Themed collections and collabs: How brands build excitement in 2021

May 13, 2024
Emmy Liederman
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Social media creators have risen to prominence in the past decade as powerhouse sales channels. They cultivate large audiences on various platforms and communities with whom they hold a tremendous amount of sway. Data shows 80% of consumers have purchased something recommended to them by a creator.

Creator collabs tend to be extraordinarily successful because of the unique nature of the creator’s relationship with their audience. Creators build audiences that range from low ten thousand to well into the millions, depending on what creator tier you’re looking at. With even a fraction of this audience engaged with a post or video, those numbers perform better than most TV shows. Studies show that creator marketing campaigns can generate 11x banner ad ROI. 

But more than just gathering one of the largest engagements in the digital world, creators have a parasocial relationship with their followers. The parasocial relationship means that audience members become personally invested in a creator, often describing them as a “friend.” They want the creator to succeed at everything they do, and they trust what the creator tells them.

That’s the gold. Because of the parasocial relationship, audiences tend to jump on products their favorite creators talk about. Products allow the person to have a piece of the creator at home and physically demonstrate to the creator that they support them. 

With the creator providing free promotion to their audience, a well-done creator collab is like minting money. 

How Brands Can Work With Creators

There are several ways that brands can harness a creator’s power with their audience:

  • Pay for sponsored content, like an Instagram post that heavily features one or more of your products.
  • Send free products to a creator in hopes that they talk about it in a video or otherwise feature it.
  • Provide an incredible experience for a creator in exchange for them posting about it.

The latter method peaked in about 2017 when brands occasionally took groups of creators on luxurious vacations to tropical islands and sparked branded creator collaborations.

Creator collaborations are when a brand and creator develop a unique product line for a brand. 

While this concept has existed for a long time—think celebrity Chuck Taylor and his eponymous Converse sneakers in 1934—it was makeup brand Becca that put the modern creator collaboration on the map in 2016.

In the summer of 2016, Becca released a face highlighter called Champagne Pop with makeup tutorial creator Jaclyn Hill. It reportedly did $3.5M in sales on the day of launch. The highlighter was so popular that Becca made it a permanent member of their collection, though it was initially planned as a limited edition.

With the impressive success this partnership saw, other brands in the makeup industry and beyond started paying attention. Now, creator collabs are so common that audiences are primed for their favorite creators to team up for special collections. 

4 Examples of Great Creator Collabs

1. Morphe x Jaclyn Hill (Volume I)

In 2017, makeup company Morphe released their collaboration with Jaclyn Hill: an eyeshadow palette. Morphe released the palette at the height of Hill’s popularity and sold more than one million units in the first nine months. 

Why it worked: Morphe chose to work with Hill likely because she was highly effective at selling products to her audience. When she announced that Morphe had given her complete control over her eyeshadow formula, her audience leaped at the chance to see just how incredible that formula was.

Takeaway: Give the creator a lot of leeway in making the product their own. There is a reason their audience trusts them, and you need to tap into that trust.

2. Charli D’Amelio: Dunkin’ Donuts and Pura Vida

In 2020, New England breakfast darling, Dunkin’ proved that creator collabs aren’t just for beauty or apparel brands. They dropped a unique cold brew inspired by TikTok queen Charli D’Amelio, which sold hundreds of thousands of units in the first five days of its release. 

Why it worked: Charli’s known for her love of cold brews, so it was a no-brainer to put her name on one. But perhaps more importantly, D’Amelio’s audience is made up mainly of young teenagers who may not be able to afford a pricey product collaboration but can certainly scrounge a few dollars to try their hero’s favorite beverage.

Takeaway: Make sure you’re aligned with the creator’s audience. Because of her audience, D’Amelio’s many collaborations tend to be budget and parent-friendly.

Another notable collaboration Charli D’Amelio was part of was with accessory and apparel brand Pura Vida in 2021. It’s a collection of colorful stacking bracelets that reflect D’Amelio’s sunny personality.

Why it Worked: This was the perfect combination of brand, product, and creator. Because Charli’s audience skews young, these bracelets are perfect for that audience. These bracelets let fans wear a piece of that joy. Finally, the pricing and concept are perfect for gifting. 

Takeaway: Like the Dunkin collab, this Pura Vida collab played on the knowledge that their customer would most likely be an adult buying for a child. The concept itself is meant to excite D’Amelio’s young fans, but the price is intended to appeal to an adult. 

3. At Forest Sight - Colourpop x Raw Beauty Kristi

In 2020, the cosmetic brand Colourpop released a product line with makeup influencer Raw Beauty Kristi that included an eyeshadow palette, four individual shadows, three eyeliners, and two lip glosses. It sold out within days after launch, despite being Kristi’s second makeup collab in less than six months at the time!

Why it worked: Raw Beauty Kristi had spent years without a single brand collab, building a close relationship with her subscribers. She’s known for being trustworthy—rarely doing sponsorships unless she uses the product herself. She’s been a Colourpop fan for years, and she and her audience would often talk in videos and comments about the need for a collab. 

After the palette was launched, it was a hit despite Kristi launching a different, sold-out palette with Pür a few months before. 

Takeaway: Creators have dream collabs, which they likely have been talking about to their audience long before it comes to fruition. If you can find a creator who dreams of collaborating with your brand, you’ll be working with an audience who is already excited to buy that product.

