Brand partnership insights with Christian Scott | Startups vs Nike, GoPro and Oakley
So, Christian, great to catch up. To start with please tell us a little bit about yourself and your background.
I went to Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles and studied marketing; and then I got my MBA at University of California at Irvine, really focusing more on the finance side there. I figured that I would have these four years of marketing with two years of finance, and that would be a well rounded way to look at global marketing.
I've always wanted to be in a global role. My first job out of college was with Nike in the licensed headwear division that rolled into NIKE team Sports. I spent 10 years with Nike in all different roles everything from marketing communications, retail marketing and sports marketing. I worked on a lot of different partnerships including formal licenses with the NFL, NBA, NHL and colleges throughout the U.S.
I also worked on retail partnerships. At one time in about 2005, 2006, the Finish Line was the number one retailer in the entire world for NIKE and I oversaw the retail marketing team. I really got a firsthand look in terms of what a partnership like that means to a global organization.
What an amazing place to start a marketing career and a great place to start.
It was a fast-paced, competitive environment and you sort of have to figure out your way. The culture is completely different. I played basketball in college and I played four years in Puerto Rico so for me it was just a natural fit.
When I walked in I just felt like it was normal. Everybody's fighting and elbowing their way and doing their thing but working together at the same time. That was really kind of endearing to me.
My last role at NIKE was in Oregon and with most of our family in California, I decided to move back. After 10 years, I left and joined an action sports company called Sole Technology. It is the parent company for the brands etnies, Emerica, éS, thirtytwo and Altamont apparel. I worked on several footwear and apparel product collaborations with artists, musicians and other brands including a licensing deal with Disney.
I worked with Oakley after that, another Orange County company, in men’s performance eyewear. I did a partnership there with Xbox around 2012, and the Microsoft group. Xbox was at the time looking to us to get eyewear authentically integrated into their games. We had Oakley eyewear in their Forza and Halo games.
Just trying to think back to what gaming technology was like back then. Back in 2012, something like that would have been fairly cutting edge. Right?
My first experience partnering with the gaming industry was when I was with Sole Technology. We worked with EA Sports on their popular skateboarding game integrating authentic footwear and apparel designs. They wanted the pro riders to be wearing their sponsored product so Ryan Sheckler would be wearing his entries shoe and things like that. We would provide the drawings and tech packs to incorporate into the game.
But with Xbox I got a good understanding of the overall business. Gaming started booming at that time and the possibilities seemed endless. You could do collaborations with the game, celebrity endorsements, experiential marketing, etc. It’s an entirely new media platform to connect with consumers.
There’s a big gaming trade show in Los Angeles where brands launch their new titles. I went to the Xbox launch on campus at the University of Southern California. They took over the entire basketball area It was the most intense show or launch I've ever seen. It was insane. They launched each title like a movie premiere with a 20-minute introduction. The arena was filled with bloggers on laptops typing away.
At one point Usher comes out to introduce a dance game he’s a part of and midway through his talk he starts dancing and he is completely synched up with the screen behind him.
The Xbox partnership with Oakley was a great way to broaden our audience. It was a heavy male focused, action sports brand connecting with a younger, more progressive audience in an authentic way. That's really what you're doing with partnerships. You're broadening your audience as much as possible. If I'm doing a partnership with someone that has my same audience, maybe we're doing it because it's great, nice, whatever, but it's not really introducing our brand to new people.
I worked at GoPro later on and oversaw the Lifestyle Marketing group – sports marketing, entertainment, resorts and specialty. We partnered with brands like Channel Islands and Catch Surf, which make sense. We’re both in that action sports world and we were aligning ourselves with like-mined brands.
We did an interesting partnership with Mattel. Hot Wheels created a car with space on top for a small camera so you could get a point-of-view perspective as the car wheeled around the track. Kids, and adults, would set up these crazy tracks, press record on the GoPro Session and let it ride. It was a fun, engaging partnership that brought two brands together with fairly diverse audiences.
I worked at a startup video camera company after leaving GoPro in 2020 called OPKIX. Partnerships is really how we grew that brand. It was a small company with little resources so we had to find athletes and brands that could help us tell our story. We put out edits on social media with pro surfer Mick Fanning and model Shelby Bay and did product giveaways with brands like Lume Cube and we would see our numbers grow overnight.
