The Art of Strategic Partnerships

How To Foster Successful Co-Branding Relationships Between Diverse Civic Organizations

From a young age, we’re taught that there is no “I” in “T-E-A-M”. But how do you foster collaboration between very different and sometimes competing organizations? With shared passion and purpose, anything is possible.


When it comes to working on large, complex projects, the age old notion that “two heads are better than one” seems to ring true — just take a look at some of the most famous historical partnerships. From Lewis and Clark and the Wright brothers to the founders of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, great things have come from collaboration. Some of today’s biggest, most popular brands see the value of striking up alliances with other organizations, including Spotify and Starbucks, GoPro and Red Bull, Apple and IBM. Not only have these partnerships propelled the launch of new product lines, but they’ve helped these companies increase influence, share resources, acquire new audiences, break into new markets and more.

Similarly, community organizations are often required to band together out of necessity to put on events or launch new initiatives that impact all of their constituents. The key players may include city officials, main street organizations, chambers of commerce, schools and businesses. And while a strength in numbers approach can spark game-changing ideas and opportunities, small differences of opinion and competing interests can ignite disruption. After all, when you’re dealing with organizations that have their own agendas and audiences, playing nice in the sandbox only lasts so long. So how do you get everyone to unite around a common goal?

“We knew that a new brand was needed to bridge the divide between all of these separate communities and organizations, but aligning everyone was a laborious process.”

To Partner or Not to Partner

Strategic brand partnerships among multiple organizations and leaders have both advantages and disadvantages. Eric Oberg, Director of Trail Development for the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, can speak to the challenges of a recent co-branding project, which brought together multiple civic-based partners to connect and brand 1,700 miles of shared trails that cross 53 counties in five states (Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, New York and Maryland).

“We knew that a new brand was needed to bridge the divide between all of these separate communities and organizations, but aligning everyone was a laborious process,” said Oberg. “We were dealing with people who have never worked together before, and they didn’t necessarily see the trailway as a shared resource. They were only focused on their individual parts instead of the collective whole.”

With a lot of experience in this realm, we have found that the type of project and makeup of the group can tip the scale in your favor or not, so we’ve compiled a list of pros and cons to help you enter a collaborative branding project with the right mindset.

Pros

Collective Ownership.

Having multiple stakeholders responsible for the big picture creates a sense of shared responsibility — everyone can pitch in to make sure the end result is aligned with key objectives.

Diverse perspectives.

The math is simple: two (or more) brains are better than one. When you have multiple people bouncing ideas around, solutions can be more thoughtfully developed and it also helps prevent making rash decisions that could be problematic down the road.

“Coordination is key when it comes to branding a regional place — you can’t do it in a vacuum,” said Oberg. “Delivering a unified, aligned experience across divisional lines benefits everyone — so why not work on it together?”

Network of resources.

Hopefully, more organizations involved means you will have more money, talent and connections to pull from to tackle the work.

A community of champions.

You aren’t “going solo” anymore. With other stakeholders on your side, you can all work together to get more buy-in and support from the community than you could alone.

A community of champions.

You aren’t “going solo” anymore. With other stakeholders on your side, you can all work together to get more buy-in and support from the community than you could alone.

Cons

Leadership conundrum.

When you have a lot of cooks in the kitchen, it can be difficult to keep everyone on-point in a systematic way that allows for progress. Furthermore, in a room full of capable leaders, there can be more than one person vying for ultimate decision-making power.

Political influence.

Work politics probably play a big enough part of your day-to-day when you’re working alone — adding multiple organizations with diverse influences to the mix will make your head spin.

Decision-making dilemmas.

With a lot of voices and perspectives at the table, the decision-making process can be slow and it can be difficult to get people to look past their own self-interests for the good of the group…ahem, collaboration means there needs to be some give and take!

Ultimately, the perks of working with a group of partners outweigh the negatives and, in most cases, the negatives can be managed (we go into greater detail on how do this below). Rather than working in a silo, a team built of passionate people with a common purpose has the ability to create a presence that is greater than the sum of the parts.

“Coordination is key when it comes to branding a regional place — you can’t do it in a vacuum,” said Oberg. “Delivering a unified, aligned experience across divisional lines benefits everyone — so why not work on it together?”

Building the Dream Team

Whether you came up with the project idea or it fell into your lap, you need to build a team that shares your vision. If anyone feels forced to lend a hand or disagrees with the proposal, you run the risk of facing stalemate situations for big decisions. Even worse, the project could yield bad results if there are members of the team who aren’t engaged in its success.
Before digging into the weeds, project goals and expectations need to be outlined so everyone is on the same page. An external consultant may be helpful during this stage to assess the readiness of the stakeholders to take on a large branding project.

