As proven by the recent Coca-Cola and KITH collaboration, a cool bottle of Coke goes with just about everything. For the second time around, the unlikely match teamed up to create some buzzworthy merchandise, launching in the Hamptons afront the backdrop of an American summer.
While this union of streetwear with food and beverage may seem a bit odd, the trend has actually become decidedly common. Just last month, two New York City staples, Mikey Likes It Ice Cream and Ewing Athletics, teamed up to pay homage to the Empire State. Before that, Nike and David Chang of Momofuku unveiled a new way to use the SNKRS app to purchase a drop, launching the collaborative SB Dunk High sneaker.
As with our own relationships, it seems opposites attract, and the marriage of two brands is more than likely sparked by the law of attraction – each with their own love story to be told. Similarly, in any given collaboration, first moves can be made by either party. According to Geoff Cook, partner at branding studio Base, these unlikely collaborations thus come about one of two ways.
“If initiated by the smaller brand, the partnership is often instigated by the tastes of a dynamic entrepreneur,” says Cook. Such was the case for the partnership between KITH and Coca-Cola, driven by founder and owner of KITH, Ronnie Fieg’s, childhood love for the brand. “It was my favorite beverage growing up. So it’s very nostalgic. When I saw some of the assets and the old logos, those resonated with me immediately,” Fieg said during the collaboration launch in the Hamptons this summer.
From the flip side, the motivation for a large corporation is typically less driven by ethos, and instead the result of statistical analysis. “Through data analysis, Coca-Cola likely identified several behavioral traits that are shared with KITH’s audiences,” says Michael Barbera, consumer psychologist and strategy consultant. These shared behavioral traits in turn become a key element for larger corporations looking to tap a more segmented market.But whether the inception of these matches results from childhood affinity or hardcore data analysis, the end product undoubtedly plays masterfully into the zeitgeist. Together, the unlikely duos give birth to “superbrands,” creating Instagram candy that brings both parties a branding boost and results in benefits to revenue and public perception. Yet, the science of collaborations is intricate and complex; and with each new pair, a duo treads the dangerous territory of crossing over from authentic to gimmick.
Sensory Appeal for the Experiential Economy
Without question, the modern day consumer is the smartest and most savvy the economy has ever seen. Thanks to social media and the internet, research can be done within minutes and the opinions and experiences of others shared just as fast. According to a study by Eventbrite and Harris Poll, 78% of millennials “would choose to spend money on a desirable experience or event over buying something desirable.” In the rat race, collaborations, even as strange as with food, become another ploy to make noise in a fast-paced market, and attract the millennial consumer who has turned their taste buds toward experience.
“Experiential economy requires brands to come up with unique experiences immersing customers in the brand’s world; food and drink is a typical addition to fashion and brands are coming up with more interesting ways of implementing it,” explains Kate Nightingale, consumer and fashion psychologist.
“There’s an element of style when you choose to eat chicken and waffles from a boutique waffle house or to use sriracha on your eggs.”
Indeed, pairing clothes with food amplifies an Instagram-worthy snap two-fold. Not to mention, the psychological component of food physically heightens sensory association among consumers. “The more sensory representations of the brand available to human brain, the higher the memory and emotional engagement with this brand,” Nightingale adds.
However, the perfect pairing isn’t as easy as slapping food on a shirt. Branding experts repeatedly express that “shared traits” are a vital part to collaborations; as it turns out, food and streetwear are a match made in heaven. “There is an element of style when you choose to eat chicken and waffles from a boutique waffle house or when you choose to use sriracha on your eggs,” says Adam Padilla, co-founder and director of branding at Brandfire, having worked with corporations like Coca-Cola, IKEA and Mastercard.
“The style element of food lends very well to the colorways and fashion styles of major streetwear brands and evokes deeper feelings by using the sensory elements of taste and scent,” continues Padilla, reinforcing the importance of sensory and taste association present in such collaborations.
“Overall, the trend represents a shift in chasing interests,” argues Anne Olderog, partner at consulting firm Vivaldi. “It is interesting to observe a shift in importance of different categories in terms of attracting consumers’ attention. While the large brands (Coca-Cola, Nike) lend scale and visibility to their partners, niche brands (KITH, David Chang) lend hipness and relevance to theirs, as well as an ability to reach millennials — a notoriously fickle audience,” she says.As food goes hand-in-hand with fashion, both sides of the equation are left with a mutually beneficial relationship. A larger cooperation taps into the on-the-ground cool of a smaller entity, while the more niche brand suddenly benefits from the global recognition of a mega-cooperation.
