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.

How Twitter united indie star AM with Razorfish


How does an emerging indie artist in the dysfunctional music industry find an audience anymore?

My employer Razorfish is tackling that challenge through an unusual co-branding relationship with indie musician AM, which sees Razorfish playing the role of quasi-record label, concert promoter, and DJ. And so far we are having a lot of fun while building our brand with a creative and smart musician.

Even though he is not yet widely known, AM has garnered critical acclaim among journalists and bloggers. His most recent recording Future Sons & Daughters was cited as “one of the pop albums of the year” by the U.K. Sunday Express and given a 4-star rating by Q magazine. And at Razorfish he has a huge fan: me.

I was personally smitten with the beauty of his laid-back yet smart songs one night in March when I saw him open for the French rock band Air. After the concert, I sent him a Tweet to let him know how much I enjoyed the show. And to my surprise, he replied with a heart-felt thanks. We began communicating more frequently, which led to my visiting with his manager Mia Crow of Visionworks while I was in Los Angeles for a Forrester Research conference.

From there, a client relationship between Razorfish and AM took root. Razorfish saw an opportunity to build our brand by associating with a forward-thinking artist who plays in the same social media sand box we do; and AM’s management recognized the value of Razorfish applying our own marketing and PR skills in a client capacity.

Fast forward to October: AM and Razorfish are creating the kind of co-branding relationship that you often see between emerging artists and business-to-consumer firms like Coca-Cola and Mountain Dew (the latter via its Mountain Dew Green Label). Our relationship is based on the three pillars of experience, technology, and community. To wit:

  • On October 13, AM will perform at the 10th Razorfish Client Summit, where Razorfish and our clients discuss the state of the art in marketing, technology, and design. He’s customizing a set list for nearly 700 Razorfish employees and clients including Axe, Best Buy, Levi Strauss & Co., and Mercedes-Benz. We’ll also make his music available to attendees via a specially created StickyBits application and mobile site.
  • His music is being streamed to 2,000 Razorfish employees around the world as well as a StickyBits download, hence fostering word-of-mouth marketing amid a highly social employee base.
  • Razorfish and AM are sponsoring a design-a-poster contest on Creative Allies, which invites artists to create poster art to promote the vinyl release of Future Sons & Daughters. Razorfish Vice President of Experience Andrew Crow will help judge the entries. The winning entry will be used in the actual promotion.
  • Razorfish has been using forms of social media to build awareness for AM’s brand, helping him boost his presence on Facebook and Twitter.

So what does Razorfish get out of the relationship? We benefit in a number of ways. We give our clients and people access to great music, and, through the Client Summit, an experience they’ve never had at our event. We also associate ourselves with a creative, up-and-coming artist who aligns well with the forward-thinking nature of the Razorfish brand — which is ideal for relationship building with clients and job seekers (we recruit actively at SxSW Interactive).

Meantime a relationship with Razorfish is one more stop in the unconventional and resourceful journey AM has taken to gain a following. Like other artists, he has embraced social media, including Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, and YouTube to complement his website. And as evidenced by how he and I met, he really uses Twitter to reach out to fans in a genuine way. In 2010 he also successfully solicited fans’ financial support to fund the vinyl launch of Future Sons & Daughters. And by licensing songs to movies and TV shows ranging from Big Love to Friday Night Lights, he has not only kept his music visible but gotten paid for it. In addition to touring with Air, he has toured with Charlotte Gainsbourg and will head to the United Kingdom soon for more touring, building his fan base one venue at a time the good old fashioned way.

Our relationship comes at at time when it is acceptable for musicians to find corporate partners. Gone are the days when a corporate relationship meant “selling out.” As discussed at the September Billboard Music & Advertising Conference in Chicago, artists like Zac Brown find companies like Ram Truck to be essential conduits for their music and causes. As Zac Brown said at the Billboard conference selling out means doing something you don’t believe in, a sentiment AM shares. In many ways, companies like Mountain Dew and State Farm are little different from record labels in that they distribute music for the artist. With Razorfish, AM gets access to sources of potential deals (e.g., by performing at the Client Summit), and our employs act as brand ambassadors if we like what we hear.

By letting his music speak for itself through the power of live performance, AM does what Razorfish likes to do: build a brand through an experience.