Brand And Music Collaborations Need To Work For Fans, Not Brands

Small_business_brandingGuest Post by Nick Susi on Music Marketing Money Blog

When it comes to the discussion of partnerships between artists and brands, the conversation tends to focus on the quantifiable end result. How much money did the brand invest in the artist? Did the artist see a residual increase in sales and streams? Did the brand experience large spikes in growth across their social properties? All fair and important questions.

But ultimately who deems an artist, a brand and their collaboration a success and the right fit?

When examining a case like Doritos and their #BoldStage at last year’s SXSW, they tapped Lady Gaga to encourage fans to post hashtagged photos and videos of them completing “bold” challenges on Facebook, Twitter and Vine for two weeks, leading into her eventual performance in Austin. And looking back, the result was certainly a multi-million dollar paycheck for the artist and massive follower and engagement growth for the brand.

But ultimately who deems an artist, a brand and their collaboration a success and the right fit? It’s not the artist or the brand. It’s the fans. At the end of the day, it’s the fan that is the consumer of both the artist’s music and the brand’s product or service. They decide if the partnership feels right and respond accordingly. So, what do fans want?



Shifting focus away from the quantifiable for a moment, these are the questions that should be pondered:

– Story & Experience: What is the story being told? What is the unique experience being created?
– Authenticity: Does the experience and the story feel genuine to the parties involved?
– Content: What new and exciting content is being created around that story and experience? Does the content and the experience feel rewarding to the fan?
– Access: Is the fan gaining access they wouldn’t have otherwise (first access, exclusive access, deeper access)?
– Curation & Discovery: Is an opportunity being created to curate and nurture new talent for a consumer to discover?

Keeping these questions in mind, let’s take a look at an example.


Back in 2010, American Express launched it’s “Unstaged” series – a collection of concert films sponsored by the brand, featuring live performances by artists, shot by esteemed movie directors. As a few examples, AmEx curated and paired together Vampire Weekend and Steve Buscemi, Duran Duran and David Lynch, Arcade Fire and Terry Gilliam, as well as Pharrell and Spike Lee, and in doing so, crafted an out-of-the-box opportunity for fans of the directors to discover new music and vice versa. The brand produces a real live concert experience, and from the artist’s performance, shoots a piece of video content through the director’s eyes that is broadcast to a wider audience via live streaming on VEVO and YouTube. In many cases, the fan has access to choose their cam and control their vantage point of the recorded show to create their own personalized experience, as well as have access to behind the scenes footage of the artist and director leading up to the main event, like this humorous example. AmEx gives way to the artist and director to collaborate with freedom and authenticity, and keeps its branding tastefully integrated (note you’ll never see an artist forced to wear an AmEx shirt on stage). The numbers of the series are certainly impressive, surpassing well over 100 million content views by 2012 and aiding several of the artists involved with their albums hitting #1 and #2 on the Billboard Hot 200 Albums Chart. But ultimately, it’s a unique idea that feels even bigger and better than the numbers themselves, for fans to connect with music and film in a new way, unobtrusively assembled by a brand.


When brand and music collaborations are not a seamless match, however, they can go really wrong. This past fall, Usher released a new song (ironically titled) “Clueless,” exclusively in Honey Nut Cheerios boxes sold at Walmart. A download code for the song could be found at the bottom of select marked cereal boxes, which could then be redeemed online. A piece of new and original content for consumers, yes, but the story and experience behind the collaboration remains nonexistent. It’s likely Honey Nut Cheerios picked someone like Usher, an African American celebrity artist with a large social following, to appeal to their consumer base of parents, teens and women of multiple ethnicities, but there doesn’t feel to be an authentic and deep connection between the artist and the brand beyond the two being worldwide entities attempting to broaden each others’ reach. A marketing executive from General Mills explained that, “Usher loves Honey Nut Cheerios and was excited about spreading the word about heart health, so it was just meant to be.” However, the brand should not have to explicitly tell the consumer that the partnership works and why, the consumer should be able to sense the shared message between the artist and the brand in the collaborative experience, which is not really present to be gleaned from the cereal box or from the lyrics of the song. Furthermore, the barrier of entry to access the content was too high, as one fan documentshis confusion after several trips to multiple Walmarts, not every box of Honey Nut Cheerios had the song, and even after locating one with the download code, experienced technical difficulties online while attempting to download the song. In reading the response to Billboard’s initial announcement about the partnership (see the comments below), the sentiment was incredibly negative, and one fan went as far as to go to Walmart, find a marked box of Honey Nut Cheerios, tear the download code out of the box, and leave the cereal behind. The fans clearly dictated that the collaboration did not work.


Coming back to Miss Gaga – looking beyond the quantifiable results and the mixed response to her collaboration with Doritos at SXSW, there was undoubtedly an immersive experience created for fans. Jumping from high platforms, busking in the streets, inflatable sumo wrestling – there was something that rang true and aligned with Doritos’ aspirations of retaining a sense of “bold”-ness and Lady Gaga’s raw and challenging aesthetic, all for only 2,000 fans to gain special access to her showcase in Austin. In any case, whether it’s two global entities such as these, or two emerging artists and brands joining forces, the key to a successful partnership will always lie in the hands of the fans to deem it an experience and content that is authentic and worth remembering.

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