Today I’m the VP Marketing at Blenders Eyewear based in San Diego. It’s a DTC, ecommerce brand based on bold colors, positivity and having fun. We call it life in forward motion. We have a small but strong stable of athletes and a handful of partnerships. It’s a nine-year old startup brand.
So that's probably a long-winded way of saying there's my resume.
Looks like you've been involved with partnerships almost right from the very beginning, from day one as a young graduate marketer. One of your last comments is a particularly interesting comment that you think of it as a nine year startup. Why do you think of it as a nine year startup?
The brand grew fast and has been super successful and now we’re ready to take it to the next level. We’re looking to scale globally. Besides the U.S., we are set up in Canada, Australia, United Kingdom and Ireland with more on the horizon.
We’re building towards a truly global brand and it’s not easy. You need to have brand recognition in those markets to gain traction, pricing strategy, language dialects or translations, etc. We’re building the organization to make sure we’re successful in all aspects of the brand. We need to have the logistics and processes in place to continue our growth internationally.
Awesome. So while we're on Blenders Eyewear, it looks like the first partnerships are going to play a big role as you develop the brand and you enter new markets and double down there. You started with Yacht Week. Why was Yacht Week the first one off the rank?
Any time we enter into a partnership we start with the end in mind. It needs to be authentic and it needs to be integrated. It’s not a pay to play scenario but rather a true partnership where both parties benefit. The Yacht Week is a global organization with trips scheduled around the world in places like Croatia and Greece. It was a natural fit for Blenders with our Float2.0 line of floating sunglasses. These are our consumers, but with our brand so young internationally, they probably never heard of Blenders, until now.
Another natural fit are partnerships with brands and our shared athletes. Surfers Jamie O’Brien and Lakey Peterson ride for Blenders and GoPro. We’re able to talk to their audience, they get to talk to ours and eventually our audiences both get bigger.
So, as a smaller brand in comparison to GoPro, how do you negotiate that sort of partnership? I guess it's a little easier when you have those shared athletes. What do you do? Maybe this is the wrong thing to be asking because you spent a lot of time at GoPro and you obviously would still have a lot of relationships there. So you know who to call.
Can you step back a little bit and talk about that smaller brand engaging with the larger brand, if there's anything you learned about that when you've worked with the smaller brands?
My favorite saying is as the level of money goes down, the level of creativity has to go up. As a smaller brand, you had better be creative with your marketing or you’re going to disappear quickly. You need to look at all the levers at your disposal to make an impact.
Athletes with shared sponsors, in this case Blenders and GoPro, are an easy area to start with. Always start with the low hanging fruit. Get the small wins first and build momentum. Eventually you’ll be able to build off that momentum and take on bigger initiatives. Other partners will take notice and then the partnership conversations become easier.
I would also add take your time, do it right and do it in a way that’s authentic to your brand. There are a lot of ways to pay your way in. In that case, it comes down to whoever has the bigger checkbook. Usually it’s a one and done unless you can sustain it with money.
Partnering with companies bigger than yours can be tricky. It can come down to relationships, which are really important. Reach out to colleagues and maybe they can help. We’re all marketers in the same community and we want to help each other out.
It's interesting. I've really learned a little more about that California action sports industry grouping where people do all seem to know each other. It all feels very natural. When I talk to marketers in other countries, they don't really engage naturally with this partnership marketing model because they're very focused on the digital.
Do you have any advice on just how to go about that and how to think maybe a little bit differently, about partnerships?
I think that's a great point. I grew up in the sports / action sports industry and for us, it’s natural. We don't just sponsor the rider or event. We're actually there, too. And when you're at the industry events, you meet people and it starts to snowball.
It’s similar no matter what industry you’re in. Relationships are key. Be open, engaging and reaching out to other industry leaders. Be collaborative and attend industry events, in person or webinars. I still do this and I’m not afraid to reach out to people for help. Just connect with people
Look for partners where you’re going to help them as much as they’re going to help you. That’s a partnership. If you’re trying to connect with a brand in a way that only benefits you, that’s a sales pitch.
Yeah, a lot of great insights and I can't help but agree with all of that.