Next, you need to identify who the team players are, along with their roles and responsibilities. As with any type of project, there needs to be a team captain — a person or an organization — that is appointed to lead the group and communicate expectations, organize meetings and collect feedback. With large projects that involve multiple stakeholder groups, more than one organization may be in the driver’s seat. But regardless of size, leadership needs to be clear and consistent.

“Determining your governance structure needs to be a collaborative decision — you cannot just dictate process to the team,” said Oberg. “If everyone understands their roles from the beginning, you can avoid some big problems down the road.”

Outside of the team leader(s), you need to build a stakeholder group that is composed of people who can represent areas and organizations impacted by the project. They should have the authority to make decisions on behalf of their organization and help keep their own constituents informed of progress. While it’s no easy task to bring such a diverse group together, it’s necessary to have broad-reaching perspectives, especially during the early stages of the foundational brand work.

“When you are working on a large project that spans a big footprint, you are inevitably bringing together people with their own goals and interests,” said Oberg. “You need to get them to realize that they can create something that’s greater than the sum of their individual parts.”

Beyond aligning the group around a shared vision and purpose, the spirit of compromise must be embraced by all team members. Sure, everyone has their own interests, but they need to find common ground between their own goals and those of the broader team.

“You need to give people an open platform to share their opinion — whether it’s positive or negative — within the coalition,” said Oberg. “But eventually, if 98 percent of people agree to a solution, you cannot be paralyzed by the one-two percent who disagree. At some point, people need to concede their own agendas for the good of the group.”

Putting the audience’s needs at the center of decision-making is the key to fostering team alignment.

Aligning Around Audience

As the team begins to define different elements of the new brand — the identity, voice and values — disagreements are almost unavoidable. Depending on where they are from or what organization they represent, people are bound to have different opinions on how a brand should look and feel. But ultimately, their perspectives aren’t the most important — the attitudes and viewpoints of their shared audience(s) are. What do they think of the current brand? What are their challenges? What direction do they want the brand to move in? Putting the audience’s needs at the center of decision-making is the key to fostering team alignment.

Guide Studio’s recent Great Miami Riverway branding work revealed how audience-focused discovery sessions can get diverse community partners speaking the same language.

“At first, I didn’t understand why we were putting so much effort into understanding the audience, but now I get it,” said Stan Kegley, Project Manager for the City of Troy. “You can’t launch a regional brand without drawing connections between all of the different communities’ audiences. It helped us realize we have a lot more similarities than we thought.”

A brand consultant can help you uncover your audience’s needs and motivations by conducting audience identification and persona development exercises, as well as market research (focus groups and surveys). However, you cannot rely on the consultant to define your brand for you – it’s up to you to take the audience feedback and use it to shape and influence the brand along with your community partners.

There’s a sense of empowerment in going through this process, and we talk to a lot of people who feel reinvigorated by collaborating on something that allows them to expand upon their day-to-day roles and work toward something bigger.

Everyone on the team must participate in the process of identifying the audience and shaping the brand direction. Not only does it give them a sense of ownership, but it fosters powerful connections between different members of the group that can lead to the brand’s overall success.

Cultivating Collaboration

Are you having trouble building consensus on your team? Here are some quick tips for getting everyone on the same page.

Break it Up

Divide the team into smaller groups so people feel more comfortable sharing their ideas. Make sure everyone contributes their feedback and writes it down before bringing everyone back together.

Break it Up, Again

Mix up the groups a few times so people hear varying perspectives and can build new relationships. Make sure that two people from the same organization or area aren’t in the same group.

Maximize Participation

Ensure that everyone participates in the “Discovery” phase of the branding process. This is where the foundational brand work is completed; you want to make sure you get input from every person/organization.

Hit the Rewind Button

Always reference the material from the “Discovery” sessions when developing the brand strategy to keep people on track. Remind them of why they are here, who they are working for and what the goals are to keep decisions focused.

Assign Homework

Provide the team with pre-meeting reading materials so meetings can be efficient. Time is valuable and you don’t want to spend a lot of energy going backwards.

A Win-Win Combination

While the branding process takes time and stamina, the end result is well worth all of the effort for both the team and you as an individual. There’s a sense of empowerment in going through this process, and we talk to a lot of people who feel reinvigorated by collaborating on something that allows them to expand upon their day-to-day roles and work toward something bigger. Not only will you have a new brand that connects multiple communities and constituents together under a mutual passion and shared vision, but you will have also built great new partnerships with other civic leaders who you can lean on for support. Best of all, you never know when these new partnerships will kindle new ideas that can lead to more revolutionary work.

“It’s the idea of ‘the rising tide lifts all boats,’” said Oberg. “When you are part of a bigger system, you can drive better results — more tourism, more residents, more economic development — that just weren’t possible when you were on your own.”

Considering a new brand strategy for you place? Check out the Great Miami Riverway Branding effort to see how audience-focused discovery sessions can get diverse community partners speaking the same language.

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