OPINION | The trend of unofficial collaboration connects brands with people and with authenticity, and has opened up new revenue streams for agencies

Public relations professionals now commonly refer to what we do as “changing” or “so much more than just PR”. There are just too many proof points to name: content (and rich content); the blend of earned and paid; and this year alone, artificial intelligence. So, while it is true, what it really talks to is the only constant communicators can rely on — and that is change.  

Africa’s brands have been part of building the momentum behind an increasingly dominant trend called unofficial collaboration. It’s a trend that has implications for strategic communications and the brands and companies they represent across our continent.  

Why, and what is unofficial collaboration? 

Broadly speaking, an unofficial collaboration refers to an informal partnership between two or more brands (or their leaders) that work together to achieve a common goal, without any formal agreement. It’s the ultimate handshake deal, and takes various forms, such as the basics of co-creating content, cross-promotion of ideas, or joint product launches.  

At its most powerful is the effect of like-minded voices behind issues that matter and have systemic societal and economic impact. And critically, what matters for agencies is that it is the singular most powerful tool they have in their arsenals — the ability to connect people, voices and events to create greater earned impact and real, powerful conversations.  

The evolving landscape of marketing and advertising has played a significant role in the popularity of such collaborations, as consumers become more sceptical of traditional advertising methods, choosing rather to engage with brands that offer authentic experiences. 

Most notably, brands that are born on our continent and are committed to being true to how they represent being African can powerfully leverage unique brand partnerships to reach new audiences. Consider, for example, the effect delivered by Nigerian fashion brand Maki Oh as it partnered with US luxury fashion brand Pyer Moss to create a limited-edition capsule collection tailored to a more youthful audience. 

Then there was the centre-stage move of South African singer Mthandazo Gatya, who participated in the John Legend #OpenVerseChallenge on TikTok. His talented step up resulted in him sharing the stage with Legend during his South African tour. 

On the global stage, these collaborations are often created by small groups of content creators who find something unique and symbiotic in two businesses. And they can take many forms, such as fan fiction, artwork, unofficial merchandise, and even entire productions. A standout example is the Unofficial Bridgerton Musical by Barlow & Bear, which scooped best musical theatre album award at the 2022 Grammys and was the first Grammy winner to be developed on TikTok.  

The musical album started as a TikTok trend in 2021, with creators writing and performing original songs inspired by the Netflix series. In trending, it quickly gained steam, with more and more creators contributing their own songs and performances. Eventually, a group of creators decided to take things a step further and turn the collection of songs into a fully-fledged musical, which they performed on a virtual stage. 

Despite being sued by Netflix in July 2022 — the case was settled in September — this unofficial collaboration creative concept was refreshing for a flagging consumer world as the pandemic dragged on.  

In particular, the rapid success of the Unofficial Bridgerton Musical highlights the potential for brands to harness the power of informal collaborations. As while the musical was created without the involvement or endorsement of Netflix or the Bridgerton creators, it still generated significant buzz and attracted a dedicated following, even though they ended up being sued.  

But the winning strategy here was the boldness in how collaborators offered a novel brand experience space in which they tapped into the creativity and passion of their fans — and built deeper connections with their communities. This approach could certainly lead to increased brand loyalty, and deliver valuable insights and feedback. 

Balancing brand risk and results 

Values such as sustainability and ethical practices have become exceptionally important to consumers. South African tea company Yswara collaborated with Kenyan luxury brand Soko to create a limited-edition tea set. This allowed both brands to convey their shared values of sustainability and ethical sourcing in an elegant and true-to-brand move. 

However, businesses must approach unofficial collaboration with caution. Without a formal agreement, it can be challenging to manage expectations and ensure that both parties are meeting their objectives. Additionally, there is the risk of diluting each brand’s identity and message if the collaboration is not executed properly. 

Brands also need to be careful not to infringe on any intellectual property rights, and should always ensure that any collaborations align with their brand values and messaging. Importantly, brands should be prepared to handle any potential backlash or negative attention that may arise from supporting or promoting unofficial collaborations. 

But despite these notes of caution, the rise of the unofficial collaboration presents a compelling opportunity for brands to engage with audiences in new and exciting ways. By embracing the passion of their fans, companies can create meaningful connections that can help drive success in the long run.  

Successful collaborations offer key learnings for companies and CEOs, including how to unlock the power of like-mindedness and true commitment to drive impact on key issues and causes that matter beyond just the needs of the organisation itself. Issues such as regulatory overreach, investments in communities and policy all are bigger than the self. It’s unlikely that just the “self” can solve them alone.  

By leveraging each other’s strengths and values, African companies can create relevant business experiences when both parties’ objectives are aligned around the desired results. Even more so, as businesses navigate how to merge entertainment and education as underlying brand experiences, we can expect to see many more of our brands choosing the path of the unofficial collaboration.  

The future value of agency-client partnerships will be unlocked by connecting the dots in unexpected and strategic ways to create measurable impact.  

Ima Peter is the business unit director and head of corporate at Razor PR. 

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