Brand partnerships fail when people try to manufacture stories that aren’t really there. A perfect metaphor would be the old adage sculptor Michelangelo Buonarroti said about his art: “Every block of stone has a statue inside it, and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.”
That’s basically what I do. I’m one of the original pioneers of branded partnerships, starting over 2 decades ago. And I can tell you it’s not about telling a story that isn’t there. People can see through that.
The best brand partnerships, and figuring out how to get brands to work together in a way that makes sense (from a storytelling and a monetization standpoint), come from the art of discovering what’s already there—and then putting the spotlight on it.
Let me give you an example:
In 2000, we started working with legendary Swiss timepiece maker Audemars Piguet. Many people don’t know that Audemars Piguet is the oldest watchmaking company never to have left the hands of its founding family. They have been perfecting their craft for over 140 years.
I want to pause here and note: these are the kinds of details you should always pay attention to. 140 years of experience? Founding families? You don’t have to manufacture these things. They’re already there.
The issue Audemars Piguet was facing had nothing to do with their product. Their watches had been respected for excellence since the brand’s inception. The issue was the fact that their company was a non-factor in the U.S. luxury market. They didn’t have the right distribution network, they had limited brand awareness, and (of course) little capital to invest at that time.
What it did have was: heritage, master craftsmanship, an aura of luxury, and most of all, Francois Bennahmias, a creative genius and force of nature. He was our talent, our star, and embodied the brand to the fullest.
“Every block of stone has a statue inside it, and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.”
We knew that if we could get people—the right people—to feel, wear, and appreciate the Audemars Piguet craftsmanship in their products, then over time that would lead to social influence, which would lead to measurable sales.
So that’s what we did. And here’s how:
1. Tell the story out in the open.
First, we wanted to introduce Audemars Piguet in a way that wasn’t forced. Again, it goes back to uncovering what’s already there, not spending a chunk of money to convince people otherwise.
In 1999, we decided to hold a charity auction of limited edition timepieces, titled Time to Give. In order to get in the “same room” as other luxury brands, we invited them to be part of our event where watch aficionados and celebrities would be—which provided them access to the same type of luxury consumer. Win/win.
That event raised almost $2 million dollars to benefit Muhammad Ali’s and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s charities. At the same time (pun intended), it reintroduced Audemars Piguet to watch enthusiasts in the U.S. market, many of whom were coming as a result of other brands being there as well.
2. We associated Audemars Piguet with other brands that the target consumer trusted.
I call this “the halo effect.”
When a brand lacks influence, awareness, and capital, then you have to ask yourself what you do have. Brand and business partnerships are very different than advertising and marketing. Those are based on dollars in and impressions out.
Partnerships, however, are about mutual collaboration.
So, who would wear an Audemars Piguet watch? Probably someone who flies NetJets aircraft and wears Loro Piana. This gave us a sense of the kinds of brands we wanted to “be in the same room with,” so to speak. And what we had was a high-end luxury product that would wear well with other luxury brands in the same echelon.
We executed over a dozen of these elegant and value-added partnerships, each one highly impactful, extremely measurable, and beneficial to all brands involved.
Another example of this was when we created the first annual NetJets poker event with Warren Buffet, Rich Santulli, and Steve Wynn. The first partner who committed big was Francois Bennahmias of Audemars Piguet. He saw the value in this level of association, and 10 years later they’re still holding that very poker event—which happened largely because of Audemars Piguet being so quick to step up to the plate in a big way…
3. Ladder one success up to the next.
From there, it was all about continuing to expand that “halo.”
We then took the success of that event and used it as a proof of concept. We created ongoing partnerships with other leading luxury brands in the U.S. market, such as NetJets, Four Seasons, The World by Residensea, the Tony Awards, and even hip-hop artists such as Jay-Z.
To tell you the truth, Audemars was the first ultra-luxury brand in the world that bet on Jay-Z, saw his brilliance and the influence he would have on culture. Jay-Z’s core essence was similar to that of Francois Bennahmias: audacious, dramatic, and more than willing to take risks.
Here’s how it happened:
I woke up at 3 a.m. one night, couldn’t sleep, and turned on the BET Awards. I saw that the new Artist of the Year was Jay-Z, and as he walked on stage I noticed he had this watch on his wrist—an Audemars Piguet. The very next morning, I called up Francois and said, “Francois, I have to get you this tape. There’s this guy named Jay-Z, he’s incredible, and I think he’s going to be big. This could be a really cool partnership for you.
Francois said, “Kirk, you know I trust you, but getting Audemars involved with a hip-hop artist? Are you crazy?”
I said, “Just wait. I know how to get to him, let’s set up a meeting and see.”
The rest is history. Jay-Z had a material impact on sales for Audemars. His fans began buying watches they never knew existed before the partnership. And today, they are still buying Audemars. Jay-Z was a very important part of the Audemars Piguet U.S. success story.
How you gave ‘em that?
Audemars Piguet with the alligator strap.
– Jay-Z, “Show You How”
The results speak for themselves: Audemars Piguet’s American sales have increased 100x, generating 100 plus million dollars in revenue. More than that, the U.S. market is today their largest in the world. While other watch brands are dying, Audemars continues to grow at rates unheard of today in luxury.