Startups seek to make a splash on a budget with product collabs & giveaways

This story is part of a week-long editorial series in which Modern Retail breaks down how businesses are getting scrappy with building their brands. More from the series →

As more brands are trying to make a splash on a budget, they are joining forces to cross-promote products. 

Collaborations are nothing new. However, according to companies that are partnering with other brands on giveaways or co-branded products this summer, it’s a relatively inexpensive way to capture new customers. As digital advertising becomes more challenging, emerging brands have ramped up collaborations with like-minded startups to harness the reach of organic marketing. According to brands currently experimenting with partnerships, these creative deals can be brought to life much quicker than other forms of national marketing campaigns. Moreover, co-branded products, pop-ups and giveaways make it much easier to create and execute splashy marketing rollouts without blowing their allocated marketing budgets.

Kids meal delivery Little Spoon is one DTC company rolling out a series of co-branded products this summer. The effort began with an Oatly partnership this month, and another product that will incorporate Graza’s olive oil is coming out in July. Similarly, sparkling water brand Aura Bora has been on a recipe collaboration spree over the last couple of years, creating a non-alcoholic olive oil martini with Graza. Now, this month, Aura Bora is partnering with fellow California-based brand P.F. Candle on a sparkling water flavor, inspired by P.F. Candle’s popular watermelon chili candle.

Little Spoon, Aura Bora and Graza are just a few of the many startup brands seeking out each other’s audiences to grow.

For younger brands trying to acquire customers online, product collaborations can be more cost-effective than traditional advertising. “We are never going to — nor do we want to — compete with the national media budgets that exist in our space,” Caryn Wasser, chief brand officer at Little Spoon, previously told Modern Retail. Wasser said. As such, limited-edition product drops and influencer partnerships help brands like Little Spoon reach more people. “We’re being very coordinated in the timing of these rollouts to make sure we’re creating strong, high-reach moments that draw a ton of brand attention and website volume,” Wasser said.

Digital advertising is now “very expensive and inefficient” 

Meat delivery service ButcherBox is tapping a legacy name for one of its latest collaborations. On June 13, ButcherBox unveiled a BBQ kit with aluminum foil maker Reynolds Wrap, just in time for summer. “2024 [is] the year of the partnerships,” ButcherBox founder Mike Salguero told Modern Retail, “mainly because direct-to-consumer advertising has become very expensive and inefficient.” 

That’s why ButcherBox is among a number of DTC brands trying to acquire customers more cheaply, now that Meta ad costs have increased by double digits. Crossover partnerships with other cooking-focused companies will be a bigger part of that strategy. 

According to ButcherBox the “BBQterie” kit taps into online food trends, as it features a charceutrie-inspired recipe guide. The kit was curated by food board expert Emmy Rener, and includes ButcherBox favorites like chicken wings, premium steak tips, and all-beef hot dogs, in addition to Reynolds Wrap’s heavy-duty foil.

Salguero said that the Reynolds deal “will be a test” for ButcherBox on how well limited-edition meal kit collaborations can help convert new customers. Bringing in new customers through partnerships is a big goal for ButcherBox, but it’s not the only success measure the company is considering. The hope, Salguero added, is that the collaboration with a popular national brand like Reynolds will also attract existing subscribers as a seasonal purchase or gift. 

Salguero said that in the past, ButcherBox had found success in digital content collaborations, such as an increase in social media engagement. The company has partnered with other DTC brands geared at cooking, like Graza and Caraway. “But this Reynolds collaboration is the first co-branded product we’re selling on the site,” Salguero said. 

As for expectations for conversion, Salguero said the company will monitor the BBQ kit’s sales performance. “We’re hoping it will appeal to enough people to try out ButcherBox and lead to more brand collaborations in the future,” Salguero said. 

“Low-lift, high-impact marketing” 

Food brands in particular are finding collaborations as key to acquiring customers on the cheap.

Italian-American food company Monte’s has been leaning into brand partnerships as an authentic way to position itself as a lifestyle brand with roots in authentic family recipes. This strategy is being applied to promote the new Monte’s pasta line, which launched in April. Brand collaborations are also part of Monte’s bigger strategy to rely less on paid advertising, and build more of a digital following. 

The company launched with its sauce in 2019 but is ramping up retail distribution this year with the addition of dried pasta.

Founder PJ Monte said the idea is to execute “low-effort, high-impact” campaigns that cross over into lifestyle content and appeal to a wider audience outside the food world. Other partnerships included a tasting event at Pop-up Grocer and a collaboration with wine brand Nomadica on a “drunken pasta” recipe and giveaway to celebrate the launch. 

Monte’s also recently collaborated with fashion brand Staud to promote the launch of its dried pasta across social media. The company created custom “Staud” lettered pasta, which was served at the Memorial Day luncheon celebrating Staud’s new Hamptons store. The luncheon was held at Monte’s’ Montauk restaurant and was attended by a number of celebrities and influencers, and received a boost through coverage by Vogue. Part of the partnership included the debut of a Monte’s-inspired version of Staud’s popular Tommy Bag, featuring a tomato print on the front and a spaghetti detail on the back. The bag has since sold out and is set to be restocked on Staud’s website. 

“I’ve known [Sarah] Staud for almost 15 years, and we’d been wanting to do something together,” Monte said. He added that while the tomato handbag isn’t the most obvious collaboration, the two brands share a similar target audience. “Chances are the person shopping at Staud also shops at Erewhon, where we’re sold.” 

Monte said it can be easy for brand collaborations to “come off as cringe,” especially among young people savvy to brand marketing tactics. But when done right, these partnerships can be mutually beneficial for the brands involved. “I hate to use the word ‘lifestyle brand’ but it represents the content and collaborations we do to draw people in,” Monte said.