The Art of Co-Branding


On May 7, music mogul Jermaine Dupri and I were fortunate to have a byline published in Fast Company concerning four tips for successful co-branding. Co-branding  — or sharing your own brand with an outside brand — is an increasingly popular way for celebrities like Justin Timberlake and major corporations such as Budweiser to generate awareness and to promote launches of products and services. The following post contains the unabridged version of our byline in case you’d like to have a bit more context about how my employer iCrossing has successfully built a co-brand with Dupri. Our bottom line: don’t co-brand to create hype. Focus on co-creating value.

To build your brand, sometimes you have to share your brand. And increasingly, big companies like Budweiser and Harley-Davidson choosing to co-brand with celebrities like Justin Timberlake and Kid Rock through relationships that range from sponsoring each other’s activities to the celebrity taking on quasi-roles such as strategic counselor or creative director.

But for co-brands to endure beyond the superficial level of a one-off press release, both parties need to stipulate realistic goals and co-create value. Those are among the lessons iCrossing and Jermaine Dupri have learned through an unusual co-branding relationship that has helped reinvent Dupri’s image as a technology leader, increased membership for his Global 14 social media community, and developed iCrossing’s image as a creative, socially savvy agency.

After forming our relationship in February 2012, within 10 months we boosted membership for Dupri’s Global 14 community by 43 percent, improved Dupri’s Twitter following from 381,000 to 620,000, increased iCrossing’s own Twitter following by more than 40 percent, and, most importantly, gave both iCrossing and Dupri recognition among mainstream influencers.

Here’s what we’ve learned along the way.

Define Realistic Goals

A co-brand starts with an understanding of what you both want out of the relationship before you start working together. And your expectations need to be realistic. In 2011, Madonna and Smirnoff formed the Nightlife Exchange with goals of building digital reach for Smirnoff and generating business for both Madonna and Smirnoff.


According to Christopher Swope of Live Nation, the relationship (which featured a special global dance talent search in 2011) has helped Smirnoff achieve double-digit sales growth in key markets (with the help of a specially branded Madonna VIP Access Smirnoff Limited Edition pack) and generate 1.8 billion media impressions. The relationship also helped Madonna make her MDNA tour the highest grossing of 2012. Not bad at all.

The relationship between iCrossing and Jermaine Dupri also started with agreed upon goals and a plan to achieve them. Dupri wanted iCrossing help to drive membership for his Global 14 community, which he launched in 2011 as a platform for young entrepreneurs and musicians to share common interests with himself and each other. He was already a music legend. He also wanted to develop his reputation as a technology and business leader.

iCrossing wanted build our reputation for thought leadership, creativity and social media by tapping into the convergence of entertainment and technology.

But our goals needed to complement each other, too. Had Dupri aspired to increase his visibility among the hip-hop community, he didn’t need iCrossing’s help. But iCrossing could definitely help him drive Global 14 membership through social media and content marketing. Conversely, iCrossing needed to define goals that Dupri was in a position to help iCrossing achieve, such as increasing awareness for our own social media and thought leadership expertise.

Co-Create Value

Co-creating means co-developing products, services, and ideas. U2 and Apple ignited the flame of celebrity/corporate co-creation in 2004, when they collaborated on the launch of the iPod U2 Special Edition, housed in a special black case, and laser-engraved with the signatures of each band member on the back.


As part of their co-brand, Apple and U2 also made U2’s single “Vertigo” exclusively available on iTunes as well as a first-of-its kind digital box set of U2’s catalog. What made the arrangement special was that two icons were sharing their most prized assets to create specially branded products, a model that we’ve often seen emulated, a recent example being Kid Rock and Harley-Davidson agreeing to offer limited-edition, co-branded Rebel Soul merchandise featuring a line coined by Kid Rock: “I can’t hear you over the rumble of my freedom.