4. Skatie X The Salty Blonde

In 2020, swim and activewear brand Skatie teamed up with creator Halley Elefante to release a line of swimwear explicitly meant for the pandemic summer.

Why it worked: The collaboration between these two was a no-brainer, audience-wise. A lot of Elefante’s content is posts featuring her in a swimsuit promoting the summer-first lifestyle that Skatie promotes. What was tricky was how to handle the release of a swimwear collection during the summer where no one could go on vacation. 

While many brands pressed pause on their product releases in the wake of lockdown, Skatie and Elefante pivoted their concept and promotion to speak directly to the stay-at-home customer. These are suits to wear now, in your backyard kiddie pool with a homemade cocktail—and the quality will last until you can finally get away again.

Takeaway: Meet the moment with your product release. Chances are, you’ll go into production a long time before release. You need to be prepared to make messaging pivots if the world is a completely different place at launch.

How to Launch a Successful Creator Collaboration 

Developing a successful product or collection with a creator takes time and effort. It can take months or even a year or more to go from idea to launch. Here’s how to make it work for your brand.

1. Choose your creator and platform carefully

First things first: You need to choose the right creator. Part of that choice will also have to factor in the platform. Creators are typically active across multiple channels, but one channel is their bread and butter. So if you want to focus on Instagram, for instance, you’ll have to rule out Youtube-first creators.

Next, consider the creator’s audience and community. If you create a make-up product with a cooking creator with 1M subscribers, it’s probably not going to do that well. Research creators within your sphere of creator and take note of their audience. 

When researching potential creators, don’t sleep on micro-creators. Their audiences are smaller, but their creator tends to be proportionally larger. Micro-creators average a 3.86% engagement rate on Instagram, compared to the 1.21% of mega creators. Moreover, product collabs are a long-haul investment. A creator with 80K followers at the time of contract signing could easily have twice that or more at launch, so keep that in mind.

2. Create a contract with clear expectations on both sides

You must establish an iron-clad contract between your business and creators. That way, both sides know what is expected of them and what they will receive in return. While legalese often makes people break out in hives, you should know that services like #paid exist to make contracting creators simple.

What needs to be in the contract:

  • The creator’s responsibilities in creating the product. Do you expect them to come up with the concept from scratch or only offer to consult?
  • Your brand’s responsibilities in creating the product. How much creative control do you retain? What are your manufacturing responsibilities? What are your responsibilities in the event of a sell-out?
  • How will the creator promote the product to their audience? What content will you require them to produce, and will you need ongoing mentions?
  • Your brand’s promotion of the product. What can the creator expect you to do? Are you able to use their name and image in promotion?
  • Whether or not you can make the item a permanent part of your collection.

3. Give your creator creative control

Collabs work because the creator’s audience wants a product that reflects what they love about the creator and reinforces the parasocial relationship. 

Because of that, the best collaborations grant the creator much of the creative control. Rani Mani, head of social creator enablement at Adobe, says: “I often start my discovery conversations with creators by finding out what really makes their heart sing.”

Also, you should allow the creator to guide your marketing plan, as well. Ultimately, the product they are delivering to you is their audience. They know this audience better than anyone. So be sure to consult them heavily about what type of promotions they think will work best.

4. Run a thoughtful launch campaign

The launch campaign is critical. Hyping up the creator’s audience about a product helps increase sell-outs. 

Also, put together a list of other creators you want to send the product to for free. Consult your creator on who might also be inclined to talk about your product. 

As the world moves past Covid, you should consider inviting those creators to a launch party for the product or collection. When several creators are live posting about your party, it creates extra buzz for their product.

Finally, you need to plan a special reveal with your creator in addition to standard marketing tactics like email and paid campaigns. They need to introduce the item to their following in a way that grabs attention and is consistent long after the initial launch.

5. Be strategic with your follow-up

Once you release a product with a creator, you have established a semi-permanent relationship with them. Rather than promoting the relationship at launch and then moving on, it’s important to continue the relationship (within your contracted bounds) for as long as the product remains in stock. On the other hand, if a scandal rocks the creator, you will likely need to actively distance yourself from them if the product is still in stock.

Some brands choose to make a creator’s product a permanent part of the collection after seeing its success. Some of the signs you may look for to guide this decision include:

  • You sell out of the product and have to keep restocking to meet demand.
  • The creator’s community has begun to view that product as your flagship product.
  • The product fills a hole in your catalog. It’s not uncommon for creators to want to release staple products. If you’re an apparel company, for instance, and you release a white t-shirt with a creator, that’s a cornerstone product that you should consider keeping.

Finally, should you produce a follow-up product? Sophomore collabs often flop because it's difficult to recreate the lighting in a bottle that happened the first time around. In addition, second-time collabs often come across as blatant cash-grabs, which jeopardizes the popularity of the first product if it's still in stock. 

The bottom line: Always provide unique value with every launch. 

Creator collaborations are a long-game worth playing

Creating a product or collection with a creator takes time, effort, and thoughtfulness. But when done well, there’s no doubt that you’ll make a lot of sales. 

And who knows? You might just make something so iconic it’s the next pair of Chuck Taylors.

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