Co-branding is a tricky strategy to get right — you have to find a brand that complements, but doesn’t overshadow, your own.
If you choose a brand that’s too similar to yours, the co-branded-ness can get lost in the noise. But partnering with a brand that’s too dissimilar? It can be a recipe for disaster.
However, every once in a while, the odd “co-branding out of left field” actually works. And when it does, it can positively affect the brand awareness of both companies and even increase brand loyalty.
This article will take a look at five examples of surprising co-branding that actually worked and provide a few tips throughout that you can use when looking for a brand to partner up with.
5 Surprising Co-branding Examples
From makeup and Mexican restaurants to hand soap and birds in distress, the wacky co-branding examples we’ll explore cover a wide range of industries.
So pay close attention to see if any of these examples give you any good ideas for your own brand.
1. e.l.f x Chipotle
This surprising co-brand combines the well-known makeup brand e.l.f. with one of America’s favorite restaurants, Chipotle. Now, when most people think of makeup, their minds don’t jump straight to burritos, or vice versa.
However, this creative co-branding collaboration did an amazing job of finding each products’ similarities and using them to their advantage — namely by creating an eyeshadow palette chock-full of Chipotle-inspired colors.
e.l.f.’s “Chipotle Eyeshadow Palette”, used colors that represented Chipotle’s most well-known ingredients: green for guacamole, browns for beans, and meat, and golden yellows for cheeses. You get the picture.
Not only was this an ingenious combination of both brands’ products, the palette created included a truly pleasing combination of colors. Plus, it even came with an avocado beauty blender and a hot-sauce-reminiscent plumping lipgloss!
Now, when customers purchased the palette, they received a digital coupon for free Chipotle Chips & Guac — good for use at any Chipotle for delivery or pickup.
Unexpected and delightful, this whimsical co-branding endeavor was a huge hit with consumers. But why? Let’s take a look.
Why Was This Partnership Successful?
This co-branded deal combined the power of two big-name brands to create something that benefited everyone. When e.l.f. released their first, smaller collaboration with Chipotle in May 2020, it sold out in four minutes.
Of the fervor this collaboration inspired, e.l.f.’s Vice President of Brand, Gayatri Budhraja, said: “There were consumers that were calling our customer service and crying when we sold out.”
From the product itself to the packaging, this collaboration was on-point. A “burrito-inspired” collection that used Chipotle-inspired hues, the kit came in a co-branded case that “mimicked a foil-wrapped burrito.” Genius.
Unsurprisingly, this wacky collaboration was born on TikTok — home to millions of Gen Z consumers and surprisingly few brands. According to Budhraja, e.l.f. has been using TikTok as a venue to launch marketing campaigns since 2019, and noticed that there weren’t many brands creating content on the app.
Of the few brands on the platform, Chipotle was one of the only ones making waves. It was because of this similarity that Budhraja felt a collaboration would be only natural — taking into consideration both brands’ aligned values and goals.
As both brands are very Gen Z-focused with cult followings, Budhraja explained that her idea was to “figure out how to force multiply with another like-minded, spirited disrupter.”
So, in 2021 the brands collaborated again, this time creating a completely new eyeshadow palette with colors that mimicked Chipotle’s main ingredients. This second co-branded collab was an even larger success than the first — with e.l.f. generating $1.5 million in EMV in March 2021 alone.
As Glossy writer Sara Spruch-Feiner points out, this kind of collaboration, which hinged “on a more playful side of beauty and makeup”, felt timely, “especially in a global moment when levity is appreciated wherever it can be found.”
So, what can you learn from this surprisingly successful co-branding endeavor?
When looking for another brand to partner up with, make sure they share some of your values and goals. You don’t need to sell the same products or services, but there does need to be a thread that genuinely connects you together.
Additionally, make sure you get the timing and the vibe right and don’t take yourself too seriously.
Pro Tip: With a combo as off-the-wall as e.l.f. x Chipotle, consumers and the media were quick to discuss it on social media and online platforms. When setting up your own co-branding, consider collaborating with a brand just nutty enough that it will get consumers talking online.
2. Covergirl x Lucasfilm
Source: The Disney Blog
Now, to be fair, there are a lot of Star Wars-themed products out there — Star Wars legos, Star Wars aquariums, and even Star Wars cookie cutters. And while some products seem like more natural collaborations than others, it’s understandable that brands want in on this $37 billion franchise.