Co-creation is at the heart of the iCrossing/Jermaine Dupri partnership, but we’ve taken co-creating a step further by creating original content such as thought leadership about social media, audience insight, and creativity. For instance, we’ve created blog posts together on topics such as business lessons for start-ups and video interviews on creativity and social media. We published a point of view about the secrets of creating engagement on your own social community based on Dupri’s experiences with Global 14. We have also co-written a byline for Fast Company and co-presented about social media and audience intimacy at the 2012 PSFK Conference San Francisco. This thought leadership provides valuable insight to iCrossing clients and helps us meet the goals we defined.

Jermaine Dupri, David Deal: Injecting Community Back Into Social Media from Piers Fawkes on Vimeo.

By co-creating content, we are both developing a product to support our goals — akin to Justin Timberlake and Budweiser actually making a beer together. Co-created thought leadership is important because content consist of iCrossing’s product given the work we do as an agency.

iCrossing also acts as a co-publisher, relying on our own social spaces to disseminate our ideas and Dupri’s among Fortune 500 influencers — our own clients.

Find Natural Areas of Interest

A hip-hop mogul and a digital agency. The mogul runs a record label. The agency helps companies like Coca-Cola build connected brands. What do they have in common? Well, it didn’t take long to find out. Dupri loves social media and technology; so does iCrossing. Dupri hustles content ranging from his blog posts to Instagram photos. So does iCrossing. We’ve defined a credible intersection of our shared pursuits that makes sense for our brands.

Finding common passions makes for a more authentic relationship. For instance, Dodge Ram and country musician Zac Brown have successfully joined forces around a common interest: community goodwill. In 2010, Ram and Zac Brown launched the Letters for Lyrics partnership to deliver 1 million letters to U.S. soldiers, and in March Brown and Ram joined forces to put up for auction his own Ram truck in order to benefit Camp Southern Ground, which provides programs for children including those with learning disabilities and behavioral disorders. The relationship is no gimmick — Ram has a history of working with country artists to support charitable causes, and Brown founded Camp Southern Ground. Theirs is a relationship centered on a true passion for both brands.

Defining common areas of interest also helps you rule out activities that don’t help us meet our goals. For instance, it does not make a whole lot of sense for iCrossing to promote Dupri’s gigs as a DJ. We are not in the music and artist promotion business. Nor will you find Dupri collaborating with iCrossing on a paid search campaign anytime soon. We’re focused only on the activities that make sense for us both.

Be Committed

One announcement does not make a relationship. A co-brand, like a garden, needs to be nurtured to grow.

Certainly Nike and Michael Jordan created the gold standard for a committed relationship between a company and a superstar individual brand. After launching their relationship in 1984, the two brands embarked on a journey that helped change the way brands and celebrities work together — and a journey that has endured highs (six NBA championships for Jordan) and unexpected turns (such as Jordan’s shocking but temporary retirement from basketball to play professional baseball). Jordan did more than collaborate with Nike on the launch of a line of shoe wear; he literally became a business partner. The Jordan Brand, a division of Nike, helps Jordan earn $80 million annually in retirement. And Nike has obviously benefitted, releasing its 28th shoe in the Jordan franchise in 2013 and commanding 58 percent of the shoe market in the United States according to SportsOneSource.

Jordan and Nike have provided a model for anyone who aspires to create a long-term relationship, including iCrossing and Jermaine Dupri. We have also stayed committed to achieving our goals for more than a year, investing our time and effort to brainstorm on ideas, adjusting our approaches when needed, and refining our messaging as Global 14 has evolved. We focused first on creating content on social media and then more actively brought event appearances into the mix, and we’ve also adapted our story to bring in fresh thinking, such as how a CEO like Jermaine Dupri can become more effective thanks to social media.

Relationships are going to experience occasional hiccups, such as the awkward moment that occurred when it was reported that Alicia Keys uses an iPhone after she signed a co-brand with Blackberry. No relationship is perfect, and you’re both going to need to be open to learning and growing together in order to succeed.

We believe that iCrossing and Jermaine Dupri are creating a model for co-branding because of our focus on creating content together. Stay tuned. We’re just getting warmed up.

