Play the dating game to find your brand soulmate

A new breed of ’brand dating agencies’ are turning partnership deals on their head by linking brands by personality traits rather than shared needs. Have we seen the future of corporate alliances?

Dialogue141 marketing director Neil Jenkinson has created a brand partnership dating tool, Something About Me, after consulting a friend who runs a dating website. Potential clients looking for a relationship with another brand are asked to fill out a questionnaire, just as if they are composing their own dating profile.

Rather than filling in the usual information about sales figures and target markets, the “brand dating” process treats each business as a real person, with a distinct personality, in order to identify optimum partners that think in the same way and will be able to build a successful relationship with the company.

Jenkinson explains: “The tool is designed to identify future strategic partners as opposed to ‘one night stands’. It’s all about brand dating, rather than looking for a ‘quickie’ or someone to ‘flirt with’, collaborating once and then moving onto the next partnership. We’re trying to promote ‘marriages’ – brands that will work together for a long period.”

Many brand partnerships are established due to a practical need: extra investment, product development, exposure or advertising strength, for example. But Jenkinson says companies should find a compatible partner through brand dating before they come up with shared marketing ideas.

“I have worked in a number of agencies and they all use the same formula: ‘whenever you create a partnership, it always starts with a great idea’. That’s a flawed model because you’re effectively trying to sell a concept. A relationship based on this will always fall down because one of the partners didn’t think of the idea, so they never feel any ownership of it,” suggests Jenkinson.

In order to gain a deeper insight into a brand, Dialogue141 asks for at least three completed surveys to be filled out by company marketing directors, brand managers or managing directors. “A lot of agencies mistakenly make assumptions about the brand and what it stands for, based on what they see on websites and brand packaging, or what they read in the brief,” says Jenkinson.

Some companies use the tool as part of an immediate need to identify a brand they can develop a long-term relationship with; others use it to open their eyes to which partners they should be talking to in the future. Former commercial and brand director at Ferrari GB, Al Clarke, who is now a director of social media company The Pebble in the Pond, has used Something About Me to help develop partnerships for the company’s Ferrari Experience driving packages.

The brand’s character and company culture needs to gel with Virgin. Is the brand edgy? Is the marketing team empowered to explore potential to its fullest extent?

Charles Vine, Virgin

“As a relatively small business but a huge brand, we needed to deliver a lot through partnerships. When people think about Ferrari, they think of Formula 1, fast cars and celebrity; there are all kinds of perceptions. If you’re going to have a dialogue with a brand, you need to be clear about what you are and what you’re able to offer,” says Clarke.

Charles Vine of the brand alliance team at Virgin says brand dating works well for his company because it is based on personality rather than just paper corporate value. “The brand character and company culture of a brand partner needs to gel with Virgin. We need to be able to work together on many levels,” he says. “Is the brand a little edgy? Is the brand and its marketing team empowered to explore potential creatively and to its fullest extent or are they overly driven by the process? Are the team good humoured, tenacious and flexible? Do they take full ownership of problems as much as opportunities?”

He adds that while it is important that partner brands are keen to appeal to the same demographics as Virgin, “which is partly about exchanging data, brand strategies and marketing materials”, it also comes down to the thing many serial daters will recognise: “gut feel”. Virgin has already had successful collaborations with Bacardi-Martini, Gü and Pearl & Dean.

Pizza Hut marketing manager of digital Scott Muncaster and his team are about to fill out

the brand dating questionnaire. He has decided to use this method to find a joint audience, rather than just any obvious product matches

for his brand.

“Our products don’t always have to go together like biscuits and cheese,” he says. “Blockbuster and Pizza Hut is a good partnership because movies and pizza go together, but equally successful was a collaboration with O2’s Top-up Surprises, where people top up their pre-pay mobile and win a prize; in this case, a discounted visit to Pizza Hut.”

While agencies like Dialogue141 have their own versions of corporate dating, the philosophy is being adopted by many companies. Fellow brand partnership business The Syncredible Agency aims to find new ways for brands to work together. Managing partner Cary George says: “Given that consumers have less time and loyalty, brands are now starting to go that extra mile, looking at different ways to impact lives, home environments and communities.”

