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Posted November 2017

Better together

Collaborations | Looks like we have all become communitarians. These days we like to share cars, flats, clothes, food and sometimes partners. As if latching onto the Sharing Economy zeitgeists even profit-driven Big Brewers are suddenly raving about partnerships and doing collaborations. Is this the dawn of a new era, or are these just verbal smoke bombs meant to nullify the relevance of ownership and independence? After all, if the Big Brewers can convincingly appropriate the spirit and practices of craft beer, what’s the point of difference between them and the small guys?

A few weeks ago, in Italy, I came upon a shop window which screamed in large letters “Karl Lagerfeld x Vans”. All it showed was a black leather rucksack. No price tag, of course. I must admit I have heard of Karl Lagerfeld, but who is Vans? Later I read that it’s a brand loved by skater youths. Apparently, Kaiser Karl and Vans had come together to create a limited-edition, “cheap and chic” collection of must-have fashion items in order to bring “luxury to the masses”.

For over a decade, high-low collaborations – that is between luxury and mass brands – have been all the rage in the fashion industry. Everybody was into them. While some collaborations were merely one-offs, for others, like Supreme and Adidas, they appear to have become almost a regular undertaking.

There does not seem to be an end to potential mix-n-matches. As brands run out of fashion designers for their tie-ups, other partners (eg those walking clothes hangers with their millions of followers on Instagram) and so-called “verticals” are taking their shoes. Fashion consultants say that platforms like the arts and sports can also create “compelling storytelling”. Compelling, my foot. Can anyone please explain to me the intent of a three-way collaboration between the artist Diddo, Gucci and Louis Vuitton (in 2008) which resulted in three gas masks?

Most brewers will be too busy to take an interest in fashion and ponder the fashion industry’s rationale for collaborations. But consider this: fashion is a big global business. The consultancy firm McKinsey valued it at USD 2,400 billion in 2016, having grown over 5 percent annually since the mid-Noughties. If there were no more to collaborations than letting two design teams loose, the industry’s finance honchos would not allow them. It’s understood that collaborations add to bottom lines by synergising creativity, cutting costs and saving on advertising. If anything, collaborations tend to generate tons of free PR.

Like brewers, fashion companies are finding it more than a tad challenging to pitch their stuff to consumers. Although fashion touches everybody, unlike beer or booze, its audiences in recent years have also become more demanding, more discerning, and less predictable in their purchasing behaviour, which is being radically reshaped by new technologies. So far, so distressingly familiar to brewers. That’s why consumer goods companies, like the Big Brewers, have taken note of the fashion industry barging ahead with new concepts and terms which apparently succeed at reaching consumers’ “front of mind”.

The fashion industry would be first to concede that these carefully “curated” (formerly “selected”) “capsule collections” (formerly “special editions”) are basically marketing and another name for what used to be known as promotions. If fashion’s consumers are either too naïve or too cynical to admit that they are being fooled by the same old tricks, there is no doubt that collaborations will not go out of style any time soon.

Collaborations rather than competition

Second- or third-generation craft brewers will not like to hear it, since they believe that they are the true inventors of collaborations. However, collaborations have been around the craft beer industry for decades. In the 1980s and 1990s they were just called something else: contract or licence brewing. Remember the craft beers brewed exclusively under contract such as Sam Adams, Pete's Wicked, Spanish Peaks, Oregon Original, Rhino Chaser ... or the cookie-cutter chains of US brewpubs like Gordon Biersch, Rock Bottom, BJ's, Alcatraz, Hops, McMenamins, The Ram, Iron Hill? Not to forget David Bruce’s chain of Firkin brewpubs over in the UK. They were all denounced as “faux craft” and set off the first beer war in the craft brewing industry. 

It would have only been in the Noughties that US craft brewers adopted the idea and practice of collaborations. As was pointed out by Mikkel Borg Bjergsø (he of Mikkeller) in a post last year (I will return to this), initially, collaborations between “true” craft brewers did not follow the money motive unlike their “faux” craft predecessors. When true craft brewers teamed up and created something unique, the efforts and identity of them both served as a mutual inspiration. By sharing knowledge they ended up with something that none of the brewers could have done themselves.

It’s heart-warming to read that, in the past, collaborations were labours of love, truly altruistic and uncorrupted by profit or marketing concerns. This conviction must have struck a chord with lots of craft brewers because all of a sudden they began to embark on collaborations of their own.

A new business model was born: collaborations.

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