Competition may be a natural part of business, but not every company selling to your target customer is a competitor. Some might be potential collaborators you can partner with through co-marketing.
By sharing audiences and resources, two complementary brands can execute campaigns that would be expensive or impossible alone.
These strategic partnerships can help you access powerful leverage by offering your own in turn to reach new audiences and delight existing customers, regardless of the size of your business.
Here’s what you need to know to get started with co-marketing, from the different types of co-marketing campaigns you can run to how to find and pitch strategic partners to collaborate with.
What is co-marketing?
Co-marketing is an approach to marketing that involves two or more complementary businesses working together to promote each other’s products or services. By forming a mutually beneficial strategic partnership with a non-competitive business, both parties can reach new audiences and market more efficiently.
The exchange between co-marketing partners can include anything from:
- Harnessing the reputation of another brand while giving them exposure to your customers
- Sharing the emails captured in a joint campaign that was executed using shared resources
- Collaborating on content, such as appearing on each other’s YouTube channels or gift guides, co-hosting a podcast together, or doing takeovers of each other’s Instagram accounts
- Cross-promoting each other’s products to your respective audiences, through an email campaign or product bundle
- Getting free samples into the hands of qualified customers through your partner’s orders and giving their customers a nice surprise in return
Co-marketing takes many different forms and can be negotiated between B2B and B2C brands, products and services businesses, and new startups and established brands—as long as you can connect the dots between you and your partner to establish equal value on both ends.
Is co-marketing the same as co-branding?
Co-branding is when two or more brands combine their brand equity—their logo, name, and reputation in the market—into a single product or service. It often involves a joint product development process, where both brands get to put their names on a new product or service being produced.
Co-branded products can be part of a co-marketing campaign, but co-marketing refers broadly to two or more brands working together by promoting to each other’s audiences.
The benefits of co-marketing through strategic partnerships
Co-marketing comes with unique benefits compared to traditional solo marketing strategies.
Between rising customer acquisition costs for paid marketing and the slow ramp up of investing in ecommerce SEO, co-marketing can be an immediately impactful and cost-effective approach to marketing accessible to businesses of all sizes.
The benefits of co-marketing include:
- Reaching new audiences of potential customers by working with businesses that share your buyer persona but belong to a different product category
- Cutting costs by pooling together resources, such as marketing budgets, distribution channels, networks, talent, etc.
- Selling more products by getting exposure to another business’s customer base
- Generating press coverage because brand collabs are often newsworthy, especially if an established name is involved
- Expanding your network with valuable connections in parts of your industry you may not have had access to before (e.g., tow truck drivers strategically partner with auto shops by carrying each other’s business cards, since they both service cars that require repair, but at different points in the customer’s journey)
- Building valuable long-term relationships that over time can lead to more unconditional exchanges of value, knowledge, networks, and support
Co-marketing only works if it prioritizes reciprocity to craft a deal that’s equally good for all parties at the table, not just yourself.
Great co-marketing should benefit everyone involved: you, the brand you partner with, and your customers.
If the nature of the exchange is fair and the terms are explicitly stated, co-marketing can be an effective way to tap into new audiences and drive down the cost of marketing while improving its impact.
5 co-marketing examples showing reciprocity in action
There are countless angles to approach your own co-marketing strategies. It ultimately depends on your context, creativity, and ability to pitch the partnership.
Here are some co-marketing examples, ranging from complex campaigns to informal bartering, to inspire your next strategic partnership.
1. Co-branded products: Homesick and Lucasfilm
Homesick’s scented candles are inspired by the nostalgic smells of specific places, such as New York City, creating ample opportunity for thoughtfully creative collaborations.
One of the most creative so far has been Homesick’s co-branded product with Lucasfilm. Both brands came together to develop a unique Star Wars candle collection featuring the scents of fictional planets from a galaxy far, far away.
The partnership earned press coverage in national publications like Cosmopolitan and Mashable. Meanwhile, Lucasfilm gets to bring a piece of its most popular sci-fi franchise into the real world, with Homesick’s manufacturing capabilities.
2. In-kind sponsorships: Longboi and Weiner-Paw-Looza
Sponsoring an event or creator doesn’t always require money to change hands. Bartering goods and services is common between businesses and organizations. It could be event space lent to you by a retail store in exchange for driving foot traffic.