For some brands, such as charity organisation RockCorps, this means dating a number of different corporates depending on the country involved or what each partner can offer. In the UK, France and Israel, RockCorps partners with mobile business Orange to produce an event where young adults are encouraged to do volunteering in exchange for concert tickets.

Richard Armstrong, partner at partnership agency Kameleon, worked with the two brands. He explains: “Orange has a strapline ‘together we can do more’ and it went looking for a property which could epitomise that philosophy. RockCorps is one of the living embodiments of that idea. People working together to transform a community can share a gig as a reward at the end of it. That’s a powerful partnership.” (See viewpoint, below)

Elsewhere, RockCorps has partnered with other companies, such as Sprint Nextel-owned Boost Mobile, to get its message across.

With more businesses than ever looking for partnerships in the post-recession period to offset costs and find shared goals, brand dating may become even more of a fixture in marketers’ minds in future. But, warns Elaine Robertson, managing director of partnership marketing agency Mediator, any tie-ups based on the personality of partners must be accompanied by robust financial and data. With budgets constantly under the spotlight, dates must prove themselves to be more than whimsical flings.

“We try to bed our research in the tangible first, so we can prove we are in the right place demographically before overlaying our insight in terms of brand personality,” argues Robertson. “We start with robust data, using systems that people already accept and know as valuable.”

Brand dating – perhaps with multiple partners – looks like becoming a major tool for building corporate partnerships, but marketers must remember not to get too carried away with love. Even the most structured arranged brand marriages still have a place in 2010.

Brand dating viewpoint

Martin Howard, Samsung sponsorship account director

“Our activity is designed to give football fans information on how best to experience games in groups around the TV; be it at home or in pubs.

We developed an aggregated TV guide which pools information on all live TV games. The idea is that whenever there’s a congested fixture, such as a Champions League Game, people can easily find what game is on, what time kick-off is, who’s playing and what TV channel it’s on.

It made sense to have a partnership at that point with Heineken, which gave us the data on 75,000 pubs around the UK. We created a pub finder, which allowed people to find out all the usual information about the game, but also which local pub was showing the match.

For our next partnership, we wanted to take that idea even further. We are always looking at ways in which we can create what we call “fan zones” – bigger viewing areas with bigger screens, because we were limited by pubs and the size of their TV sets. That’s how the Rileys relationship came about.

Rileys is primarily a pool and snooker venue. Its own brand mission was to add more facilities and create something that it calls a “bloke zone”. Its idea for sports viewing in bars was exactly what we were looking for.

After all, its demographic matches ours – over-18s with income to spend on TVs, mobiles and so on. And Rileys is looking to achieve what we are trying to, so we’ve entered into a 12-month relationship.”

Stephen Greene, co-founder and CEO, RockCorps

Orange was top of our list when we were contemplating different partners to bring RockCorps to the UK. It’s very similar to RockCorps – very optimistic, respectful, and fun – it seemed like a natural fit. When the brand altered its messaging to: ‘together we can do more’, it seemed like it had written it for Orange RockCorps, so we started knocking on its door.

When we started in 2003, the community aspect was seen as corporate social responsib­ility. Now it’s core to every marketing strategy. In the past, when we looked at brand partnerships, you would always have your social cause and then you would try to get some corporate support for that.

This collaboration is quite different in that we start with the brand partnership and try and deliver value back to the brand. If we do that, then we know that the community stuff will spin off that.

Andrew Pearcey, Orange head of sponsorship

It became clear quite quickly that we had a shared belief with RockCorps in the collective power of people. This relationship delivered our brand message more than any other partnership that we’d had previously.

In all the clutter of sponsorship and property activation going on, it immediately gets cut-through to our target market. The people that participate in Orange RockCorps should love the Orange brand more because the emotional proximity of the brand increases.

Brand partnerships are definitely evolving and Orange RockCorps is a good example of the direction that it’s moving in. RockCorps was a property that was very new to the market when we got involved, so it wasn’t a sponsorship property that we just bought into. We worked together with RockCorps on agreeing objectives, agreeing the vision and working together to achieve an overall goal, bringing in other partners along the way, such as BlackBerry and Channel 4, that would add value to the initiative.