Seafood restaurant chain Red Lobster announced in April that it has partnered with the nonprofit Ocean Conservancy to support the protection and preservation of the world's oceans.
The partnership between Red Lobster and Ocean Conservancy stands to provide some pretty powerful benefits to both organizations: Red Lobster's image gets a much-needed face-lift, and Ocean Conservancy gets a megaphone to promote its message.
For Red Lobster, a partnership like this is a step toward redefining the brand. Red Lobster can tell its patrons that it's a seafood restaurant that cares about the world and takes measures to protect it. At the same time, the Ocean Conservancy gains access to the platform – and reach – Red Lobster provides. The fact that a business as entrenched in its ways as Red Lobster can modernize provides a strong testimony to the work Ocean Conservancy does.
Small businesses can look to this partnership for inspiration. A marketing partnership, whether it's with another small business or with a big legacy brand, can unlock audiences or associations that were previously out of reach.
Reaching new audiences
Young and old brands each have something to offer the other in the rapidly changing digital age; that's why marketing partnerships between the two are so effective. To begin with, brands that are used to old-guard marketing channels like television and print now struggle to make a digital impact. That digital impact gets more important every day: Digital advertising saw a 16.8% increase in 2018, while television advertising increased by only 7.1%. And social media spending surpasses both, rising by 42% in a single year. For brands less comfortable with digital tactics, a partnership with a digitally innovative business will allow them to reach different audiences and build new, authentic relationships and channels.
Conversely, many newer companies have engaged digital audiences but have largely neglected developing expertise in any other channels. Television and print advertising are still important, especially for location-based marketing, but they almost always require the sort of scale – large minimum buys for television advertising, expensive billboards – that relatively young brands lack. Established businesses of any size are likely to have pre-existing media advertising relationships, a tidy workaround for a younger brand. When small businesses with different strengths join forces, both brands reach untapped audiences.
Partnership marketing also offers brands a way to burnish their reputations by association. Young brands are often seeking to establish credibility in a noisy market. While old brands may seem staid and boring, they are known quantities. Consumers face a barrage of noise from what feels like a new startup knocking on their doors every day, vying for their attention, and it's hard to separate the truly innovative from the also-rans.
Established brands, on the other hand, often struggle to create truly newsworthy moments that capture positive public attention. Consumers can feel the desperation radiating from a publicity campaign for a product launch hawking something that is only a little bit different from what came before. While innovation from within is admirable, many so-called innovative breakthroughs are little more than a contrived bid for attention.
A marketing partnership is an easy and cost-effective way for small businesses to merge assets and take on the other partner's traits. While a new brand might have some edgy cachet, consumers are often hesitant to trust them. If a brand with a household name endorses an emerging one with its partnership, that can create immediate trust with prospective customers. For the consumer, it's like having a recommendation from a friend. If you trust your friend's taste, you are much more apt to try a new product than you would be after seeing even the most flashy advertising.
When larger businesses partner to amplify a smaller brand's reach, the bigger partner gets to upgrade its image. This is true of Target's partnership with Quip, in which Target is sourcing actual subscriptions for Quip and receiving an affiliate fee in return. Since partnering with the retailer – Target sells the toothbrushes in-store and consumers must buy refills online directly from Quip – the brand has already sold more than 1 million toothbrushes. In this way, Quip can use its relationship with Target as a marketing channel to reach tons more people than it would have targeted and been able to reach through its Facebook and Instagram ads.
Though it is a major, established brand, Target benefits from its partnership with a young, relative unknown because it allows the big-box behemoth to offer a new type of product for younger customers. In fact, Target offers products from 12 different startups as a way to nurture customer loyalty and maintain their youthful, trendy brand image.
A fine romance
Though it's wise to look first for partnerships with other small businesses, don't assume that larger brands won't want to partner with you. Small brands with some early press are particularly attractive. Large brands are eager to find innovative brands to inject a breath of fresh air into them, just as small brands are ready to benefit from the large brand's endorsement through partnership. Keep these best practices in mind for a successful marketing partnership.
1. Know thyself
Before you start scouting out partners, you need to understand what sort of brand you are and where your relative strengths and weaknesses lie. Starting out with a SWOT analysis will show you what you have to offer and what you need in a partner. It's a little like marriage (without the romance): You want partners who are strong where you are weak and weak where you are strong so that you can shore up one another's weak points. It's not just about getting more eyeballs on your brand, after all; it's about filling in the gaps in each other's businesses in ways you couldn't achieve alone.
2. Define your goals
Once you have a sense of the gaps you want to fill with a partnership, clearly define your own specific goals. If your business is well established but feeling stale, and you want to reinvigorate your image, seek out brands generating a lot of buzz. Or if you're that new, buzzy brand, partner with a neighborhood fixture that can lend its air of credibility to your business.
3. Map the terrain
Having assessed your own assets and weaknesses and defined your goals will allow you to understand your ideal universe of partners. Now you can force rank them by two criteria: how much they can drive your primary goal, and how much you can shore up their perceived weaknesses and deliver value to them. Your perfect partners are those that can drive you toward your goals while you deliver high value to them.
4. Throw out the first pitch
Once you've done your self-assessment and your analysis of the field, you're ready to reach out to potential partners. This is a pitch like any other, and your preparation will serve you well. Because you now have such a clear idea of why this partnership makes sense for the other brand, you can craft the messaging to ensure you touch on the right points.
5. Play the field
Don't put all your eggs in one basket by limiting yourself to a single relationship. Forming partnerships often drains a lot of time before an agreement comes to fruition. Though your highly informed and strategic messaging should garner a response more quickly, it's still the case that you'll need to be patient as you wait to hear from a bigger or more established brand. If you have multiple potential partnerships in process, you won't have to start from scratch if one falls apart at the last minute.
Though partnerships require time and effort to get off the ground, partnership marketing is cost-effective for small businesses and gives you outlets you wouldn't have on your own. Good partnerships are both authentic and engaging, proving effective ways to build awareness and start a conversation with the next generation of potential consumers.