SXSW 2018: Why collaboration is part of the DNA of cult brands

Michael Lastoria (&pizza) and Christina Tosi (Milk)

Michael Lastoria (&pizza) and Christina Tosi (Milk)

Cross-brand collaboration can be the oxygen of running a brand in 2018’s turbulent retail environment, said Madewell’s Libby Waddle at SXSW this weekend.

The brand’s president joined a group of pioneering US companies, including &pizza’s Michael Lastoria, Milk Bar’s Christina Tosi and Soulcycle’s Melanie Whelan, to talk about the importance of teaming up with like-minded individuals as the key to running a successful cult label.

What all four companies have in common is a fiercely loyal customer following, which has enabled them to create lifestyle ecosystems that expand beyond their initial product and service offering. Collaborations have been key for customer acquisition by introducing the brands to an entirely new audience, the speakers discussed.

Programs such as Madewell’s Hometown Heroes and &pizza’s Little Giants, not only spotlight local labels, but create a deeper bond with communities who want to engage with brands that micro-target their interactions and enable a sense of belonging, they noted. This strategy has also been an essential element to avoid fatigue from the consumer’s standpoint, and allow the companies to stay on top of their game.

Madewell's Hometown Heroes

Madewell’s Hometown Heroes

For Tosi of Milk Bar, partnerships have allowed the brand to have more ownership in spaces consumers wouldn’t normally associate Milk with. Once they gained the consumer’s trust, it was easier to begin introducing new products that at first seemed left-field, she said, such as a protein-based cookie in collaboration with SoulCycle (while the bakery is famous for indulgent and sugar-filled treats).

Beyond the product itself, the overarching theme was how collaborations have kept consumers constantly coming back for more. In a landscape where there is on-demand access to goods at the touch of a finger, introducing new moments to ‘surprise & delight’ consumers is key, said Soulcycle’s Whelan, who introduced co-branded Jonathan Adler candles to the studio’s changing rooms very early on.

The conversation also focused on how collaborations are key to nurturing the wellbeing of employees internally, which is something Lastoria is a fierce advocate of. The &pizza founder says it is often the company’s ‘friends & family’ who introduce them to new products, and it is vital to their culture that he understands he is there to serve his employers first, and the customer second.

As for the secret sauce for running a cult brand, Lastoria said it is about being human and ensuring your business is wildly personal, which is often something CEOs forget about.

Soulcycle’s Whelan added that when you ensure you are the best part of someone’s day, cult-like interactions happen naturally: “When you can make it about someone else and brighten their day in some way, that’s when the tribal nature starts to take hold.”

Meanwhile, Tosi’s approach balances business acumen with a hint of rebellion, which has enabled her to create a booming baking empire: “Once you learn to paint by numbers, you have to figure out a way to colour outside the lines.”