Partnering with a brand outside your industry can be a great, win-win way to create new value. But what does it take to choose the right partner? The authors share new research that suggests social media data can be a useful tool to identify high-potential brand partners, as well as to gain insight into your own base. the customer and your competitors. In particular, brands that share a high number of followers on social media will always be united in the minds of consumers, increasing the chances of success if they choose to cooperate. Of course, this approach has limitations, and should be supplemented with a comprehensive analysis of the risks and benefits of a potential partnership. But if thoughtfully implemented, analyzing social media co-followership patterns can be a quick and cheap way to identify obscure alliances whose potential might be difficult to anticipate.
In 2014, Uber and Spotify launched an innovative cross-industry collaboration: Although ride sharing and music streaming may seem like unrelated businesses, the partnership — where Uber riders can use Spotify to wirelessly control the music being played — benefits both brands, allowing them to cross- promote and access to new markets without either party having to develop expensive new technologies internally. Similar creative examples of cross-category collaborations include Disney and MAC Cosmetics’ Aladdin makeup collectionIKEA and LEGO’s storage solutions for childrenand Red Bull and GoPro’s joint promotional campaigns.
Of course, not all pairs of brands work well together. In 2014, LEGO AFLAME from environmental activists for its dealings with Shell, which ultimately led to the dissolution of a decade-long, multimillion-dollar partnership. A joint fashion line released by Target and Neiman Marcus was criticized as a strategic misstep, despite initially excited customers and promises that the collaboration will be “one not to forget!” How can managers avoid such costly mistakes and identify high-potential, obscure partner brands outside their own product categories?
Introducing Co-Followership Analysis
Amua recent research offers a simple but effective solution: social media co-followership analysis. We have compiled publicly available Twitter follower data for more than 500 brands between 2017 and 2020, in sectors including airlines, luxury goods, retail, automotive, sports, technology, food, and so on. We then use this dataset to identify brand pairs that share a large number of followers. Based on a series of surveys with more than 1,000 consumers, we have confirmed that the pairs that emerged from our quantitative analysis do indeed seem to “match well” in people’s minds.
This is a method that can be easily replicated and automated by any brand with a social media presence. With a simple review of freely accessible data, managers can understand the interest of their users in a wide ecosystem of brands, both inside and outside their own categories, and identify the partners who tend to agree with their consumer base.
For example, when we did our analysis in 2020, McDonald’s and Coca-Cola shared more than one million followers on Twitter, representing about 30% of the total followers of both brands. Thus, it is not surprising that the two companies enjoy a successful partnership over the years, with countless joint products and promotions targeting their shared customer base.
This form of analysis also helps managers identify potential asymmetries in potential brand partnerships. We found, for example, that more than half of the followers of beer brand Stella Artois also follow luxury fashion brand Coach, while only 4% of Coach followers also follow Stella Artois. This suggests that a brand partnership between the two would be particularly beneficial for Stella Artois, but could also offer Coach access to a niche audience that may be different from its main target consumer profile.
Analyzing social media followers can also help brands better understand their competitors. Greater visibility into your competitive landscape — not just about competitor brands’ products, but their most impressive potential partner brands as well — can provide otherwise-invisible understanding of the threats and opportunities you face. For example, Bud Light and Sierra Nevada may both be beer brands, but we found that the former shares more followers with food and dining brands, while the latter shares more followers with travel, airlines, and technology brands. With these types of insights into the preferences and interests of their own customers and their competitors, brand managers can develop more effective marketing communication strategies and identify the untapped. co-branding possibilities.
Brand Categories Easily
While brands are generally expected to stick to their own product categories, research shows that these boundaries are often more malleable than one might think. Amazon’s success expanding from a bookseller into industries such as retail and technology, or Porsche’s branching out beyond its automotive roots into fashion, sports, and travel gear, illustrate the potential of brands that transcend their original meanings. But cross-category brand alliances can enable this type of expansion without requiring expensive internal investment, and identifying potential partners by analyzing social media followers is both faster and usually more effective rather than traditional, survey- or focus-group-based methods.
Indeed, first research shows that the composition of a brand’s online follower base can reliably serve as a representation of its customers’ preferences and interests, and therefore common patterns of following between brands offer a useful tool for identifying shared consumer interest. In other words, most people follow brands whose products they like – so if two brands have a lot of followers, their target customers are likely to have similar interest profiles.
Of course, there are limitations to this approach. Along with analyzing social media followers, managers should use their judgment to assess the potential benefits and risks of potential co-branding opportunities, especially regarding any legal, logistical, or ethical barriers than may hinder successful implementation. But our research shows that co-followership patterns in social media can be a quick and cheap way to identify ambiguous alliances, whose potential can be difficult to anticipate.