Published: 23 August 2010

Crafting an effective partnership with a commercial organisation

The best partnerships are ones which multiply each partner’s effect rather than simply add them up, argues Owen Hughes, design director at Wolff Olins. 

It is clear that our world is changing, and smart brands are changing with it. We’re talking about fundamental change – not just image, but the experience a brand creates for its various audiences.

There are some interesting shifts which are affecting how brands act, and which can inform productive partnerships. The first is a move from consistent (which implies control) to adaptive: social media and the web have invited a generation of consumers to help shape brands, and the drive to ‘think global, act local’ means that successful brands are the ones that embrace this rather than stick to old, rigid ways.

Open world 

The second shift is around audiences: think less passive consumers and more active participants. Successful brands these days provide people with tools that enable them to do things they want or need – think StreetCar or Youtube. And Ebay isn’t loved because of how it looks, but because of what it empowers people to do.

We’re also moving from a closed to an open world. This requires brands to share their assets, to open up and invite people to participate. Instead of being walled realms, the brands of the future are built for sharing, like Wikipedia.

This shift, from competition to collaboration, is particularly relevant to building effective partnerships. Partnerships should enable new ways for people to use their products – ways that they might not have thought about alone. The collaboration between Nike and Apple has produced Nike+ shoes with a built-in pocket for a sensor under the insole. The sensor connects and sends data to your iPod, enabling you to track your run against other people around the world.

So what does all this mean for partnerships between charities and commercial organisations? There are plenty out there, but only a few truly resonate with customers. While every case is different, there are a few things we have learned which charities might want to think about:

  • Get the right fit.

If you and your partner’s brand complement each other’s aims and outlook, it will lend your partnership credibility and enable your audience to accept it more readily – but this is only the starting point.

  • Develop a shared proposition.

This is crucial. Don’t do anything else until you have it in place. It should outline how you aim to achieve your goals, and act as an inspiration and a filter for everything you do. It will also help develop a partnership that has real meaning and depth for all your stakeholders.

  • Be clear who brings what to the party.

People can be sceptical about commercial partners and what they get from a charity collaboration, so be as transparent as possible. The strapline we developed for the partnership between Macmillan and Boots is clear, simple and direct: ‘Cancer information and support. From Macmillan. At Boots.’

  • Be prepared to let go.

With any new partner, you’ve got to let go, and so have they. This means your brand might need to be more adaptable than you may have originally intended, but if it results in more effective collaboration it’s worth it. The London 2012 Olympics brand, for example, can flex to incorporate any given sponsor or partner – yet it’s always instantly recognisable.

  • Lead with the benefit to the customer.

Don’t focus on what each partner does, but put yourself in the customer’s place and think about what will inspire them to get involved. Orange Rockcorps is a great example: ‘Get 1 ticket to 1 amazing gig. Give 4 hours for your community.’ Simple.

  • Inspire action.

Over the next decade action – rather than cash – will be the currency of brands, and particularly charities. Great brands (and partnerships) aren’t simply an invitation to ‘buy-in’ or ‘join’. They inspire people to act, and therefore feel real ownership of the brand.

  • Offer something new.

A good partnership will be embraced if it offers customers something original. If you’re pitching ideas to corporates, outline how your charity – and only your charity – can give them and their customers something no one else can. This isn’t about size – you can offer something new if it’s on a relatively small scale.

In order to create impact and grow, charities have to embrace a different way of thinking. Partnerships with commercial organisation provide a huge opportunity. Once this new thinking is embraced, then partnerships can be a powerful tool for growth. Just think birth rather than marriage.


Owen Hughes, design director, Wolff Olins