Just a gimmick, or subversive recruitment tool?
From fashion designers, musicians, drag queens, and even now computer games, brands are increasingly collaborating with a wider array of public figures, as well as other well-known brands, to bolster their own. But does it work? Can brands really piggyback on their partner’s fanbases? And what kind of statements are such collaborations trying to make?
Yes, when it comes to attracting new consumers, we have gone waaaaaay beyond what goes into the bottle. As the countless bottle wraps from designer fashion brands now show, in this visual world we now live in, it’s what’s on the bottle that also counts.
Yet, amidst the social, environmental and political flux of the past few years, the ever more diverse collaborations between drinks brands and partners outside of the industry, are truly taking things a step further still.
A temporary identity?
We’re not talking celebrity brands, or partnerships between fellow drinks brands; though both continue to produce some interesting results. Instead, we’re focusing on a new and growing wave of collaborations between drinks brands, fashion designers, musicians, prominent public figures, and now, computer games, all of which are taking things beyond merely bottle design in fact, and deep into the world of marketing.
Why are they happening? While some brands are using such partnerships to reach consumer groups that would otherwise overlook them, others use their choice of figure head as a way to outline the political or social leanings of the brand, and the causes it wishes to champion. And the way in brands are using collaborations as a temporary, assumed or reinforced identity, is both accelerating and evolving.
For the cause
For Constellation Brands, its recent partnership with actress Reese Witherspoon for example, is an opportunity to champion feminist causes, as well as a method by which to – however loosely – talk about its own feminist past.
The partnership involves the launch of The Editor’s Edition Rosé from the company’s SIMI Winery, to celebrate Witherspoon’s Book Club. Each month, the club chooses a book with a woman at the centre of the story. Speaking on their symbiotic relationship, the brand has pointed out that both its senior winemakers are women, while shining a spotlight on one of the company’s founding figures, Isabelle Simi, and her resilience through prohibition in the 1920s.
The future is digital – but we knew that
Collaborations are also now going far beyond physical assets, something being explored in particular by Pernod Ricard. Of course, Absolut has long championed LGBTQ+ causes, and aligned itself with the community. Its latest collaboration reinforces its alliance with pushing for equality, as well as celebrating that community itself, through its latest work with Drag star Tayce, fashion designer Chet Lo and the Institute of Digital Fashion.
The project called Second Skin Couture aims, according to the brand, “to challenge existing stereotypes and perceptions of fashion and provide a vision of the future – a world where what you wear isn’t tied to the binds of gender, seasonal trends, religious expression, or function”. The team have collaborated to create a translucent 'second-skin' garment as part of a series of projects designed to drive conversation and progress in the UK.
What the heck does that last sentence mean? In the real world, Chet Lo has designed a non-gendered garment made of a light, translucent and futuristic fabric, and which aims to blur the line between skin and material, “to symbolise how the wearer can express their true and purest self on the outside in future fashion”. The physical garment itself has been modelled by non-binary model and Drag Race UK star, Tayce.
Hold on to your conceptual hats. The garment is also being made available digitally for UK consumers to ‘try on’ in the metaverse, in the Ateliers Institute of Digital Fashion’s metacloset. Got it? The digital filter was made available to access via social media platforms from early May to coincide with the London launch event. According to the brand, the project is intended to inspire people to show their true identities.
Assuming a new identity
For other brands, collaborations are helping themselves, rather than their consumers, to assume an identity of their choice. Another Pernod Ricard brand, Ballantine’s – the world’s second-bestselling Scotch whisky in fact – has been ramping up its efforts over the past two years to attract a younger, more diverse audience in markets across the world, particularly among the 30-something demographic. Its use of collaboration is helping it assume a younger, hipper identity, more connected to the zeitgeist.
Its first wave of activity in late 2020, it worked with director Oscar Boyson, and photographer Sophie Jones, to launch a short film and billboards across 20 global markets. The work featured images of images of black dancers, and kissing female partners with slogans including ‘There’s no wrong way to move’ and ‘There’s no wrong way to feel’. Though clearly reaching out to a new generation, it also aimed to show how founder George Ballantine ‘did things his own way’ when he founded the conventional codes of whisky back in 1827.
However, brand new for 2022, is a collaboration with one of the world’s biggest computer games, Borderlands, to create a limited-edition bottle design. The design features an image of the character Mad Moxxi, a bar owner in the game’s Pandora setting. According to the brand, the character has also been appointed the Chief Galactic Expansion Officer (CGEO) for the brand, and has even created a video to promote responsible drinking from her bar. The bottle also allows access to exclusive Borderlands 3 content.
And crucially, the character will also recruit a team of Borderlands fans, who will create content, give out exclusive merchandise, and share Moxxi’s own content, to build brand awareness and further fans to the brand. Chivas Brothers’ Global Marketing Director of Ballantine’s, Mathieu Deslandes said: “Our partnership with Borderlands is an exciting first step into the world of gaming and is part of our ambition to open up the Scotch whisky category to new fans and reach new audiences.”
It seems the new wave of brand collaborations at their heart, concern notions of identity and belonging. The work of brands, creative design agencies, and celebrity and brand partners seem to have the intent of ‘helping’ consumers gain a greater sense of their own, perhaps shifting identity, granting them permission to truly be themselves. Or else, brands are using them to shift their own identity, proving to the consumer sets that they wish to reach, that they’re truly one of them, and reflecting them and their interests back in their marketing activity.
Is any of this particularly revolutionary? At its core, the work reflects the kind of marketing activity brands have been using for decades, probably longer. What has shifted and what is different are the increasingly pioneering, contentious, socially important, and sometimes subversive social, political, and sexual issues brands are willing to put their names to, or the increasingly digital, ‘meta’ methods being employed. Just like in society, the notion of identity is becoming ever more fluid.
Playing it safe and standing on the side-lines is no longer an option to reach younger generations who prize self-expression and standing up for their beliefs, and sense of self, in increasingly visible ways. It makes sense then that these campaigns and collabs are melding, and working between real world and digital venues, not only expanding their reach, but reaching consumers where they’re at.
The race is on to speak the language of the first true digital natives, Generation Z; at least the ones legally able to drink. According to IBM, 74% of Gen Z-ers spend their free time online, the Global Web Index reports they spend over 8 hours a day online, and according to Criteo 32% of Gen Z transactions happen on a mobile device.
However, this is a generation that values authenticity and are savvy to brands jumping on causes or the cool-factor of other brands for ‘clout’, or for their own gain. Authentic roots in, or affiliation with causes or worlds – from gaming to fashion – is a must if they are truly to win them over. Wrong steps could instead alienate them. And crucially, even when it’s for fun, with a link-up with a computer game or celebrity, there better be a tangible benefit, asset, or product that truly meets consumers needs.
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