Strategic partnerships are a solid way to build brand equity and grow awareness for your business. But how do you get started, and how do you know if a partnership is really the right fit? We chatted with ClassPass’s Director of Business Development Ashley Lewis on why and how you should focus on strategic partnerships and her advice for getting the most out of a partnership.
WHY FORM STRATEGIC PARTNERSHIPS?
The value in forming strategic partnerships is threefold: building brand equity, expanding your exposure to customers who fall within your target audience, and reaching new targets.
In terms of brand equity, who you’re in business with says a lot about your brand and helps to define what kind of company you are. For example, ClassPass chooses to partner with companies who share the same vision and values – helping people to live better, more inspired lives – even if they’re not necessarily in our same fitness space. It’s about letting customers get to know and trust your brand so they understand (and can rely on) the kind of experience they’ll get when interacting with you.
In addition, partnerships can help increase your reach among your target audience. If you know who you want to capture, you can partner with a like-minded company to widen the net and increase exposure to the kinds of customers who are most likely to engage with your product.
Lastly, strategic partnerships help you attract and reach completely new audiences, people who may never have encountered your brand otherwise. The goal is to get your studio or gym name out there next to brands who appeal to complementary audiences to yours and who have the trust of their customers.
WHAT SHOULD YOU LOOK FOR IN A PARTNERSHIP?
It’s all about adding value, so look for quality over quantity. You may be approached by companies left and right looking to get exposure, but even when I’m excited about working with a particular brand, I always try to think about the reasons not to partner and whether the partnership will meaningfully deliver on any of the 3 partnership objectives discussed above. That way, when you do find an incredible company, the value of the partnership is that much greater.
In addition, you should look for partnerships that offer a fair give-and-take. Never partner with someone who is going to take more from you than they’re able to give. Ask yourself: Am I happy with the value? Am I hitting my goal? Saying “no” is better than discrediting your brand, so don’t be afraid to back off when it’s not a right fit. For example, a company may be offering to give you a ton of free products—but this doesn’t mean it’s a good partnership if those products don’t offer real value to your user base. Think about your users. What do they want? What would make their lives easier (and feel authentic coming from you)? They don’t need $10 off a $100 t-shirt and too many of those $10 offers risk making your brand feel like an annoying coupon book.
HOW CAN A STUDIO OR GYM START THE PROCESS OF DEVELOPING PARTNERSHIPS?
First identify your goals. What do you need in your business that a partner can help you with? Remember that a “partner” is not someone whose product you sell in your studio—it’s someone who you are working with strategically towards your own unique business goals. Make a list of brands you’re interested in, covering everything from those “pie in the sky,” stretch ideal partners to more realistic opportunities closer to home. Then, start figuring out how you can get in touch. Network on LinkedIn, tap into your professional base to figure out who you know that knows someone there, and get the conversation started.
DO YOU HAVE ANY RECOMMENDATIONS FOR DO’S AND DON’TS WHEN WORKING WITH PARTNERS?
DO: Make sure your goals are very clear.
For both parties, it helps eliminate any miscommunication or future frustration if you’re both very clear and aligned on what you’re hoping to get out of the partnership from the outset. And if goals change along the way, that’s fine. Just be extremely direct and clear with each other about it—no waffling! Make sure everyone is excited and benefiting from the partnership.
DO: Research your potential partners to deliver a strong pitch.
Go in strong from the beginning by exhibiting yourself as a savvy partner who has put thought into what you can offer a company. Be upfront and clear about your value add and feel good about it. If you know your email list is small but full of people who are obsessed with CrossFit, you may not be able to help a protein powder company grow in scale, but you can help them attract quality customers who are more likely to stick with their product. Do your research to pitch correctly and strategically.
DON’T: Overdo it.
If you partner with too many brands, too easily, your partnerships lose value. Users need to be able to trust that when you put another brand in front of them, it’s only because it will be meaningful to them in some way. More often than not, what makes the most impact is that discreet, unique and high value (usually measured monetarily) offer. As a rule of thumb, I wouldn’t advise taking on more than one partnership at a time. That way you can feel it out and dedicate time to making sure it delivers on your goals. More than two a quarter might get excessive and max out your available time and resources.
DON’T: Lose sight of your core mission and values.
Make it clear throughout your organization who you are as a brand, who your audience is, and what you want to say. “Brand” can be a malleable thing and once you start working with a variety of different partners, competing visions and goals get added into the mix, so make sure you and your team are aligned on your vision and your approach.
HOW DO YOU THINK OF A PARTNERSHIP SHORT-TERM VERSUS LONG-TERM?
Long-term partnerships require a commitment (usually financial) and are generally much more complicated; they’re something to build towards. Begin on a smaller scale with short-term partnerships (doing a single test, for example) to get a sense of audience overlap and success with whatever program you decide to offer. Afterwards, assess whether there is more that can be done and if this is someone you can see yourself working with for longer than a 2-3 month period.
That said, be wary of partnership fatigue. If you’re always partnering with the same brand, the value drops. Don’t pigeonhole yourself into working with just one partner, and recognize that (especially if your brand is not completely aligned) there’s only so much you can gain from an ongoing partnership.
ANY FINAL THOUGHTS?
If I were a studio or gym owner thinking about strategic partnerships, the big question I would ask myself is: How can I use partnerships to differentiate my business?
Assume everyone reading this article is going to go out and try to partner with a smoothie company—how can you pinpoint something truly unique that speaks volumes about your value? Think about what makes you stand out, whether you’re a yoga studio or a gym, and what your typical user is like. Then, seek out a partnership that no one else will have that your users—and the users you haven’t met yet—will find value in. That’s how you’ll make a lasting impact.
Ashley Lewis is the Director of Business Development at ClassPass. Since joining the ClassPass team in 2014, she’s held a variety of roles at the company ranging from Los Angeles City Lead to Director of Brand & Community, each of which has allowed her the opportunity to think about growth strategy and how a small startup can best develop a vision and execute on it. Prior to joining ClassPass, she was a member of the Barbie Global Brand Team at Mattel, where she learned to love brand marketing (and the color pink). She has a BA in Communications & Political Science from the University of Pennsylvania and an MBA from the Stanford Graduate School of Business.