PSFK Challenges Brands to Do Good

On November 1, I was honored to appear onstage with Jermaine Dupri at the PSFK  Conference San Francisco 2012, where we discussed how Dupri’s Global 14 social networking site brings community back to social media. The entire conference featured designers, creative thinkers, and marketers who shared innovative ways to operate businesses and build brands. The underlying theme was that brands should seize the opportunity to do good, not just make money.

All the speakers demonstrated different ways brands can do good. Jason Oberfest discussed how Mango Health uses a gaming app to help people manage their health. Scott Bradbury of Brandstream asked marketers to “find art in everything you do.” Dupri and Joe Gebbia of Airbnb challenged everyone at the conference to embrace real community. Airbnb, the online site where people rent their personal residences to each other, creates relationships, not just temporary lodging.

Global 14 helps emerging musicians develop their careers and creates an environment for all members to share ideas, not just social updates. (“We have lost communication on social networks and have become a social notifying world,” Dupri said.)

Regina Ellis of the Children’s Cancer Association delivered the most powerful presentation, which concerned the business of spreading joy. She opened her talk by describing the loss of her own daughter to cancer — an experience that Continue reading

Your employee, your advocate

Josh Bernoff and Ted Schadler got it right. In their 2010 book Empowered, they argued the case for companies unleashing their employees as brand advocates especially through social media. (And they continue to discuss employee empowerment on their blog.) Progressive companies understand that building the corporate brand and investing in employee brands need not be mutually exclusive activities. Fortunately my employer iCrossing is one of those companies, as illustrated in two recently published blog posts about the value of employees as brand advocates.

In “How CMOs Can Empower Employees with Social Media Guidelines,” published April 4 on the iCrossing Great Finds blog, I discuss how social media guidelines can support, not restrict, employees as thought leaders and brand ambassadors. I cite the example of how iCrossing tripled the volume of employee blog contributions and boosted visits to our Great Finds blog by 74 percent in one year by helping employees find their social voices with guidelines (which we recently published). Our approach is to go beyond the predictable guideline do’s and don’ts and provide ideas for how employees can use social to speak to our audience of CMOs.

Meantime, in an April 6 Great Finds post, my colleague Nick Roshon asserts that “If Brands Are Publishers, Employees Are Authors” His post focuses on tools that brands and employees can employ to boost authorship authority (especially at a time when search engines like Google are increasingly rewarding content authority).

Nick asserts that CMOs need to “build up their employees as authors of thought leadership . . . Because Google and Bing are already rewarding content authors by making them more visible to search. As Google and Bing embrace technologies that reward the most prolific and authoritative content creators, CMOs that encourage employees to create thought leadership will build more visible and connected brands.

In other words: you can either ride a wave in the direction it is going or someone else will.

How do you empower your employees?

Guy Kawasaki’s golden rules

How well I remember being invited to participate in the newly launched Google+ in the summer of 2011. Right off the bat, Google Plus seemed different from Facebook. Its clean layout encouraged posting more long-form content and graphics. Its membership included luminaries like Guy Kawasaki and Chris Brogan. If Facebook was the biggest network in the world, Google+ was the coolest. Less than one year later, Google Plus has grown to 90 million members and still feels like a more forward-thinking network than Facebook. Facebook now looks a Google Plus follower, introducing features like Timeline and video chat features in response to the robust graphics and video functions of Google Plus. Guy Kawasaki’s new book, What the Plus! Google+ for the Rest of Us, provides an in-depth tour of the many Google Plus features that have made the platform so appealing to brands and individuals. On the iCrossing Great Finds blog, I discuss Guy’s new book. I read What the Plus! expecting to learn how to maximize the value of Google+, but I ended up finding broader meaning in Guy’s book. In advising people how to use Google Plus, Guy has articulated some new ground rules for prospering in the social era: think visually, be a content hustler, and treat social spaces like prized real estate — in other words, safeguard your own social turf (including your Google Plus page) and respect the social spaces you visit.

