Roots Corp. has been doing collaborations since before they were cool.
Just ask Karl Kowalewski, head of the Canadian brand’s leather factory since the company was founded nearly 50 years ago.
He’s designed shoes for Richard Gere and Eugene Levy, a leather goods collection with writer and visual artist Douglas Coupland and more recently a varsity jacket with The Weeknd and the XO brand.
Some of the collaborations were commercialized. Most weren’t.
“We’ve always been passionate about human connection and building relationships,” Roots president and CEO Meghan Roach said during a recent interview. “It’s been part of the ethos since day one.”
What started organically for retailers like Roots is now a massive part of the industry’s product innovation and brand marketing strategy.
Canadian retail heavyweights like Lululemon Athletica, Canada Goose and Aritzia have all introduced collections created through collaborations. The limited-time products often generate hype and sell out quickly.
Newcomers on Canada’s retail stage, like upscale outerwear company Moose Knuckles, are even hiring executives specifically to head up collaborations.
“Every time you do a collaboration you create something new that’s never been done before,” said Julia Yu, senior director of collaborations for Moose Knuckles.
“Collaborations let us leverage other people’s creativity by allowing them to play around with our iconic outerwearpieces.”
The partnerships often involve established companies teaming up with up-and-coming brands or famous celebrities like musicians or athletes.
Unlike a simple endorsement, where a celebrity might wear a clothing item or feature a product on social media, creative collaborations involve a coming together of minds, retail experts say.
The idea is for two brands, or individuals, to develop something that’s greater than the sum of its parts.
The appeal for established retailers is to stay relevant with existing customers while attracting new generations. For new brands, teaming up with a bigger player can help them reach a wider customer base.
While some partnerships are a true creative collaboration or involve a cause or charity, many boil down to money and marketing, retail expert Bruce Winder said.
“Money is a big part of collaborations,” he said. “Some of these partnerships are absolute home runs and generate a ton of profit. That’s why we’re seeing so many of them.”
Sometimes collaborations see high fashion designers merge with mass market brands, like Balenciaga pairing up with foam clog maker Crocs.
At other times, musical artists join forces with apparel companies, such as Drake and his clothing brand October’s Very Own, or OVO, partnering with luxury parka maker Canada Goose.
“The perfect collaboration is achieved when two brands working together create products that neither partner could build independently,” said Woody Blackford, chief product officer with Canada Goose.
“Working with new collaborators allows us to use fresh and distinct perspectives, inspiration and skills with the creative minds of our internal design team.”
While collaborations are now proliferating throughout the retail marketplace, the approach has been around for decades.
Classic collaborations involve an apparel heavyweight teaming up with an athlete superstars like Nike and Serena Williams.
“These types of collaborations are mutually beneficial and strengthen each other’s brands,” said Charles de Brabant, executive director of the Bensadoun School of Retail Management at McGill University.
Some of the “tie ups” are short term, like when two apparel companies come together to offer a limited-time “capsule collection,” he said.
The novelty aspect of the collaboration helps drive interest and sales, de Brabant said.
At other times, like when a sports brand signs an athlete, the partnership can last decades, he said.
“Tie ups with individuals can last a long time,” de Brabant said. “That’s why whenever you collaborate, you want to ensure the values align.”
The proliferation of collaborations in the marketplace makes finding the right partner essential, said Tamara Szames, Canadian retail industry adviser with The NPD Group, in an interview.
A collaboration that lacks a clear vision or cohesion between brands can leave consumers feeling jaded, she said.
“That’s why authenticity is crucial for a successful collaboration,” Szames said. “When a legacy brand is trying to chase what’s trendy and it’s not authentic to their DNA, the consumer can read through that.”
But when it works, a successful collaboration can “cut through the clutter,” Winder said.
“Collabs can be a really powerful way of increasing your exposure as a brand,” he said. “It’s also a way for some brands to reach younger people.”
Tim Hortons’ collaboration with Justin Bieber has largely been credited with bringing a younger demographic to the coffee and doughnut chain.
When the limited-edition Timbiebs Timbits were rolled out, Tim Hortons’ chief marketing officer said there were lineups outside of restaurants.
“Kids would go on their lunch hour from school and be lined up around the building,” Hope Bagozzi said in a recent interview.
Part of the reason the collaboration worked so well was its authenticity, Winder said.
The Stratford, Ont.-raised pop star said he “grew up on Tim Hortons” and was reportedly deeply involved in product brainstorming, testing samples and choosing the final recipes for both Timbiebs and Biebs Brew.
“The collaboration between Justin Bieber and Tim Hortons worked because it feels credible,” Winder said. “I’m sure he was well paid for it, but it felt authentic.”