are similar to people because, well, they’re run by people. Sometimes, you’ll find the perfect brand to partner with, only to find that you have significant creative differences, and you just can’t work them out. Other times, you’ll find that your partner just isn’t reliable or you just don’t get along with them. 

At the end of the day, working with others is hard work, and it’s a skill that needs to be learned and practiced. Giving up some control and making compromises can be tough and if you or your partner aren’t ready for that, things can turn south quite quickly. 

Types of retail partnerships

We’ve mentioned a few different types of partnerships so far, but let’s take a deeper look at a few with the help of categorization. 

Sales and distribution agreements

If you’re in the retail space, this is a biggie. These are the types of retail partnerships that get your cookies on Whole Food’s shelves or your hat brand in Target. Basically, one brand, the producer, partners with another, the distributor, to sell a product to a wider audience. As you can clearly tell, this can bring a major boost to sales to both brands if the product turns out to be popular. 

Collaborative products

What do the Impossible Whopper and the Apple Watch Nike have in common? Two brands came together to create a new product that could never have been created in isolation. When brands partner up to make new products, they expose their partner’s audience to their very own brand and vice versa. Throw the advertising efforts to put the product out there into the picture, and you’ve got a recipe for some big-time brand awareness building. 

Advertising and collaborative marketing efforts

Speaking of marketing efforts, sometimes partnerships can be as simple as promoting your partner brand in exchange for some promotion for yourself. This can take the form of traditional advertising, digital marketing, social media marketing, and even email marketing. A few concrete examples include hosting a joint sweepstakes or engaging in affiliate marketing on social media and hosting another brand’s ad in your email newsletter through Ampjar

Events

Events are a great way to activate your brand and get the word out about your business. Events are kind of like parties: when people hear there’s some type of event going on, they go to check it out. If you host an event like a pop-up shop, product launch, trade show, seminar, conference, etc., the attendees will learn about your and your partner’s brands when they arrive.

3 successful retail partnership examples

The best way to learn is by example, so here are a few real-world samples retail partnerships that you can learn from. 

Sherwin Williams’ and Pottery Barn’s Color Your Room Campaign

Paint company Sherwin Williams’s and home furniture store Pottery Barn’s partnership took three forms: product collaboration, sales distribution, and marketing collaboration. 

First, the two brands got together to design an exclusive line of paints. Once that was done, they moved onto the marketing phase and created a website that would match the paint colors with Pottery Barn furniture. To take the whole shebang a step further, they collaborated on content marketing in the form of blog posts and articles about decorating your home. Finally, Pottery Barn sold the paints in its stores.

This is an example of a partnership that ticked all the boxes. Both brands had a golden ticket as far as audience overlap is concerned (furniture buyers are likely interested in painting their interiors) and were able to leverage that with customized products that met both audiences’ needs. Plus, they followed that up with educational content that’s valuable and actionable. 

Casper and West Elm’s mattress testing collaboration

Casper is a leading mattress brand with one major flaw: it has no stores of its own. Traditionally, mattresses are the kind of product you want to test out before you buy. While the industry has shifted further and further towards sight-unseen online purchases, there’s still a large number of consumers out there who want to personally lie on a mattress before they make a purchase. 

When Casper partnered with West Elm, a high-end furniture brand, that problem was solved. Not only did Casper enter the awareness of try-before-you-buy consumers, but West Elm got a sales and marketing boost from the huge number of people who were interested in Casper mattresses but had never heard of West Elm before. 

Best Buy and Amazon

These two brands may seem like they don’t meet the number one criteria for a good partnership: don’t be direct competitors. While Amazon and Best Buy are direct competitors in many ways, they do cater to two largely separate markets: the ecommerce crowd and the brick and mortar crowd. 

When Amazon wanted to increase sales of Amazon Fire and break into the brick-and-mortar consumer market, it partnered with Best Buy. Best Buy started programming TVs from their in-house Insignia brand with Amazon Fire TV. In return, Best Buy got preferential treatment for these products on Amazon, which boosted sales. 

That’s a clear win-win situation for all: Amazon got a bigger piece of the in-person pie, and Best Buy got a coveted featured slot on Amazon. 

How to start a retail partnership

So, you’ve seen what a retail partnership can do and want to taste the fruits of success for yourself?

We’ve got you covered. Here’s a brief overview of how to get into a partnership of your own.

Find the right partner

This may seem self-evident, but it’s probably the most important step. Not all businesses are compatible for a retail partnership. If you’re trying to partner up with a direct competitor, for example, chances are you’re going to have a bad time. 

In general, these are the types of brands that work best together:

  1. Brands with complementary offerings, like a fitness club and an athletic wear brand, or a health food store and a supplement brand
  2. Brands with similar offerings that can up the ante, like two competing car brands that work together to make a monster car
  3. Brands with different offerings, but a similar fan base, like a women’s supplement brand and a makeup brand
  4. Complementary expertise, like a brand that can build robust server hardware and another that can optimize it with software
  5. Partnerships between non-profit and for-profit brands with similar missions, like a plant-based food brand and an animal welfare organization

If your potential partner fits any of these boxes, you’re on the right track.

Reach out with a proposal

Next, you’ll need to break the ice. In many ways, this is the hardest part because you’re taking your idea from the abstract and making it a bit more concrete. 

Once you have your partner’s contact information, start drafting out a proposal that details what you want to do, and how each side will benefit. We’ve written an article with partnership proposal templates which should be your first stop. 

Make it happen

There’s no one way to make a brand partnership work. The path to partnership success is completely individualized, so you’ll need to work together with your partner to figure out how to turn your grand idea into a profitable reality. Be ready to compromise, stay flexible, and pick your battles, and you should see success.

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