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Are Brand Collaborations the Future of Innovation?

Brand collaborations are currently the hottest thing in fashion.

Brand x Designer capsule collections or Brand x Brand collabs are filling up catwalks, glamour magazines and Instagram profiles. Originally created as short-term co-branding concepts to inject additional energy into new collections in an ever more crowded and fast-moving media world, more and more vertical brand collaborations now include component manufacturers and material suppliers.

A great example is the latest collection of the designer label Supreme with VF Corp.’s The North Face, the waterproof & breathable Gore-Tex brand and the durable fabric producer Cordura. During an annual trend-scan visit to Tokyo in December, I saw a long queue of Japanese hipsters waiting to get into the Supreme store in a trendy backstreet of Shibuya—clear evidence that meaningful ingredient brands with a high-level of brand awareness and attractiveness can effectively support their clients’ storytelling.

So which brand experience besides artificial scarcity of the collection and the resulting “it-factor” are consumers getting from such a four-party collaboration? In the above mentioned case it is probably very clear: This Fall-Winter 2018/2019 collaboration from Supreme with The North Face features in some products a breathable, durable Gore-Tex Cordura fabric for durability and optimal protection. Stand out pieces are the Expedition Jackets and pants. The huge popularity of the processed ingredient brands was probably a decisive factor for the collaboration, and they also lend credibility to other products of the collection that are not made with these ingredients, like waist bags, travel wallets or beanies.

Establishing such vertical brand partnerships spanning several steps of the supply chain requires significantly more-effort and commitment by all partners than the more promotional horizontal co-branding activities. Beyond the pure design of the product, other business processes such as sourcing, material selection and testing, garment or footwear construction, certification or licensing processes and marketing coordination are required. We call that ingredient branding.

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But what if several ingredient brands from various phases of the supply chain collaborate to create a joint product offering to customers, retailers and potentially consumers?

From the raw materials to the finished product a consumer brand might involve 60 or more unique suppliers and the supply chain structure might span more than six, seven or 10 process steps. Many of these suppliers established in the past trade names for their materials, processes, solutions or certifications, and with more branded ingredients coming to the market, more collaboration between vertical supply chain players will come into play.

Such vertical collaborations among fiber and fabric producers are already visible in the market. The X.Venture collexion, which made its European debut in early 2018, is a co-operative collaboration between the CORDURA brand and Artistic Milliners, featuring TENCEL botanic fibers from Lenzing and coatings supplied by Schoeller Technologies.

Another area where we see brand collaborations with a larger number of companies involved is the attempt to produce more sustainable fibers and other raw materials.

The challenge to solve relevant environmental concerns in the industry seems to require the collaboration of many different partners from almost every process steps in the chain. Platforms like Circular Workwear, EFFECTIVE or the wear2wear initiative include many different companies and brands. The project EFFECTIVE has currently 12 participating brands including Aquafil, Genomatica, H&M, Vaude, Carvico, Balsan and the Südzucker AG, and it’s considered to be one of the broadest industrial-driven efforts to redefine the entire value chain model.

The German Wear2wear closed-loop cooperation includes the five companies Schoeller, Märkische Faser, Dutch Spirit, Glaeser and Sympatex. The aim is to develop innovative production systems to transform secondhand clothes into new textile fibers and functional fabrics. As such, it appears more and more market participants are seeking collaboration models as a route to innovative and sustainable product concepts or solutions. But this can be as much of a blessing as it might be a curse. Vertical brand collaborations with multiple stakeholders across the supply-chain are not easy to handle, and from a brand management perspective, there are also a few central questions to be considered:

  1. What is the joint promise of the specific brand collaboration and how can the target audience comprehend that joint promise?
  2. How will the target audience (brand, retailer, consumer) experience each brand’s individual contribution to the collaboration?
  3. How does the collaboration match with the brand image the target audience had of each participating brand?
  4. How will the brand collaboration influence the future perception of each participating brand?
  5. And finally, by which criteria does a brand select its brand collaboration partners?

Why is that important? A brand’s success is determined by the total brand experience the target audience is gaining over time and how this experience matches with the original brand promise. It is not decisive whether these experiences are made directly through the brands’ own activities or indirectly through its partner network. Therefore, brands—and particularly ingredient brands—having many different brand collaborations, need to manage their brand partner network very thoroughly. Each collaboration partner influences the total brand experience through the behavior and performance they demonstrate every day. Vertical brand partnerships should therefore always ensure a good brand fit with clearly defined selection criteria. Brand partners should also agree on a resolution for if and how to exit a collaboration in case the defined results cannot be reached.

Tomas Vucurevic is founder and managing director of BRAIND, one of the leading global experts for Ingredient Branding. He is a regular speaker at major trade shows and customer events related to the importance of Ingredient Branding. Tomas has an incomparable experience in Ingredient Branding in the textile and fiber industry due to his previous role as a global brand manager for Gore-Tex and various consulting mandates for top ingredient brands as well as for start-up companies.