Cheat Code: Challenging the big guns? Buddying up is your best bet

Jumping into strategic partnerships may be a well-worn path, but how do you make collaboration between challenger brands worthwhile? Think depth and stretch, says behavioural science expert Dan Monheit, CEO of Hardhat.

Without the monster budgets of your market-leading rival, buddying up with another challenger brand feels like an obvious play for creating talkability and gaining market share. When done right, the promise is certainly enticing: all the audience for half the price with a side serving of hype if it all goes well.

But what are the essential ingredients for a successful, mutually beneficial brand partnership? Reflecting on the hundreds, possibly thousands of brand collaborations that spring up every year and the dozens I’ve worked on personally, there are two main concepts to consider.

Buddying up for depth:

The first is the balance of abundance and scarcity. How do we identify what we have in spades and exchange it for something we desperately want?

For some brands, what’s in abundance is obvious, whether cash, cache or a sizable customer database. For others, it can take a little digging to uncover the reputation, manufacturing process, capabilities, retail footprint or sizable owned assets (like buildings or packaging) that other brands would love to get their hands on. Often, what’s abundant can be so plentiful that it’s easy for internal teams to undervalue or overlook completely.

When it comes to scarcity, the opportunity lies in being specific about what you want. Rather than ‘more customers,’ you might want access to a different type, demographic or location of new customers. Alternatively, you may want something more nuanced, like a shift in reputation or even a very specific ingredient.

While it sounds obvious, this work is rarely done. A more common situation is a health insurer being pitched a ‘partnership opportunity’ by the organisers of a triathlon series. Theoretically, there’s plenty of broad alignment between health insurance and healthy people doing healthy things. But what’s the insurer actually getting for their cash and/or customer database, and how well does it align with the scarcity they’re chasing?

Once a brand is clear on what it has and what it needs, identifying and evaluating prospective partners becomes much easier. Essentially, the brand is on the hunt for a counterpart holding the yin to its yang.

A worthy example is 2023’s Brewdog x ALDI collab, which saw the two challenger brands unite to launch a limited-edition brew. The craft beer juggernaut took a potshot at ALDI on Twitter, claiming it was working on a new beer called ‘Yaldi’ (Glaswegian slang for excitement) and threatening to stock it at rival Tesco.

Aldi responded, ‘We would have gone with ALD IPA, send us a crate and we’ll talk?’. Two months later, it was on the shelves in the UK with a willing public already fully invested in the new product.

BrewDog ALD IPA launched in Australia in December 2023, just in time for Christmas. Aldi went hard promoting it at just $3.25 a can, which, in the middle of a cost-living crisis, was liquid gold. Meanwhile, a pop-up Aldi bar selling the beer in Sydney stole attention and headlines from supermarkets and beverage companies nationwide.

ALDI’s abundance was in distribution and foot traffic. Brewdog’s was in beer cred and a younger audience. Together, they sold a tonne of beer and generated millions in free publicity.

The second angle to consider when deploying the ‘Buddy Up’ playbook is the purpose of the partnership. Again, history and experience show that brands come together for two main reasons: depth and stretch.

Partnering for depth is where we see two brands coming together in a way that allows them to bring their existing propositions to life in new, engaging, buzzworthy ways. Each brand hits the exact audience they’ve always talked to, with the same story they’ve always told, but in a way that lands twice as hard.

It’s easy to see the symmetry when these partnerships come together. While energy drinks and camera equipment don’t appear to have much in common, it made intuitive sense when Red Bull and GoPro joined forces on a multi-year, global partnership in 2016. The tie-up included distribution, cross-promotion, product innovation and content production (including those 48 million views of Felix Baumgartner free falling from space) and let both brands dial up their boundary-pushing credentials to a thousand.

Buddying up for stretch:

The alternative to Buddying Up for depth is to do it for stretch. Here, we see brands come together to reach new audiences they could never reach alone. Target has a history of partnering with high-end designer labels, including Jean Paul Gaultier, Stella McCartney, Missoni and Fe Noel. These collabs have landed the brand on runways and in magazines, including Harper’s BAZAAR, that it could never have done solo. Target gets glamour. High-end labels get limited accessibility and a new route to market. Everybody gets a look at a customer group they’ve never seen before.

These magical partnerships pierce the public consciousness with a ‘Wait, what?’ response. During the pandemic, Uber and Petbarn joined forces to introduce same-day delivery services from store-to-door to combat Australian postal delays. While Petbarn was struggling to efficiently service the increasing number of pet owners across Melbourne, Uber was seeking to maintain momentum amidst a plummeting demand for rides. The two coming together made for a winning symbiotic combo.

Vegemite has done an excellent job spreading and stretching itself across public consciousness with a fantastic array of cross-collabs. From Vegemite-flavoured peanuts with Picky Peanuts to a stuffed crust pizza with Pizza Hut, a Vegemite, beef and cheese-flavoured pie with Four ‘N Twenty, a chocolate bar nobody asked for with Cadbury, and the Vegemite & Cheese flavour Arnott’s Shapes, which are still being made six years on. With each launch, Vegemite has gained headlines and the opportunity to stretch into evermore aisles in the supermarket.

Effective collaborations involve understanding what you lack, embracing what you excel at, and finding a partner whose strengths fill the gaps. Brand partnerships are more than just collaborations; they’re brand stories waiting to happen.

So it’s time to buddy up, Buddy.


Get the latest media and marketing industry news (and views) direct to your inbox.

Sign up to the free Mumbrella newsletter now.



Sign up to our free daily update to get the latest in media and marketing.