Partnering with a brand outside your industry can be a great, win-win way to create new value. But what does it take to select the right partner? The authors share new research suggesting that social media data can be a useful tool to identify high-potential brand partners, as well as to gain insight into both your own customer base and that of your competitors. Specifically, brands that share a high number of social media followers often go well together in consumers’ minds, increasing the chances of success if they choose to collaborate. Of course, this approach has its limitations, and must be complemented by a comprehensive analysis of the risks and benefits of a potential partnership. But when thoughtfully implemented, analysis of social media co-followership patterns can be a quick and inexpensive way to identify non-obvious alliances whose potential might otherwise be difficult to anticipate.
In 2014, Uber and Spotify launched an innovative cross-industry collaboration: Though ride sharing and music streaming may seem like unrelated businesses, the partnership — in which Uber riders could use Spotify to wirelessly control the music being played — benefited both brands, allowing them to cross-promote and access new markets without either party having to develop costly new technologies internally. Similarly creative examples of cross-category collaborations include Disney and MAC Cosmetics’ Aladdin makeup collection, IKEA and LEGO’s storage solutions for kids, and Red Bull and GoPro’s joint promotional campaigns.
Of course, not every pair of brands work well together. In 2014, LEGO came under fire from environmental activists for its dealings with Shell, ultimately leading to the dissolution of a decades-long, multimillion-dollar partnership. A joint fashion line released by Target and Neiman Marcus was slammed as a strategic misstep, despite initially eager customers and promises that the collaboration was “one not to be missed!” How can managers avoid such costly mistakes and identify high-potential, non-obvious partner brands outside their own product categories?
Introducing Co-Followership Analysis
Our recent research offers a simple yet effective solution: social media co-followership analysis. We 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, dining, and more. We then used this dataset to identify brand pairs that shared a large number of followers. Based on a series of surveys with more than 1,000 consumers, we confirmed that the pairings that came out of our quantitative analysis did in fact seem to subjectively “go well together” in people’s minds.
This is an approach that can easily be replicated and automated by any brand with a social media presence. With a simple review of freely accessible data, managers can understand their users’ interests across a broad ecosystem of brands, both within and outside their own categories, and identify the partners that are most likely to resonate with their consumer base.
For example, when we conducted our analysis in 2020, McDonald’s and Coca-Cola shared more than a million Twitter followers, representing about 30% of both brands’ total followers. As such, it’s not surprising that the two companies have enjoyed a successful partnership for years, with countless joint products and promotions targeting their shared customer base.
This form of analysis can also help managers identify potential asymmetries in brand partnership potential. We found, for instance, that more than half of the followers of beer brand Stella Artois also followed luxury fashion brand Coach, while only 4% of Coach followers also followed Stella Artois. This suggests that a brand partnership between the two may be particularly beneficial for Stella Artois, but could also offer Coach access to a niche audience that may be distinct from its primary target consumer profile.
Social media follower analysis can also help brands better understand their competitors. Greater visibility into your competitive landscape — not just with respect to competing brands’ products, but to their most salient potential partner brands as well — may offer otherwise-invisible insight into 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 sorts of insights into the preferences and interests of both their own customers and those of their competitors, brand managers can develop more-effective marketing communication strategies and identify untapped co-branding possibilities.
Brand Categories Are Malleable
While brands are generally expected to stick to their own product categories, research has shown 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 for brands to transcend their original definitions. But cross-category brand alliances enable this sort of expansion without the need for costly internal investment, and identifying potential partners through an analysis of social media followers is both faster and often more effective than traditional, survey- or focus-group-based approaches.
Indeed, prior research has demonstrated that the composition of a brand’s online follower base can reliably serve as a representation of its customers’ tastes and interests, and thus common followership patterns between brands offer a useful tool in identifying consumers’ shared interests. In other words, most people follow brands whose products they like — so if two brands share a lot of followers, their target customers are likely to have fairly similar interest profiles.
Of course, there are certainly limitations to this approach. Alongside social media follower analyses, managers should use their judgment to assess the potential benefits and risks of potential co-branding opportunities, in particular with respect to any legal, logistical, or ethical hurdles than might impede successful implementation. But our research demonstrates that social media co-followership patterns can be a quick and inexpensive way to identify non-obvious alliances, whose potential might otherwise be difficult to anticipate.