So, how did Covergirl approach this co-branding endeavor? By calling in the big guns. Designed by iconic makeup artist Pat McGrath, the Covergirl limited-edition Star Wars-inspired 19-piece collection featured 10 mascaras, six lipsticks, and three nail polishes.
To promote the collaboration, Covergirl used their collection to create three “Light Side” and three “Dark Side” themed makeup looks — the most popular being one golden-hued, drone-inspired look and one dark, stormtrooper-inspired look.
Although the Star Wars films, and many others in the science fiction genre, have traditionally been targeted to male viewers, LucasFilm was smart enough to see an opportunity: reaching female viewers.
Female viewership of the Star Wars franchise has increased over the past few decades, with 18% of women reporting they’re avid fans and 33% reporting themselves as casual fans in 2019. Therefore, collaborating with a more female-centric brand like Covergirl was a smart move to reach this audience.
Why Was This Partnership Successful?
By choosing to partner a brand with a traditionally male audience to another brand with a traditionally female audience, both companies benefited.
On one side, LucasFilm was able to better promote their newest film, “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” with their growing female audience by joining forces with a well-loved brand and creating high-quality products.
On the other side, Covergirl was able to leverage the power of the Star War franchise’s power and cult following to create a collection that might reach new audiences for them as well — men and women not as interested in makeup.
Furthermore, by bringing in the legendary makeup artist Pat McGrath, they were able to lend a great deal of credibility and celebrity to the collection.
While one’s mind doesn’t immediately jump from science fiction films to makeup brands, however tenuous, the connection is there.
Through intelligent positioning, both brands were able to make the most out of this collaboration. So, when setting up your own co-branding collaboration, make sure you’re clear on how each partner will position the joint product.
To be successful, it’s integral that you’re both on the same page and present a united front about your co-branded image, communication, and personality.
3. Dr. Pepper x Bonne Bell (Lip Smacker)
Admittedly a bit of a throw-back, this iconic co-branding set the stage for what a successful collaboration looked like years to come.
When the Dr. Pepper branded lip gloss from Bonne Bell was released in 1975, people were obsessed. Not only did it smell like Dr. Pepper, but it also tasted like Dr. Pepper. What a dream!
And as the years went by, its popularity only grew — becoming an iconic must-have item for lipgloss-loving 90s teenagers.
As Jessica Bowers Hopson of Business 2 Community points out, this is “a great example of a partnership where the two companies on their own served wildly different clientele”, but by joining forces, they “created a whole new realm of possibilities”.
Indeed this collaboration was so successful, Bonne Bell later went on to collaborate with the likes of Fanta, Coke, and Sprite.
Why Was This Partnership Successful?
This co-branded lip gloss quickly became an iconic must-have for teenagers everywhere — a collectible of sorts.
And why did this “unexpected alliance” work so well? Even though each brand traditionally targeted very different audiences, they had some important similarities: they “both understood their brand stories, and how they could work together.”
Though Dr. Pepper and Bonne Bell existed in totally different markets, they each shared “a core sense of lightheartedness, play, and a sense of fun” — which the lipgloss embodied to a tee.
By playing to their similarities, each brand was able to benefit from this co-branding endeavor. And even 30 years later, this product is still on the market!
For a co-branded product to be successful, both brands must align on their shared brand values.
Let’s say you are the brand manager of a high-end jewelry company and you’re looking to set up a co-branded partnership. It’s vital that your potential partner shares similar brand values, image, and personality.
That being said, your first thought wouldn’t be “Let’s see if Burger King wants to collaborate on our next diamond necklace.” Instead, you’d look for a brand with a similar vibe — perhaps a luxury car brand or high-end designer.
4. Dawn Soap x the International Bird Rescue
We’ve all seen the heart-breaking Dawn ads — terrified, helpless animals covered in oil are lovingly washed clean using Procter & Gamble’s Dawn dish soap.
This co-branding is unique, as it was born out of necessity. Back in 1971, there was a massive oil spill in San Fransisco Bay. In an effort to help the wildlife affected, thousands of volunteers headed to the beach, bringing anything they could to try and help clean the birds.
After this first spill, the International Bird Rescue began exploring many different ways to clean oil off aquatic birds — and by 1978, they had their answer: Dawn.
In their own words, Dawn is “inexpensive, effective, readily available”. And even more interesting — “Procter and Gamble was excited to learn about this somewhat unusual use of their product.” Through this unlikely pairing, a real, lasting partnership was born.