One thing I would just add to that Sven. I have two boys, and one's going off to university this year. The other is a sophomore in high school. I told them both, I don't care what you guys choose to do. You could be a veterinarian, you could be a doctor, you could be a janitor. Whatever you do, you have to be able to communicate with people naturally.
If you can't do that, it really doesn't matter. Communication is key for marketers, and if you're not good at it, take a class, read a book or do something. It took me a long time to be able to feel comfortable. A lot of times I still don’t, but I tell myself it’s a good life skill to have.
That's very much the reason for intribe’s existence. Make those connections a lot easier, a lot more comfortable for people. For marketers and founders where that sort of networking and asking for referrals doesn't come naturally.
The other side of it is that maybe you just don’t know. I’m sure there are tons of partnerships and collaborations out there for Blenders that I’m not aware of and that’s when networking is key. Discussing the brand with other marketers could lead to new growth opportunities.
Having a central location like Intribe is a great way to bring different brands together and speed up that networking process. You’re going to naturally reach out to your contacts, but a place like Intribe will bring together companies that you most likely haven’t heard of and didn’t know you could partner with.
That brings up a great point, because I see that a lot in traditional small businesses where they seem to fall into partnerships by accident. For example, a local hairdresser and the local cake shop, taking out an ad in a wedding publication and splitting the costs and really getting a lot of the benefits of partnership there. But then they just stop.
They don’t stop and think, well, if it works with the cake shop, why don't we get the local nail salon involved or a local limo service, and then think out of the box and get some sort of champagne company and do an event in-store. One of the things that I'm trying to do is really help people just broaden their thinking about what partnerships can be.
And that's why I think these conversations are so helpful.
I think it's great.
I want to ask about some of the smaller partnerships that you've done, but before I do that, I want to ask how complex does a partnership between Red Bull and GoPro get? Are they very technical? How many people are involved?
The GoPro and Red Bull relationship was one of the most technical contracts that I've ever been involved with. I wasn’t a part of the negotiations, only on the execution side. It was a global deal with Red Bull media house. They were going to incorporate GoPro cameras into all their events and help with content. It was complicated from the beginning and both probably bit off more than they can chew.
Red Bull media house had to start acting like a third-party vendor for the GoPro brand which was new across all their properties working through the nuances of the U.S., Europe and Asia. Not an easy task.
Theoretically this was a perfect fit but it was difficult to execute. We need to keep that in mind as marketers. We need to make sure we focus on initiatives that are impactful that we can execute well. Otherwise we can bury ourselves.
So who negotiates those contracts at that level like that Red Bull GoPro example is that a chief commercial officer? Obviously there are lawyers involved somewhere, but who's really driving that?
In a deal like this yeah, there are multiple people involved at all different levels. Obviously it has to get blessed at the CEO level ad from there different teams take over. I’m sure there was a lead negotiator on both sides but I wasn’t there when it was being negotiated so I’m not really sure. I’m guessing this one took about a year to get done.
It's a really good insight because it's not something that most people see.
So let's talk about some smaller partnerships. The first one that comes to mind is the Lume Cube and OPKIX partnership that you mentioned. How did that come about?
Lume Cube is a specialty brand focused on lighting for cameras and photography. It was a natural integration for OPKIX. We don’t make lights and they don’t make video cameras. Perfect. World Photography Day was coming up so a bunch of like-minded brands got together to do a promotion. It all came about because of an existing relationship.
Everyone promoted the prize giveaway equally across their channels including organic and paid social, email, etc. It was a good showing of video and photography brands looking out for each other. No contracts, negotiation, etc. It was just a brands working together in good faith making a cool promotion happen. Thanks Lume Cube for including OPKIX.
That's my favorite type of partnership for two reasons. One, because it really is that authentic and it's just brands helping brands, people helping people to be successful and, because it’s more than two. Secondly, when you add three, four or five like-minded brands together the amplification for any individual participating brand is huge.
It was great. It was a nice mix of big brands like Canon, specialty brands like Lume Cube and small brands like OPKIX. Someone in photography or videography probably doesn’t know all these brands so they’re being introduced across a large spectrum of companies in an area they’re passionate about. It worked out well.
The other one that I think of when I think of OPKIX is the partnership with Hetchy Outdoors. That felt a little more like a very even partnership, two newer emerging brands working together. Can you tell me a little more about that partnership?
