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'X' marks the spot

Why some collaborations just don't work

One of the most high profile trends in recent years, starting initially in the Luxury market before inevitably trickling down into the mid-mass markets, has been the proliferation of brand collaborations.

Some early collabs were certainly interesting ‘mash-ups’ between designers, street artists, and musicians who drew their consumers from the same persona groups, and offered an end product that was fresh and exciting as a result of their collaboration. Other more recent collabs, such as the one announced between Dior and Gran Tourismo 7 have shown how a heritage Luxury brand can shift into the growing online gaming world in a meaningful and interesting way. It cleverly updates Dior whilst maintaining the luxury cachet that is also associated with high performance sports cars.

But there are so many other collaborations that are simply awful.

They lack any real innovation, and the partnerships often make no sense at all. In some cases, they are only interesting for how bad they are! The naked objective of simply driving each other’s revenues short term is so transparent as to be insulting. It is what I call ‘dog-whistle consumerism’ which both disrespects the consumer and risks the reputation of the brands involved.

Why ‘dog-whistle’? The simple truth is that brands that indulge in poor and ill-conceived collaborations clearly feel that whatever they produce their blindly loyal fans will buy it. So why should they worry about quality, longevity, and insight if the sole purpose is to boost their sales?

One such example has to be the collaboration between Sabyasachi Mukherjee and H&M. Whoever thought that this was a good idea really needs to take a look at themselves and consider a new career!

As the icon of luxury in India and amongst the global diaspora, Sabyasachi has developed a reputation for not only stunning bridal and special occasion apparel and accessories but also a care and respect for the karigars that produce his pieces. Since 1999 he has achieved significant success on the back of his creativity and attention to detail. The flagship showroom in Mumbai owes more to interior design than retail design, and is a truly memorable experience deliberately designed to disorientate and impress the visitor at the same time.

But H&M is a world away from all of this. As a business they have a poor reputation for the treatment of their workers, have been heavily criticised and sanctioned for greenwashing, produce low quality high fashion garments that are not intended to last more than a short time, and operate through stores that are boringly conventional in their style and experience.

How could Sabyasachi credibly expect his brand reputation and awareness to be enhanced by having a collaboration with a brand that is his complete opposite?

The resulting collection was awful, lacking style or quality. Some outfits were criticised on social media as looking suitable only for postal workers – which was an insult to postal workers! None of the embellishment or handcrafting was evident. It was dull and uninspiring, and certainly more akin to H&M. The only evidence of a luxury designer being involved was the use of Sabyasachi’s name. If this had been a licensing deal then he would have been well-advised to cancel the project and pull out before launch, but as well-publicised collaboration he was locked into it.

It's clear that the huge risk of brand damage was born only by Sabyasachi, not H&M. This was not a marriage of equals in any sense. So why did he do it? Did he feel that getting his name known amongst a consumer group that would never be able to any more than aspire to his luxury collections was a useful exercise? Did he hope that H&M’s production would have been fairer to the workers in some way? Was this a desperate attempt to get his name known in the international markets that he’s expanding his collections into?

There seemed to be little strategic thinking behind the initiative, and so we can only assume it was driven by a basic commercial motivation. Yes, the collection did have people waiting to buy it, but just like the Gucci/Adidas umbrella that was useless in the rain, this was a huge mistake and was unworthy of one of India’s most respected luxury designers.

If we take a step back to one of the oldest and most successful collaborations of all time between Michael Jordan and Nike, you can start to understand why the consumer is becoming a little tired of the ‘dog-whistle consumerism’ of the latest batch of collaborations.

Nike Air Jordans are beyond iconic. These retro sneakers were produced exclusively for Michael Jordan in 1984, and were released to the public on April 1, 1985. Their bold colours and timeless designs have never lost their appeal, but more than that, the products combined personal expertise and experience with production and technology excellence to create something that was truly innovative, met a new consumer need, and was a firm foundation from which to build a long term value adding collection that still exists today.

Brands who want to develop collaborations that are more than just a PR exercise need to think about who they partner with and what they can bring that is new, fresh, and innovative.

Otherwise they will just join the long list of those sacrificing their brand reputations on the altar of ‘dog-whistle consumerism’.

If you would like to find out more, our 3 hour specialist workshop ‘How to develop collaborations in Luxury’ looks at the 6P’s of collaborations and shares the 4 step checklist that you need to know if you want avoid a disaster like the H&M/ Sabyasachi collab.

Call us on +91 88500 21322 to find out the next dates for enrolment.


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