The best part about Guy’s book? His appeal for people to treat others as you’d have them treat you – and his frank advice to kick out jerks who invade your social turf and behave poorly. Let someone else be the arbiter of free speech while you focus on protecting your own brand.

Let me know what you think of What the Plus!

Real-time marketing requires real talent

My employer iCrossing has been collecting digital executives. Thought leader Roger Wood joined the company’s digital media practice in May. Former Jupiter Research analyst Gary Stein joined the strategy team in June. And, as announced today, former NBC Universal executive Tarah Feinberg has been appointed head of the Live Media Studio. So what do all these hires add up to?

Real-time marketing.

Real-time marketing is all about sharing content that engages people instantly. As I recently discussed with PSFK, brands ranging from Facebook to Toyota are practicing real-time marketing because they can become more nimble and relevant to their customers – a good example being Toyota’s use of a live-streamed event to promote the Prius.

As a senior executive at a Fortune 500 firm recently told me, “I became a believer in real-time marketing because I got tired of spending months formulating ideas for brand campaigns only to see that consumers had changed by the time I had launched the campaign.”

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Build your brand with your Twitter profile

Most executives on Twitter rely on boring personal profiles that say little about them beyond their titles. And yet your Twitter profile is an opportunity to build your personal brand and humanize your company (even if your account is personal).  Here are three executives who get it right:

1. Clark Kokich

The first few words of Clark’s profile are predictable and necessary – he’s the chairman of Razorfish (where I was once CMO) and director for three different companies. But then Clark drops something different on you: in addition to being a proud dad, he’s a mediocre husband, bad guitarist, and aging Baby Boomer.

Clark (who I know personally) scores points for showing a sense of humor about himself. How many senior executives to do you know who use the words “mediocre husband” and “aging Baby Boomer” in their personal profiles? His profile says, “I’m comfortable enough in my position to exercise some humility and have a little fun.”

2. Rachel Pasqua

Rachel’s profile is short but intriguing.

Like Clark, she starts with the professional – vice president of mobile for my current employer iCrossing. Then she adds something direct (twin mommy) and interesting (“Repairer of the Irreparable.”).

And notice Rachel’s graphic. Technically she departs from a social media best practice by not using a personal picture as Clark does. But her use of the Emily the Strange graphic, along with the cryptic “Repairer of the Irreparable,” piques your curiosity.

I want to ask Rachel what Emily the Strange means to her – is the character a personal inspiration? Maybe she likes the clothing line? Or both? She gives you a clue that she’s a “get it done” type – professionally and personally (you probably have to be if you are VP of mobile and a mother of twins).

Because I work with Rachel (she’s an excellent mobile marketing thought leader), I’m sure I will ask her.

3. Brian Dunn

You have to cut the CEO of Best Buy some slack.

CEOs – especially those who run giant publicly traded companies – have their words and actions watched so closely by investors, employees, lawyers, and business partners that it’s tempting for them to avoid social media completely. (A topic Forrester Research CEO George Colony addressed at a 2010 Forrester Forum.)

Brian might not say a whole lot in his Twitter profile, and I wish his Twitter handle used his name (maybe it was taken already). But he does something Clark and Rachel don’t do: he leads with the personal (“Father. Husband”) before the professional “CEO of Best Buy”).

Like Rachel, he employs a somewhat cryptic statement that makes you want to learn more about him (“Fanatic about the Connected World”). And he links to his Best Buy blog where you can see just how much of a fanatic about the connected world he really is.

Good for Brian. And extra points for using what is obviously not a slick, airbrushed corporate photo. He’s not smiling . . . but he’s authentic.

Authenticity, a sense of humor and humility, and intrigue . . . those are a few of the reasons I’ve singled out Clark, Rachel, and Brian.

Who are some of your favorites?

Content + community + analytics = real-time marketing

On the iCrossing Content Lab blog I’ve been talking about how content marketing is a CMO-level priority, as have many other bloggers. But being a priority is one thing; how do senior marketers make content marketing a reality? To address that issue, today my employer iCrossing launched the Live Media Studio, which is the interactive ad industry’s first-ever resource dedicated to real-time marketing.