Hetchy Outdoors is another small brand focused on outdoor living and hiking. We filmed with Nate, the founder, a few times to get content for our social channels. Hiking and OPKIX are a perfect fit. Hetchy Outdoors makes apparel and accessories and we wanted to collaborate and increase our exposure.
One hike lead to another and we finally decided on a giveaway. In this case OPKIX is larger than Hetchy Outdoors, but it’s such a great fit for our brand that it was a no brainer. Hiking is a community we wanted to connect with and Hetchy needed more eyeballs on their brand.
There's a lot of different things you can focus on with partnerships but at the simplest level when you do a one-off engagement with a brand that has a completely different audience, it's just like you're borrowing their audience for a moment in time.
Small experiments can be very powerful. You borrow each other's audience, do a bit of analysis. Did it work? How did it work? Were they good to work with?
That’s an interesting analogy. You’re basically borrowing their audience for a short period of time and now it's your job to connect with those people and have them crossover. Goal is develop an emotional connection with them quickly and then maintain that relationship with your brand initiatives. In a way, you’re starting over each time you reach out to a new audience.
Another way of looking at it is like a play. When that curtain goes up, you’ve got whatever time you’re allotted to connect with the audience. Once it’s over, and the curtain comes down, how many people are left sitting the seats? Did they leave? Are they applauding?
People still like to buy from the brands they buy from. They actually have a relationship of trust. And when another brand introduces a new brand to that audience, if they do it well, people actually still really listen to that.
It cuts through in a way that’s more powerful than advertising. When a brand that we trust introduces something we actually sit up and listen.
There’s a cyclist in Los Angeles, named Rahsaan Bahati, and he's a great human being. Ten-time world champion and OPKIX did some filming with him. Later on we were done and he was promoting his new cycling kit which helped to raise money for his charity, the Bahati Foundation.
I asked him if we could repost it for him on our OPKIX social channels. It had nothing to do with our brand but he partnered with us and I felt like it was the least I could do. Hopefully introducing this to 45k extra people helped him in some way.
For OPKIX, it’s a way for people to take notice of our brand. They’re not always trying to sell me something. It’s a brand that’s real and that I can trust. That’s the goals
Clearly, both of us here really love partnerships and see the benefits, but they're not always perfect. They're not always appropriate. Sometimes partnerships go bad. Do you have any experiences of partnerships that didn’t work out that you can share?
Of course. They don’t all go great. You have to think through them. Licenses for example, can be tricky. You sign a license so you can get the brand association and the rights to sell product, but often tines they come with heavy royalties, minimum requirements and other contractual obligations. If they’re multiple years, you have to meet that minimum each year otherwise it becomes a burden.
Sometimes a partnership just doesn't work out and it's nobody's fault. I find that having a simple agreement about how to exit a partnership if it’s not working, a few bullet points or an agreement to behave like good humans on the way out, I think is always helpful as well.
Exactly and just be upfront about it. It’s something to help both parties feel comfortable from the outset. It really should be beneficial to both sides and if done right, it will help the deal move along smoothly.
With all your years of experience with partnerships at different levels, what are your key takeaways? What would you say to a small emerging brand that is just thinking about partnerships?
First thing I would say is make sure you find partnerships that are not only beneficial, but you’re able to execute. Look for the ones that you can handle now. We talked about Red Bull and GoPro. That deal was just too intricate to make happen. Work with brands on initiatives that are digestible.
Consider the return on investment and/or effort. Is it turnkey or is it going to be a ton of work? You can gain a ton of momentum as a small brand by executing on multiple small partnerships. You also earn experience so you’re ready for when the bigger ones come along.
Focus on what your goals are and what it is your brand represents. Stick to that and don’t get distracted by brands or partnerships that are “too good to pass up”. It happens too often where we lose our way by opportunities that come along.
Blenders Eyewear is about being active, getting outdoors and having fun. We need to look through that lens when looking for brand partners. Partnerships should be brand enhancers and not brand deteriorators.
The bad thing with partnerships is there's so many of them out there and they can lead you in different directions. The good is there's so many out there that can lead you in the right direction. You just have to be patient and find the ones that feel right.
Thanks very much Christian, lots of great stuff in that.
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BLENDERS EYEWEAR: www.blenderseyewear.com