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Why Brand Partners, Not Influencers, Will Define eCommerce In 2021

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Brand partners: influencers by another name? Not so fast...

For several years now, attracting influencers has been an obsession for any marketing department watching the waves of eCommerce. Securing a big name - or, in some cases, any half-known name with a sizable social following - to pose for a selfie with your product could be considered a winning campaign in its own right.

However, as we forge on into 2021 the rules, as is true of so much else in the world right now, have changed. Consumers can sniff out a half-baked influencer "endorsement" from the comfort of their own sofa and scroll right on by.

The novelty of influencer marketing is beginning to wear off, dulled by a year of increased online activity and the corresponding contempt for any brand that fails to live up to the hype.

In short, customers are increasingly savvy, shopping online more than ever, and have no time for brands, products and people that don't deliver. Those who shill for a product without ever seriously trying it do themselves no credit and the brand's reputation could also take a hit.

Where do we go from here?

The Rise of Brand Partners

Before you throw up your arms and write off the idea of personality-driven marketing for good, take a second to distinguish between two terms: influencer and partner.

An influencer, in today's crowded online media environment, is someone who has a large digital following to offer up, usually in exchange for some form of sponsorship. Hand over enough of your marketing budget and you gain access to their digital audience for a time, only to have it snatched away again when the agreement expires or funds dry up.

By contrast, brand partnerships have deeper roots.

This lines up with a distinction we like to make in our sector: there are supply chain service providers, and then there are supply chain partners. Usually, only one of those is truly invested in your business.

Four hallmarks of a potential brand partner: advocacy, honesty, loyalty and trust

Having established that it's time to move away from one-and-done influencer campaigns, what should your company look for in potential brand partners?

Here are some suggestions:

  1. They have used and/or advocated for your product before you connected.
  2. They have a reputation for honest, possibly even outspoken social posts.
  3. They promote only a small number of products (that they know well and trust).
  4. They are open to working with your brand on product development.

Influencer marketing has become a business in its own right. Naturally, the influencer is therefore looking after their business first and the brands they align with become something of a commodity.

At best, this makes for a mutually beneficial arrangement that runs its course for as long as you pay, not unlike other forms of advertising. At worst, your brand could be unceremoniously dumped when a better offer comes along.

Brand partners may or may not be compensated, but the key difference is that the arrangement is built on a shared vision for the product and what it can achieve. Brand and partner are aligned on a vision for the business. They each understand how it will benefit their audience, possibly even the wider world, and have a mutual desire to move towards that outcome.

Collaboration is Key

"Wanna collab?"

While that kind of phrasing should probably be consigned to the dumpster where marketing trends go to die, collaboration isn't an ugly word when it comes to brand partners. In fact, it's essential.

A collaborative approach means that the benefits described in the previous section are realized more quickly. Brand and partner each bring the best of their experience, creativity, and passion to the relationship, resulting in campaigns that are far more vibrant than basic influencer marketing.

Examples of Smart Brand Partnerships

Before you set off to brainstorm the ideal candidates to partner with your business, here's a selection of recent partnerships that meet the standards set out above.

TULA and Shawn Johnson East: Makeup collaborations are increasingly complex, with some simple influencer campaigns and others where celebrities end up with equity in the brand. Though skincare is edging that way as well, TULA describes its partnership with Olympic gymnast Shawn Johnson East as a "strategic initiative". Products run entirely in line with this famous new mother's skincare routine and now represent the brand's best-selling items.

Tampax and Amy Schumer: Another case of the partner leading the brand. In her 2019 special Growing, Schumer covered periods and tampons more than many comedians would dare. By 2020, she's interviewing women in the street under the banner of Time to Tampax. Tough topic, perfect partners.

Uber and Martha Stewart: Not every partnership has to start with a smile. In the case of this pairing, it was exactly the opposite. Stewart complained about an unpleasant Uber ride back in 2018, so Uber proceeded not only to design an upscale new service option in 2019 but also to make Martha its spokesperson. Uber Black is now a popular service feature and Martha Stewart's demographic-spanning appeal brings the brand more riders.

It's important to note, of course, that not every partnership is clearly delineated from influencer dollars and marriages of convenience. A recent New York Times article on TikTok phenomenon Addison Rae digs into more concerning aspects of branded relationships, giving pause for thought when considering the authenticity of any commercial pairing.

In the end, it comes down to trust.

If a working relationship between celebrity and company feels forced and unnatural, consumers will quickly tune out.

When it's forged over a period of time and based on common interests, there's a much better chance of becoming true brand partners in a collaboration that stands the test of time and delivers for both parties.

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