Roots Corp. did collaborations long before they were cool.
Just ask Karl Kowalewski, who has been in charge of the Canadian brand’s leather factory since the company was founded nearly 50 years ago.
He has designed shoes for Richard Gere and Eugene Levy, a leather goods collection with writer and visual artist Douglas Coupland and most recently a varsity jacket with The Weeknd and the XO brand.
Some of the collaborations have been commercialized. Most were not.
“We’ve always been passionate about connecting people and building relationships,” Roots President and CEO Meghan Roach said in a recent interview. “It’s been part of the philosophy since day one.”
What started organically for retailers like Roots has become an integral part of the industry’s product innovation and brand marketing strategy.
Canadian retail heavyweights like Lululemon Athletica, Canada Goose and Aritzia have all launched collections created through collaborations. Limited-time products often generate hype and sell out quickly.
Newcomers to the Canadian retail scene, like high-end outerwear company Moose Knuckles, are even hiring executives specifically to lead collaborations.
“Every time you do a collaboration, you’re creating something new that’s never been done before,” said Julia Yu, senior director of collaborations for Moose Knuckles.
“Collaborations allow us to leverage the creativity of others by allowing them to play with our iconic outerwear.”
Partnerships often involve established companies partnering with emerging brands or famous celebrities like musicians or athletes.
Unlike a simple endorsement, where a celebrity might wear an item of clothing or showcase a product on social media, creative collaborations involve a coming together of minds, retail experts say.
The idea is that two brands, or individuals, develop something greater than the sum of its parts.
The appeal for established retailers is to stay relevant to existing customers while attracting new generations. For new brands, teaming up with a bigger player can help them reach a wider customer base.
While some partnerships are a true creative collaboration or involve a cause or charity, many come down to money and marketing, said retail expert Bruce Winder.
“Money is a big part of collaborations,” he said. “Some of these partnerships are absolute circuits and generate a ton of profits. That’s why we see so many of them.
Sometimes the collaborations see high fashion designers merging with mass market brands, like Balenciaga teaming up with foam clog maker Crocs.
At other times, musical artists team up with apparel companies, like Drake and his clothing brand October’s Very Own, or OVO, in partnership with luxury parka maker Canada Goose.
“The perfect collaboration is achieved when two brands work together to create products that neither partner could make independently,” said Woody Blackford, Chief Product Officer at Canada Goose.
“Working with new collaborators allows us to utilize new and distinct perspectives, inspiration and skills with the creative minds of our in-house design team.”
While collaborations are now proliferating in the retail market, the approach has been around for decades.
Classic collaborations involve a apparel heavyweight teaming up with athlete superstars like Nike and Serena Williams.
“These types of collaborations are mutually beneficial and strengthen each other’s brands,” said Charles de Brabant, executive director of McGill University’s Bensadoun School of Retail Management.
Some of the “ties” are short-term, such as when two clothing companies come together to offer a limited-time “capsule collection,” he said.
The innovative aspect of the collaboration helps drive interest and sales, said de Brabant.
At other times, like when a sports brand signs an athlete, the partnership can last for decades, he said.
“Links with individuals can last a long time,” de Brabant said. “That’s why every time you collaborate, you want to make sure the values align.”
The proliferation of collaborations in the marketplace makes finding the right partner essential, said Tamara Szames, Canadian retail industry advisor at The NPD Group, in an interview.
A collaboration that lacks a clear vision or cohesiveness between brands can leave consumers feeling jaded, she said.
“That’s why authenticity is crucial for a successful collaboration,” Szames said. “When a traditional brand tries to find what’s trendy and it’s not authentic in their DNA, the consumer can read that.”
But when it works, successful collaboration can “reduce clutter,” Winder said.
“Collaborations can be a very powerful way to increase your visibility as a brand,” he said. “It’s also a way for some brands to reach younger people.”
Tim Hortons’ collaboration with Justin Bieber has been widely credited with bringing a younger demographic to the coffee and donut chain.
When the limited-edition Timbiebs Timbits were launched, Tim Hortons marketing manager said there were lines outside restaurants.
“Kids were going to school at lunchtime and were lined up around the building,” Hope Bagozzi said in a recent interview.
Part of the reason the collaboration worked so well was its authenticity, Winder said.
The Stratford, Ont.-raised pop star said he ‘grew up with Tim Hortons’ and would have been deeply involved in product brainstorming, sample testing and deciding on final recipes for Timbiebs and Biebs Brew.
“The Justin Bieber and Tim Hortons collaboration worked because it feels believable,” Winder said. “I’m sure he was well paid for it, but it was genuine.”
Your time is valuable. Receive the Top Business Headlines newsletter in your inbox morning or evening. register today.