Based in New York, the studio uses analytics-based insights about digital consumers to develop branded content and engage communities for clients in real time.

In the studio, iCrossing plans and manages the daily editorial production and publication of branded content (such as videos, infographics, articles, blog posts, and tweets) to engage communities. The studio relies on a team of audience researchers, Emmy award-winning content producers, and WOMMA-trained audience managers experienced in real-time content creation.

iCrossing researchers use analytics-based approaches to understand the interests and behaviors of our clients’ communities. Their insights inform the content we develop and community management approaches we undertake.

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SKECHERS + Kim Kardashian = connected branding

We live in an age where celebrities such as Kim Kardashian and Ashton Kutcher have become not only powerful brands but entrepreneurs and business partners for companies such as Bebe. On the Great Finds blog (operated by my employer iCrossing), I discuss with my colleague Heather White-Laird how Kim Kardashian and iCrossing are helping SKECHERS become a more connected brand — which is to say more visible and engaging to consumers across multiple media. I hope you’ll check it out.

Got content?

I recently joined the marketing team at iCrossing, a global digital agency that builds connected brands. I’m focusing on thought leadership, influencer outreach, and sharing the company brand through social media. I’m excited at this direction in my career, and I’d also love your help.

First, a bit more about my areas of focus. Thought leadership, social media, and influencer outreach are inter-related fields. Thought leadership — usually considered the ideas an agency generates through its points of view, research, and blogs — is essential to the success of an agency. Ideas constitute the currency of our industry — and, as industry expert Michael Gass recently noted, are essential to an agency’s business.

Influencer outreach — the way we connect with bloggers and think-tanks, to cite a few examples — helps a company like iCrossing improve our thought leadership.

And of course social media enable the conversation with influencers.

I’m working with my colleagues at iCrossing to figure out a thought leadership agenda — the topics that will influence the ideas we share with you and our clients.

To give you an example of what we’re doing already: iCrossing recently published a major point of view on why brands must act like content publishers to succeed, and you can expect more about that topic. We’re blogging about a diverse range of topics such as how companies use social media to become more effective and the state of the art in search marketing.

I would love to have your input, too. What ideas would you like to see iCrossing share with the marketplace? What would make us a more useful brand to you? For instance, would you like to see PoVs on specific consumer segments like digital moms or teens? Advances in social media? Commentary on mobile marketing?

Feel free to ping me at or leave a comment on this blog.

I am listening. Thank you.

Advice to those looking for work (and working)

After experiencing a number of mergers/acquisitions and incredible growth together, Razorfish and I recently parted ways amid new company ownership. I am grateful to Razorfish for the opportunity to have grown into my role as a marketing executive, and, just as importantly, for all the cool people I’ve come to know as friends and colleagues. Now that I’ve been a free agent in the job market for weeks, I thought I’d share tips for those of you who seek employment, know someone who is, or might be recruiting for marketing talent. I would love to have your feedback:

1. To employers: seek candidates with current skills in communication and technology.

As I’ve talked with recruiters, one topic that has arisen more than once is how much social media savvy marketing executives should possess — especially in the interactive agency world I inhabit. Recruiters tell me they use social media to find job candidates but find that the candidates do not always use social media aggressively in turn.

Here’s my take: it’s reasonable to expect marketing executives nowadays to at least possess enough social media awareness to own updated LinkedIn profiles. Beyond that, marketing executives should be ready with a perspective on how social media can help build your company brand. They need not be active users of social personally, but they should be able to tell you why they are not (“I haven’t thought to use social” should be a cause for concern.)

Now, if a marketing executive touts social media as a core skill set to help you improve your brand, and claims experience having done so, then he or she should also be an active user of social personally. Ask them how they use Twitter and Facebook. If they don’t list a personal blog on their LinkedIn profile, ask them to at least describe how often they’ve commented on other blogs. They also should be able to cite specific examples of the tools they use to learn social. It’s called living the social values.