Over the past four decades, P&G has become one of the International Bird Rescue’s biggest supporters — “donating countless bottles of Dawn dish soap to (them), and committing hundreds of thousands of dollars to support (their) wildlife rehabilitation, research, and spill response work.”
Now, when consumers think of Dawn, they think of a brand that cares about wildlife and saving the environment.
Why Was This Partnership Successful?
What began as a practicality has turned into an extremely successful, mutually beneficial co-branding partnership.
So, what does the International Bird Rescue get from the relationship? Thousands upon thousands of free bottles of Dawn, financial support for the projects, and the backing of a major brand.
Instead of having to spend their own marketing money on expensive advertising, they can rely on P&G to get the word out with the co-branded Dawn dish soap packaging and commercials. They save money, increase brand awareness, and are able to help more aquatic animals — that’s a pretty good deal.
So, what does P&G get from this co-branding endeavor? Their benefit is less tangible — the International Bird Rescue doesn’t give them money or resources. Instead, it provides them with positive brand associations and brand image, as well as support for their brand values.
By partnering with the International Bird Rescue and adding their logo and visuals to P&G’s own packaging, they leverage the charity’s credibility and influence with some important target audiences — younger generations, environmentalists, and animal lovers.
As a brand that is dedicated to making the world a better place through its P&G Good Everyday program, a co-branded partnership with an organization like the International Bird Rescue makes sense.
As this example illustrates, sometimes great opportunities for co-branding fall into your lap. Neither P&G nor the International Bird Rescue were looking for a co-branding opportunity, but over time, they both saw the benefits that working together could create.
So keep in mind that you don’t always have to go actively searching for a co-branding partner — sometimes, it pays off to take a look at who is currently using your brand’s product and services.
5. Taco Bell x T-Mobile (or T-MoBell)
The power of Mexican food strikes again! But this time, free tacos are involved.
Back in 2019, T-Mobile and TacoBell announced at the Super Bowl that they’d be teaming up to create “T-Mobile Tuesdays”. Essentially, all T-Mobile’s “Un-carrier” customers were eligible to receive a free taco every Tuesday from Taco Bell. Pretty simple.
But the idea really took off and was so successful that in 2019, the two brands solidified their partnership even further by opening three “T-MoBell” stores in New York, LA, and Chicago for three days. Each store offered free tacos along with exclusive co-branded merchandise and celebrity meet-and-greets.
T-Mobile’s CEO, John Legere, expanded on the concept, saying:
“When we launched free tacos every week on T-Mobile Tuesdays, TacoBell.com had its highest online order day ever and T-Mobile Tuesdays was number one in the App Store. Since then, Un-carrier customers have snagged more than 14 million free tacos from the app!”
14 million tacos… is a lot of tacos. Touted as “the ultimate fusion” of people’s love of their phones and tacos, this co-branded experience won the hearts of consumers all over the US.
Why Was This Partnership Successful?
As Jeff Beer of Fast Company points out, “partnering up with another brand in order to combine respective audiences and fans and provide an unexpected halo to each other” is a pretty good idea in this brand-saturated world we live in.
Getting your name out there and upping your brand awareness can be tough — even for huge, successful companies like T-Mobile or Taco Bell. After all, they’re still fighting to remain relevant and desired by their target audiences.
Playing into people’s almost obsessive love of tacos and free things, this co-branded partnership gave consumers exactly what they wanted — free food, limited-edition slushies, branded swag, and an event to get excited about.
Plus, though each brand operates in a very different market, their brand values and personalities mesh well together. Playful, fun, and light-hearted, this collaboration was a smashing success.
If we can learn anything from the existence of “T-MoBell”, it’s that people are open to the slightly absurd — especially if there’s free food or merch involved.
Additionally, if you’re experiencing a good deal of success with your first round of co-branded products or services, ride the wave! Kick it up a notch and give your customers what they want.
Don’t be afraid to go a little over the top, especially if it fits well with your brand image.
Co-branding can be tricky — find the right combination and you’ll increase your brand awareness, reach new audiences, and earn increased brand recognition.
However, it’s not always as easy as it looks — think Kendall Jenner + Pepsi, Kraft + Starbucks, or even U2 + Apple. Co-branding can fall prey to bad communication, misaligned values, and poor execution.
In the worst cases, an unsuccessful co-brand doesn’t consider what it is consumers want. That’s why you need to gather consumer insights before launching something as potentially important and influential as a co-brand.
Both brands need to have a deep understanding of their target audiences — what they like, dislike, and need. Only with this kind of information can you figure out whether or not a co-brand partnership is right for you.