Or, in the case of Longboi, an apparel brand for dachshunds and their humans, it could be loaning a branded photo-booth backdrop to Weiner-Paw-Looza, a local weiner dog festival, because the organizers saw you post it online.
“Since the backdrop has our logo all over it, it was an awesome way to get organic marketing traffic, because their festival attendees would take photos of their dogs against the backdrop and they would tag us on social media … all without us even physically being there ourselves,” says Josh Gonsalves, co-founder of Longboi.
3. Free samples: Stellar Snacks and JetBlue
Free samples aren’t feasible for every brand, but if you sell a product that has to be tasted, smelled, or tried before buying (snacks, cosmetics, beverages, etc.) and you can produce a low-cost sample to distribute, it may be worth your while.
The cost of marketing with free samples isn’t just the cost of the product but also of distributing it into the hands of potential customers who are likely to buy.
Co-marketing can turn your free sample into a free gift for your partner’s customer, or result in an exchange of packaging inserts with discount codes to each other’s businesses.
Here’s an example of co-marketing with samples between Stellar Snacks, a clean snack brand, and JetBlue, an American airline. JetBlue offers its passengers complimentary pretzels, which are provided by Stellar Snacks. In exchange, Stellar Snacks gets free samples of its product into the hands (or mouths) of more Americans.
4. Two-way referrals: Studio Proper and the retail technology ecosystem
Take a step back from your business and look at the other purchases that lead up to and follow what you sell in the customer journey.
Are there products or services your customer seeks out that you’re not equipped to offer yourself? There might be potential strategic partnerships to build between those gaps.
Alon Tamir, CEO of Studio Proper, a company that designs accessories and mounts for phones, tablets, laptops, and point-of-sale devices, refers to it as finding partners throughout the customer’s “stack.”
The company’s B2B arm is in a unique position to leverage strategic partnerships. The company sells the physical equipment for business solutions, but not the implementation, software, and infrastructure services around it. So the company partners with the businesses that do.
In an episode of Shopify Masters, Alon Tamir said, “Whether it’s the telco that’s providing the data service or it’s the systems integrator that specializes in retail executions or retail fit-out companies, there are so many different experts that are servicing segments of a business’s needs. And those are all great opportunities to partner together with them to create a really, really great end-to-end solution for the business customer.”
A recent example: Proper partnered with Kingly, a Singaporean company that implements large-scale IT projects for corporations and government organizations, in order to penetrate the Singaporean market while providing Kingly with exclusive pricing on a range of its products to be part of those implementations.
Source: Studio Proper
5. Cross-promoting offers: Studio Proper and Scratch
Packaging inserts in the form of discount codes are a popular post-purchase tactic used by ecommerce companies to cross-sell other products and increase customer loyalty. Packaging inserts are low-cost to produce and ship inside an order where shipping has already been paid for, making for a potentially strong return on investment.
Co-marketing turns this customer retention tactic into a new customer acquisition play by swapping packaging inserts with a strategic partner.
Studio Proper also uses co-marketing in its B2C business. This promotion with Scratch, an Australian dog food company, included an exclusive discount code for Scratch as an insert in shipments of its DogTag Apple AirTag product.
How to find and form strategic partnerships with complementary brands
Co-marketing partnerships can occur organically or require methodical planning and networking. It depends on who you’re seeking out as a partner.
Either way, a co-marketing pitch will fall flat if the benefits are only one-sided. Entering into the agreement has to make sense business-wise and feel like a great deal for both parties.
Build relationships in advance
There are as many co-marketing opportunities out there as you care to look for, but sourcing them comes down to some old-fashioned networking and business development.
There are some free tools I’d recommend for this purpose:
- Clearbit Connect, to help you find the email you need to reach out to the contacts you want
- A spreadsheet or free CRM like Streak, to help you track when your emails are opened, build and manage contact lists, and save templates that you can re-use on an ongoing basis
- SimilarWeb, to help you evaluate a potential partner’s website as an opportunity by analyzing the amount of traffic, traffic sources, and other signals that identify a good partnership
- Calendly, to eliminate the back-and-forth of scheduling a meeting between you and your potential partner—just share a link for them to choose a time in your calendar that works for them
Strategic partnerships are naturally easier to create through existing relationships with someone on the inside who can help implement the co-marketing campaign.
But if that's not the case, which is likely if you're a new company, you can still make it happen through prospecting and outreach.