2. To the gainfully employed: be prepared for life’s unexpected turns.

Update your portfolio and your resume now, especially your LinkedIn profile. My resume and work samples were fairly up to date when I became a free agent, but not as well as they should have been. Consequently I lost some valuable time hustling to get my credentials organized in the early days of my unemployment.

At the very least, get reacquainted with LinkedIn. Facebook might get the attention for connecting people socially, but LinkedIn’s reputation as the place for professional networking is well deserved. (I’ve also been trying BranchOut, which uses Facebook for professional networking, but it’s too early to tell whether Branchout will make a difference.)

Recruiters do look for talent on LinkedIn, but they are not the only ones: the application has blossomed into a professionals’ social networking center, period. For instance, LinkedIn Open Groups facilitates conversations about topical matters (sample TED group discussion: “Wiki-leaks: how has it changed the world we live in?”). And  LinkedIn Polls makes it possible for you to crowdsource ideas among professionals.

Think of it this way: updating your credentials is a great way for you to take stock in your accomplishments and re-assess what you offer your current employer. Don’t wait until you’re out of work to do that.

And I cannot stress enough: be active in your online/offline social network. If you have a personal blog, keep it fresh with ideas, and contribute comments to blogs operated by your friends and colleagues. You’re not going to convince anyone that you’re genuine if you wait until you are a free agent to return to your blog (or launch one).

Don’t be one of those people who reaches out to others only when you need them.

3. If you know someone who is unemployed: reach out.

People like me appreciate your support. What’s really crucial is just reaching out to say hello or little gestures, like the invitation to dinner, perhaps an uplifting book, or even an email out of the blue.

You might be wondering: should I ask my unemployed friend or family member how the job search is going? I think it’s safe to assume you don’t need to ask; if there has been a major development, you’ll hear about it. A one-time “Hey, I know of a resource for job seekers” is great to hear, of course.

And a follow-up weeks down the road is really cool: major life events like a change in job status typically spark a lot of checking in among friends and family in the early going, whereas encouraging words usually taper off after a few weeks. At that time, your support is even more crucial and remembered.

4. If you are unemployed: don’t be shy — really!

Let people know you are available for hire. There is no stigma in being unemployed especially at a time when a significant portion of the U. S. population is jobless. Networking opportunities like industry meetings and LinkedIn are obvious sources (the mere act of revising my LinkedIn profile attracted a few leads for me). But telling your friends, neighbors, and former co-workers is important, too — and you have many social media tools at your disposal beyond LinkedIn.

And as you look for a job, build yourself up. Surround yourself with positive people. Avoid gloomy articles about job loss and tough times like this one (interesting for armchair sociologists, I guess, but a needless distraction for job seekers). And while we’re at it, you might want to avoid movies like this one.

5. To the Illinois Department of Employment Security: kudos.

Bravo for providing online tools and fairly decent telephone self-service, like an online application for employment benefits. It sure would be nice if your online tools worked on more browsers beyond Internet Explorer, though, and the in-person service is inconsistent.

My visit to my local employment office was disorienting and bureaucratic based on the initial response of the government official in charge of “greeting” visitors; but then my experience improved considerably when my paperwork was assigned to a cool and helpful guy named Alex (which goes to show how one person in a bureaucracy can make or break you — so thank you, Alex).

I’ll check back in and let you know how the job search is going; meantime, if you are an employer, here is what I can do for you: I can help you build your brand by applying a combination of skills in marketing, influencer outreach, social media, and thought leadership.

My experience includes repositioning a company brand, turning an ordinary event into an industry-leading conference, writing social media guidelines for 2,000 employees, and launching relationships with news media, bloggers, and industry analysts. You can learn more about me on my LinkedIn profile. Feel free also to call me at 312-339-1879 or email me at

Happy 2011.

Note: thank you to Jeremiah Owyang for your valuable counsel and help as I wrote this post.