In Search of the Collaboration Sweet Spot

It’s not how often brands work together but how many work together that matters for customers.

For brands, the past decade has become the age of the “x”: Versace x H&M, Kanye West x Bon Iver, Cheez-It x boxed wine. The heavy hitters, in seeking to hit even more heavily, started collaborating more frequently, and these (sometimes unlikely) pairings have struck a chord with consumers.

The “x” cleverly denotes that working together multiplies the benefits for the product — and the end user — over and above what either brand would have accomplished solo. However, the overwhelming majority of collaborations to date might be better characterized as a plus sign because collaboration to date tends to be an exercise in applying the equation 1 brand + 1 brand = 2 brands. Rather than cheapening either brand, collaboration boosts the public image of both.

But what about collaborations of more than two? Lawyers work in groups to give their clients the best defense, architects build metaphorical bridges with other architects to figure out the best design for actual bridges, and programmers put their heads together in filling the virtual shelves of app stores.

These and other examples started rattling around in my head one afternoon in February 2017. I was visiting a friend in San Francisco and, with a few hours free, we headed out to Cellarmaker Brewing Co., a local brewery that was releasing a new beer that day. We arrived a full hour before the new beer was dropping only to find that a line had already formed around the block and was growing longer every minute.

The secret, evidently, had gotten out that this was no business-as-usual beer. Rather, it had been brewed through the joint efforts of three all-star breweries within the craft beer scene: Cellarmaker, Trillium (Boston), and Other Half (New York). Once we got to the front of the line, my friend and I (and the hundreds of others ahead of and behind us) happily handed over $10 per bottle — on par with what a 12-pack of a regular domestic might cost at the convenience store across the street.

As a beer fan, the long line and excitement made perfect sense; as a marketing professor, this baffled me. I had long lauded to my students the benefits of cobranding, as consumers expect better things from two brands working together, but I had never stopped to ask why investigating perceptions of branding — or collaboration of any kind, for that matter — had to end at 1 + 1 = 2.

Researchers have spent volumes detailing how to assemble teams to get the best out of them, and team leaders have spent careers trying to put this advice into practice. I wanted to put a new twist on this age-old question: Instead of asking how many people it actually requires to screw in a lightbulb, I wanted to ask how many people do other people want working on the job.

I had a hunch that a few collaborators — even beyond two — should be seen as better than just one person going it alone. At the same time, it makes little intuitive sense to assemble a team of dozens when just a couple will do, so perhaps consumers would anticipate diminishing returns from too many collaborators. To put this to the test I conducted a series of studies, along with my colleagues, to gauge what consumers see as an ideal number of collaborators and what would happen if brands figured it out. A first experiment asked more than 400 online panelists to imagine themselves in the market for a new athletic shoe. They were especially interested in purchasing a new shoe made by three designers but were only lukewarm toward a shoe made by just one designer — or by nine designers. But would this change how people actually interacted with products? A second experiment offered an answer, inviting nearly 100 University of Toronto undergraduates into the research lab for a taste test. The students sampled a cookie after being told that its recipe had been concocted by one baker, four bakers, or eight bakers. Again, they loved the four-baker cookie and merely tolerated the one-baker or eight-baker cookie even though everyone’s sample came from the same cookie jar.

When I shared my results with Connor Casey, the cofounder of Cellarmaker, he wasn’t surprised. In his experience in the beer industry, simply promoting the fact that breweries had worked together on a particular beer often contributes to its success. From his perspective, these multi-brewer collaborations can even help push customers toward choices they might not be as enthusiastic about without the collaborative element. As he put it, “The fascinating part of this is [the] people who come out of the woodwork to buy the hazy double IPA collaboration but have much less interest in the same style beer that is a noncollaboration. And sometimes the noncollaboration batch turns out even better.” For brands, the lesson is that consumers’ positive expectations about a product can get them in the door, and publicizing a collaboration at just the right size fosters exactly these kinds of expectations. When it comes to the motivators for consumers, Casey summed it up well: “People are complicated and interesting, and the things that make many of us tick don’t always make sense.”

My research highlights that every industry has its own optimal collaboration size in the eyes of its audience. How many employees do people want in a brainstorming session? Eleven. How many planners do people want to route a fire escape? Six. The same number applies to chewing gum brands and laundry detergent manufacturers. Designing a car can go up to eight while brewing a beer should be capped at four.

It’s not just industries but individuals, too, that differ. Some people tend to think of tasks as more complex while others see very little intricacy in, say, constructing a pen or designing a watch. The more complex something seems, of course, the more we want large, diverse teams working to solve the problem. Considering that consumers notoriously underestimate how much goes into new product R&D, sound advice might prescribe trotting out many collaborators only when addressing your most expert clients and saving simpler teams for broader audiences.

Beyond these specifics, consumers generally hold two separate — and countervailing — intuitions in their minds: that two heads are better than one but also that too many cooks spoil the broth. The secret for organizations and brand managers lies in identifying that sweet spot of just the right amount of collaboration and promoting teams accordingly. Next year, then, might be well suited to kick off the decade of the “^”, with exponentially more cross-platform opportunities for brands to hit the right collaboration mark.