Assess potential partners
You likely have as many or more prospective co-marketing partners as you do competitors. Evaluate for good fit before you pitch by looking out for the following criteria in your partner:
- They aren’t a competitor—better yet, they complement your brand
- They have a sizable audience (email list, social following, etc.)
- They aren’t “too big to work with you” (not a deal-breaker with the right pitch)
- You have access to something they would want (manufacturing capabilities, free or deep discounted products, email list, customer base, social impact, brand equity, skills, connections, expertise, marketing assets, etc.)
Always understand your own leverage before coming to the table. Pitching a one-sided partnership through cold outreach will likely sour your relationship with a potential partner (I’ve got an inbox full of self-centered pitches to prove that point).
Understand the value they can create for you, but lead the conversation with the value you can create for them.
Pitch some co-marketing ideas
Before you reach out to another company, make sure you have concrete ideas to pitch.
Without any marketing ideas, it’s unlikely you’ll get a reply, let alone a “Yes, let’s work together.” And like I said, you need to frame your pitch in a way where your partner clearly benefits.
Make a list of all the leverage you have and work it into your pitch. A good place to start is the size of your customer and email list, average monthly order volume, and exclusive wholesale pricing—the things that would get you to perk up if they were pitched to you.
It’s OK to pitch one to three quick ideas in bullet-point form to get the ball rolling, but the main goal of your email should be to schedule a call to discuss specifics.
Here’s a general email outreach template you can use to get started, but make sure you tailor it to your potential partner:
Co-Marketing/Strategic Partnerships Pitch Template
I’m the [JOB TITLE] at [COMPANY & LINK TO YOUR SITE], a [QUICK ELEVATOR PITCH].
I’m reaching out to explore a potential partnership with [PARTNER COMPANY], because [SHOW YOU DID YOUR RESEARCH AND THIS EMAIL IS TAILORED].
[YOUR COMPANY] has [EMPHASIZE YOUR LEVERAGE]. Since you’re [EMPHASIZE COMMON GROUND], I thought you might be interested in some kind of collaboration.
Here are some opportunities that come to mind:
- [PITCH CO-MARKETING IDEA WITH CLEAR VALUE FOR THEM].
- [PITCH CO-MARKETING IDEA WITH CLEAR VALUE FOR THEM].
Let me know if you’d like to hop on a 20-minute call [OPTIONAL LINK TO CALENDLY] to discuss a mutually beneficial partnership.
Thanks for your consideration, and looking forward to hearing your response.
Define your campaign and promotion details with your partner
Once you’ve found a like-minded partner who’s interested in collaborating, hop on a call with them to hammer out the details of your co-marketing partnership. While a handshake deal is enough for many co-marketing arrangements, getting it in writing or even drafting up a contract to sign may be a good idea for more complex campaigns where profit-sharing or co-branding are involved.
Throughout the negotiation process, you should determine:
- What the campaign will look like and how each party will benefit
- Who will be responsible for what, so that everything that needs to be done actually gets done
- What resources or assets each party will commit
- The goals for the joint effort so you’re both aligned on the outcomes
- The timeline for the partnership and when the agreement will end
It’s worth explicitly stating what success looks like for each of you, and how it will be measured, especially if the goal is customer acquisition.
Measure your co-marketing campaign’s success
Campaign attribution should also be a point of discussion with your co-marketing partner, especially if the goal is new customers and sales.
How you measure success will depend on the nature of your co-marketing partnership and its goals:
- Driving traffic via shared marketing channels can be tracked by adding UTM parameters.
- New customers and sales can be tracked with UTMs as well, or by trading discount codes that are exclusive to the campaign.
- Social media engagement can be monitored using a branded hashtag or the brand partner tag on Instagram.
- Press mentions, especially if you’ve put out a press release, can be monitored through backlinks and referral traffic, or by setting up a Google alert.
Co-marketing: Go further, together
The business world might be competitive by nature, but co-marketing proves you can also unlock growth through cooperation.
While big brands team up on co-marketing campaigns all the time, it’s the smaller companies with fewer resources that stand to benefit most from strategic partnerships.
After all, why build an audience from scratch or stretch your resources thin when you can share what you and other like-minded brands already have?
You need to give before you get, but what you end up getting together through co-marketing is something you likely wouldn’t have gotten alone.