Thee Woes of Authenticity
While the concept of a collaboration is straightforward — each brand brings something they’re known for to the table — without the right execution, the partnership can resonate as lazy and produce undesired effects, failing to generate ample return on investment (ROI). Padilla explains, saying, “The trick is that the bigger brand has to look authentic and organically invested in the collab, instead of desperate. Conversely, the smaller brand has to look like it is genuinely innovating with the larger brand, rather than looking like sellouts.”
Expanding reach is one thing but holding onto current customers is another. Coca-Cola reached out to Ronnie Fieg and KITH for a second time to do just that. “For Coca-Cola, it’s about the artist of the moment and Ronnie is that guy right now. To have people see Coca-Cola in new ways and to fall back in love with that in new ways is amazing,” says Evan Holod, brand director at Coca-Cola. As long as there’s mutual understanding for both brands and a greater vision at work, the dangers of “selling out” can be avoided.
From a psychological standpoint, Nightingale argues that the perfectly packaged collaboration attracts the consumer without too much work, and this is the key to authenticity. “Such collaborations are basically carefully curated holistic lifestyles packaged in an easy to buy box which perfectly represents your identity to other people; as a customer you don’t have to think too much which is perfect as our brain is a big fan of simplicity,” she says.
“Fast food is definitely ripping from our culture.”
“For consumers, then, a collaboration should seamlessly infiltrate everyday life, without feeling forced. As it is, most millennials are already constantly thinking about food and fashion. If leveraged correctly, this lifestyle provides great investment opportunities for brands. For bigger established brands like Coca-Cola and Nike, the investment comes in the form of a marketing experience that secure foothold on pop culture, translating into longer dollars down the road,” explains Padilla.
However, with the benefits of the collaboration comes appeal that can be motivated by the wrong reason. And indeed, where any money is to be made, comes the danger of appropriation, as can be seen in McDonald’s free merch collection. “Fast food is definitely ripping from our culture,” says Mikey Cole of Mikey Likes It Ice Cream, adding that he believes communication is to blame.
“People may not accept it but McDonald’s was a small mom-and-pop shop like us once and outgrew themselves to become something bigger. These guys are the ones we emulate. We just have to stay on top of our values and represent that, that way there’s no miscommunication or misconstrued stuff,” adds Cole.While it’s hard to communicate a greater message that doesn’t appear to be appropriation once you reach a certain level of success, brands like Nike and Coca-Cola have proven that it can indeed be achieved, and a successful balance within a collaboration can be tapped. At the end of the day, the communities at play become vital to the success of genuinity.
Tapping the Streetwear Segment
“Food is that type of thing like clothes, give it a chance to absorb itself and once you do, it can speak through the medium like streetwear culture. When you do it with your community and friends that’s even better, that’s the village coming down together. As long as food is good, and the collab is genuine, then it’s really worth it,” adds Cole.
And indeed, this strong presence of a community, and specifically the notoriously strong bonds of streetwear, is what makes these collaborations so appealing. “We see this part of a new imperative for successful brands – to be part of a network or ecosystem. These types of collaborations underscore that successful brands increasingly need to exist as part of a larger ecosystem in consumers’ minds,” says Olderog.
Within the collaboration space, streetwear brands that have stayed the course and will continue to push boundaries are a key to success. Meanwhile, the food industry with its high turnover but relatable rags-to-riches storylines is the perfect partner for a prosperous future. “In a landscape driven increasingly by social media, the most successful brands today are those with a strong culture that tap into specific communities. I think the larger point is that streetwear brands have exceptionally strong and passionate communities,” adds Cook.
In the end, the benefit comes down to segmentation and increasing reach. Specifically, it comes down to the fact that streetwear has access to a community on a level that is unparalleled by most others. “Collaborating with a beloved brand allows deeper engagement with a narrower segment, leading to a way more efficient spend. You are basically using the brand channels that the specialty brand has worked years to build, and piggybacking off of their clout in their market segment with minimal waste,” concludes Padilla.
“I think the larger point is that streetwear brands have exceptionally strong and passionate communities.”
Food and fashion, especially streetwear collaborations won’t be going anywhere anytime soon and we’re not mad about it. Being able to combine not only one but two shared interests into one expressive, creative piece of clothing, sneaker or accessory not only brings us together with like-minded individuals, but also continues to push the creative envelope for those looking to keep the consumer engaged.
“Brands are often seeking new segments. Before reaching one new segment, an organization should have reached their objectives with previously targeted segments,” Barbera points out. The target segments in store for the future are yet to be told, but it’s not difficult to let the imagination run free a bit. After all, a Lil Yachty x Famous Ben’s Pizzeria collab not only had the food and streetwear aspects covered, but infused a musical element as well. With brands looking to continue building its reach into the younger generation, continued cross-brand pollination will occur in the future and both the food and fashion industries are posed to spearhead it.