Think of “partnership marketing” today and you might conjure splashy brand collaborations like Target and Lilly Pulitzer, E.L.F. Cosmetics and Chipotle, Adidas and Kanye West, or Supreme and almost anybody. Or in the B2B space, large multi-year, important but boring partnerships that only get mentioned in industry newsletters. Overall, the current era of partnership marketing has too often either been a blip on the business press’s radar, or focused on producing a quick product and slapping a couple of logos together to generate PR headlines, rather than digging in and providing a real and long-lasting benefit to customers.
It doesn’t have to be that way. Partnership marketing can, and should, have a much bigger impact. It can have substance and sizzle. When done right, partnership marketing can accentuate company values and solve consumer needs. It can provide a quicker way to scale for growth and offer reciprocal benefits for both partners.
The True Impact of Partnerships
Too frequently the strategy and thought leadership around partnerships is so painfully obvious (i.e. “synergy”) that it shouldn’t even need to be explained. But there are real, dynamic opportunities to be had. Here are seven strategies to make your partnership marketing actually work.
1. Check All The Boxes
While there are many types of partnerships — affiliate, brand, technology, strategic, to name a few — these shouldn’t be containers for either/or category distinctions. Instead, they should be both/and. Ideally partnerships not only create attention and encourage curiosity, they also provide value for the customer and demonstrate impact.
For instance, ketchup brand Heinz partnered with online reseller thredUP to create the Heinz Vintage Drip collection — thrifted clothing marked with a unique ketchup stain. Beyond the sustainability mission, the collaboration targeted global hunger relief, with 100% of proceeds benefitting the organization Rise Against Hunger — making the effort interesting, relevant, strategically aligned and mutually beneficial.
2. Pain Is Gain
Many partnerships focus on passions, interests, opportunities, and yes, synergies — and those are all worthwhile approaches. But what about your customers’ pain points? Taking a customer-centric view and offering a solution to something that negatively impacts their daily life can feel revolutionary — even if it’s highly functional.
For people on the go, making a drugstore pickup and a package drop-off just one stop is a genuine time-saver. Walgreens’s partnership with FedEx does just that, providing a real value by combining services under one roof. Pick up a prescription and mail your packages in just one easy step. It also reduces the pickup locations or touchpoints for the retailers.
3. Cater to the Few
We’re all familiar with the importance of targeting in marketing, but you also need to ensure that you are targeting in your partnership strategy. You don’t take a one-size-fits-all approach to targeting — so why do it with partnerships?
Build in nuance by targeting (or even hyper-targeting!) the specific customer segments that you’re looking to grow. For B2B companies, this may mean targeting by firmographics, stakeholders, and use cases, while B2C companies may prioritize interest groups, age, geography and other demographic details. Prioritize key segments rather than selecting them all and hoping for the best.
With its “Fresh Invest” podcast, Morning Brew and Fidelity offer a program tailor made for a young, financially literate audience interested in early investing. This pinpoints a segment that both partners want to reach and offers a real value for listeners.
4. Court the Little Guy
Historically, big businesses have held the power, while smaller companies were just happy to be chosen for partnerships. However, the power dynamic is shifting, with smaller, more agile companies gaining leverage thanks to advances in technology, data availability and broader ecosystem connectivity and interoperability.
Rather than viewing small companies as threats, big businesses need to provide a partnership strategy value proposition to bring them on board. Big companies can’t just win on brand and size as in past eras, today they need to win on process, people, and partner value. Not only will both partners see value, a broader sector of society may as well.
For example, multinational giant Pfizer and biotechnology company BioNTech joined forces to release the Covid-19 Delta variant vaccine.
5. Build Bridges, Not Walls
In the world of classic corporate strategy, the other companies in your category were threats to be defended against. However, in today’s world of ecosystems, webs, and interactions, they should be sought after.
Instead of building walls, building bridges offers more long-term payoff. By partnering with industry peers, you’ll accelerate your knowledge, adding value for your customers and serving as a key player in the larger ecosystem.
To offer one-touch, interest-free, buy now, pay later (BNPL) capabilities during physical checkout, adjacent companies Ingenico and SplitIt formed a partnership, delivering point of sale (POS) flexible installment options to consumers.
6. Sync KPIs With Partners
Our access to sophisticated real-time data has never been greater — so why aren’t more companies using it? Partner measurement capabilities and performance tracking KPIs give both a transparent and accurate view of how partnerships are actually performing in the market. It’s no longer a mystery which tactics are most effective — capitalize on those that work, and iterate on those that don’t. This quicker learning cycle allows for in-market agility and faster product and service updates.
Companies can create and refine dynamic pilots to test, learn from, and evaluate partnerships. Data tracking also enables a more transparent distribution model for equitable profit sharing.
Over a three year period, from 2017 to 2020, ecommerce platform Shopify tracked a new metric, partner attached conversion rates, and saw their revenue increased 17%, and their partners’ revenues increased 61.5%.
7. Lead From the Center
Ultimately your partnership strategy should be in line with your overall organization strategy. Some companies realize that partnership strategies are an extension of the organization and have a central function, but don’t have product or business unit level representation. Others let partnerships only happen at product/BU level. Best in class companies understand that you need both.
If partnerships are just a siloed discipline happening at the product/BU level, the effectiveness is limited, while instead they could be seen as an enterprise growth strategy and key revenue driver for the company.
Great companies understand the value of having a centralized strategic function and a distribution within operators, making sure every piece works together. This requires a strategic plan, partnership architecture, opportunity scoring/prioritization, governance, and ongoing tracking and measurement. Enter the Chief Partnership Officer. For organizations to prove that they want to capitalize on and create real value from partnerships, they need a dedicated team member who is making this a priority.
Microsoft’s Nicole Dezen and Starbucks’s Sara Kelly are leading the charge at those companies, viewing their roles as part of an investment ahead of the growth curve that’s developing.
These seven strategies prove that partnerships can be much more than two logos sitting together or a boring backend B2B integration mentioned in a press release. They can, and should, have a purpose and make an impact.