Why brands are crazy for collabs

Brands are teaming up in creative ways to sell us unique, limited-run products. What's in it for them?

Sarah Drumm

Editor
In May, paint brand Backdrop translated the Dunkin' brand logo into two new shades of wall paint. (Photo: Maggie Shannon)
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Last week, a monstrosity was unleashed onto the internet: Balenciaga stiletto Crocs. But while the outlandish shoes have been described in some quarters as “an actual nightmare,” it’s likely that both brands are feeling quite happy with the amount of coverage this meme-worthy collaboration has received.

Indeed, this project is not the first time the two companies have teamed up to delight (or disturb) consumers. In October 2017, the companies released a range of platform Crocs which similarly divided opinion.

Collaborations have long served as a popular way for brands to drive press attention, tap into each others’ audiences, and boost relevance. In the world of direct-to-consumer brands, recent examples include cereal startup Magic Spoon’s collaboration with the Sway House TikTok stars, paint company Backdrop’s partnership with Dunkin’, and apparel brand Madhappy (a prolific collaborator) releasing its first ever shoe collection with Vans.

It's not just brands partnering up together. Film studios are also tapping into the buzz that collabs bring by joining forces with direct-to-consumer brands to promote their latest cinematic debuts. In March, Disney revealed that it was teaming up with Asian-American brands Omsom and Sanzo to promote the release of "Raya and The Last Dragon." At the end of May, Quartz predicted an upcoming boom in Space Jam 2 merchandise, with over 200 partners (including direct-to-consumer brands MeUndies and Madhappy) enlisted to create branded products for the film.

To get a better understanding of how these sorts of partnerships come together – and why brands bother with them – we asked three direct-to-consumer brands to explain.

Backdrop's collaboration with Dunkin' has been in the works since October 2020. (Photo: Maggie Shannon)
Backdrop X Dunkin’

In October 2020, paint company Backdrop – which was recently acquired by interior design firm F. Schumacher & Co – was approached by an iconic American donut seller to see if a new paint color could be launched in its honor.

Seven months later, the project was revealed to the public: two new shades of bright pink and orange were added to Backdrop’s collection, in homage to Dunkin’s brand colors.

The timing was ideal. Collaborations allow brands to tap into one another’s’ audiences, with each business hopefully picking up a few new loyal customers along the way. And as the pandemic has meant that Dunkin’ has seen fewer visitors to its stores over the past year, the brand has had to find other ways to connect with its fans. How better than by tapping into the DIY home renovation boom by collaborating with Backdrop?

“We love partners that are outside of our category entirely, because it allows us to think a bit more creatively about different ways we can provide value to our customers,” Natalie Ebel, Backdrop’s cofounder says of the partnership. Such partnerships also provide a way for brands to test whether new product formats – beyond the colors – will be popular with customers. For the collab with Dunkin’, Backdrop introduced half-gallon cans, which contain half as much paint as the startup normally sells to its customers in one go. Ebel says that the production run of Backdrop’s Dunkin’ paints was “very limited,” and quickly sold out.

While it was obvious which colors the two brands should release (Dunkin’s logo contains just three colors – orange, magenta and brown, with the latter being the least prominent), Ebel says that replicating these colors in the format of a wall paint is not the easiest job.

“Think of paint as a three-dimensional color that has depth and nuance,” she explains. “It also has different states and can look quite different when wet versus dried.” The goal was to make sure that when dried, the color was instantly recognizable as a Dunkin’ brand color, a process that took several weeks of iterations – and plenty of coffee and donut breaks – to achieve.

Maude's mint green vibrator is exclusively available via Urban Outfitters. (Photo: Maude)
Maude X Urban Outfitters

Since 2019, Maude has been stocking Urban Outfitters with its vibrators and other sexual wellness products. According to Maude’s brand marketing and content manager, Lily Sullivan, they are among the best-selling products on the retailers' site – and last year, demand for them skyrocketed, as sales of sex toys saw a wider, pandemic-induced boom.

The challenge for Maude was to figure out how it could keep up with the demand Urban Outfitters had for its products, while also making sure there was enough left over for its own website, and the other retailers that it was supplying products to.

Tyler Aldridge, Maude’s director of product, says he thought that offering to stock Urban Outfitters with its own unique vibrator – which the retailer could choose the color of – could take some of the heat off.

“From our side, it helps us to forecast correctly, and you’re also nurturing that [partnership] a bit more,” Aldridge says.

The project got underway quickly, with the team at Urban Outfitters giving it the green light in August 2020. From an original range of 15 Pantone colors presented to Urban Outfitters from Maude’s range of brand colors, the selection was whittled down to just four options within a month – a terracotta, plus a range of green and grey shades. By October, the mint-green version of the Maude Vibe that Urban Outfitters had selected was in production. By January, it was available for pre-order on the retailer’s website.

But the collaboration wasn’t just about heading off any potential supply chain crunches – Maude also wanted to capitalize on the excitement that was brewing among retailers around sexual wellness products. Not long after Maude revealed its new vibrator with Urban Outfitters, both Bloomingdales and Nordstrom launched their own sexual wellness shopping hubs (Maude’s products featured in both).

“It’s interesting to see retailers like Urban Outfitters and Bloomingdales [do] sexual wellness pushes,” Sullivan says. “The thing I was most excited about was the tailored audience.” Urban Outfitters’ target customers – Gen Zers and younger millennials – tend to skew a little younger than the customers that shop directly with Maude, Sullivan explains.

“The beauty of a collab is that you get to play a little bit outside of your comfort zone,” she adds. “For us, the vibe at Urban was very much in line with our products and colors, but it was growing an audience that we already had a foot in the door [with]. We really got to have a moment with them.”

The Dims x Dusen Dusen chair is being released in batches of 50. (Photo: Sean Davidson)
Dims X Dusen Dusen

For many brands, collaborations are seen as one-off projects. But for furniture brand Dims, which launched in 2018, collaborations are a core part of the business model.

“There are plenty of brands that have their own singular vision, that is dependent on the founder or founders,” Dims’ founder, Eugene Kim says. “But we found that, at least in design, there’s a glut of independent studios that don’t have many means of distribution.”

Many of these studios remain hidden gems because, while they are outstanding designers, they may not have the marketing know-how needed to build their audience, or the ability to scale up their supply chain and start distributing on a bigger scale.

Dims can solve some of these problems. In turn, the studios can help Kim – who comes from a legal rather than design background – by making sure Dims has products that it can sell.

Kim says the model of independent furniture designers collaborating with companies in this way is well established and, as such, the process is pretty straightforward. Dims decides what kind of product it wants to come out with next, and selects a design studio that it thinks can bring the idea to life. The studio will be given a thorough brief, and then the design process can begin. Once everyone’s happy with the final drawings, it can go into production. The process can take anywhere from nine months to several years to complete, with some unique project-by-project troubleshooting often required along the way.

Take Dims’ most recent collaboration, a brightly colored chair designed in collaboration with Dusen Dusen, a Brooklyn home goods store known for its love of bold patterns.

Unlike the other designers Dims has collaborated with, Dusen Dusen’s founder Ellen Van Dusen specializes in textile, rather than furniture, design. “So we had to find a way to make something fun and creative happen without having her design furniture from scratch,” Kim says.

The conclusion was to ask Van Dusen to color block a chair designed by Stine Aas, a studio based in Norway.

Because each of the colorful chairs needs to be hand-finished, production runs can’t be as large as they usually would for other items of furniture. At the moment, Dims – which pays for the production of the chairs, and splits the profits with its design partners – is making 50 chairs per production run. When the first batch went on sale in April, they sold out in 48 minutes.

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