The Brand WagonWhen good collaborations go bad.

The Brand WagonWhen good collaborations go bad.

  • Words Allyssia Alleyne
  • Photograph Yasmina Gonin
  • Set Design Camille Lichtenstern

The half-century relationship between Shell and Lego, which involved the plastic bricks being distributed in gas stations around the world, came to an end in 2014 after a successful Greenpeace campaign that ran with the tagline “Shell is polluting our kids’ imagination.”

There was a time when brand partnerships—your Rodarte for Target and Hermès for Bugatti—felt rare and noteworthy. But now, every season brings with it a slew of unlikely bedfellows: Reebok and National Geographic; Burberry and Minecraft; Juicy Couture and Kraft Mayo. There’s no pairing too incongruous in the age of memes. 

This cross-pollination is big business. A 2021 Statista study found that 67% of Gen Z and 60% of millennials reported purchasing co-branded products and that 71% of American consumers feel positive about such collaborations. Done well, they’re a way for companies to widen their audiences and generate sales, while sharing the costs and risks. Done poorly, they can inflict serious reputational damage, alienating new and existing customers alike.1 

Let’s take for granted that all corporate activities, concerned as they are with buyers and bottom lines, are driven by profit. The best collaborations should convince you they’re driven by something deeper. In 2019, followers of fashion couldn’t help but be charmed when Belgian designer Dries Van Noten and the retired grand couturier Christian Lacroix came together for a one-off collection that combined the former’s practical luxury with the latter’s trademark frills. The New York Times fashion critic Vanessa Friedman described it as “a reminder that at its purest, creative collaboration is a meeting of the eyes and the minds” rather than “the most naked form of mutual back scratching.”

Often, however, collaborations are less an exchange of ideas between equals than a game of clout by association—think of Supreme trading street cred for luxury bona fides in its collabs with Tiffany and Louis Vuitton, or Van Noten’s own upcoming Stüssy capsule. Christie’s tried for a similar trick last fall when it released a line of merch emblazoned with the words “Art Handler” with streetwear site Highsnobiety. But edginess isn’t so easily transposed. The auction house was swiftly slammed for trivializing the poor working conditions of art handlers within their own business. The collaboration was shelved after a single day and Christie’s apologized.

Safer, then, to stay in your lane, to give the people what they actually want. This is why Justin Bieber’s limited-edition line of “Timbiebs Timbits” donut holes with Canadian café chain Tim Hortons made sense. It may be hard to take the singer seriously when he says “Doing a Tim Hortons collab had always been a dream of mine.” But there’s something authentic about two mass-market brands creating something their mutual fan base might genuinely enjoy, at a price point they can afford. If it was silly, at least everyone involved seemed to be in on the joke. The collaboration paid off: Bieber was credited with almost single-handedly turning around the chain’s fortunes, leading to a 10.3% rise in sales at stores open at least a year in the fourth quarter of 2021. 

The Dries–Lacroix collection never had quite the same commercial impact. Hitting stores in spring 2020, as people tightened their purse strings and pulled on their sweatpants, the collection flooded Net-a-Porter’s sales section later the same year. If the designers are to be believed, this shouldn’t be taken as a failure. Like the most satisfying collaborations, brand or otherwise, this was organic and special—a case of two people driven to explore the limits of what they could make together, rather than how much they could make doing it. 

The half-century relationship between Shell and Lego, which involved the plastic bricks being distributed in gas stations around the world, came to an end in 2014 after a successful Greenpeace campaign that ran with the tagline “Shell is polluting our kids’ imagination.”

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