I recently took a Finnair Airbus 340 from Hong Kong to Helsinki.
Tired and thirsty, I was dreading the long trip home. But once on-board it all washed away, if only for a few minutes.
I had been caught off-guard. In a good way.
The cabin had been transformed by Finnish fashion icons, Marimekko. Crew uniforms, headrests and sleeping accessories were boldly patterned. There was a cute amenities kit styled with the label’s trademark Unikko print. The in-flight shopping catalogue included an exquisite sushi service – exclusively crafted for Finnair.
Marimekko is a label with a cult following, especially in Asia. Brands from H&M to Converse and Fatboy have sought out its Scandinavian purity, colour and nostalgic coolness for special capsule collections.
But in the context of Finnair’s cabin, Marimekko’s distinctive aesthetic adds extra specialness. It’s immersive, harmonious and welcoming.
“By joining forces, Finnair and Marimekko created an out-of-the-ordinary experience.”
By joining forces, two Finnish institutions created something out of the ordinary. They built a heightened brand experience that delights the senses. It invokes feelings of inclusiveness, luxury and desire.
Participating in something special entices us to feel a little more special.
What Consumers Know
We humans like to think of ourselves as sociable creatures.
But even if we crave acceptance and friendship, meeting someone for the first time almost always puts us on the defensive.
If someone confronts us who we sense has a need or an agenda, our guard is raised.
That’s the relationship most brands find themselves in most of the time: one party is anxious to consummate a relationship, while the other is guarded…maybe even blissfully unaware of the brand’s affections.
Even the most curious consumers usually go with one of three options when it’s time to buy: what’s cheapest, what’s most convenient or what they know.
It’s in the last area – what consumers know – where brands can learn from social dynamics and how our brains receive and process new information.
Understanding peoples' passions and tastes allows marketers to bake sweeteners into products and services that improve their social flavour.
“Showing an audience a product that encapsulates their interests, inspirations and tastes gives brands social charisma.”
By using Marimekko as a sweetener, Finnair provides a model example of how to use external influencers to give services and products social currency.
Over the last decade, new realisations about social behaviour have revolutionised communications and customer relationships.
Yet the true contribution of social context to persuasive brand experiences reaches far deeper into the marketing model than an Instagram account.
Marketing managers can seek to control context by buying up chunks of time and space. But if the goal is to get a brand to nest in the consumer’s consciousness, there are less costly, more elegant ways of making the connection.
“Once an idea has taken hold of the brain it’s almost impossible to eradicate. An idea that is fully formed – fully understood – that sticks; right in there somewhere.” Cobb, Inception (2010)
To understand how, let’s get back to the subject of personal introductions.
Whenever the experience of meeting someone new is lubricated by context, it puts us at ease. The inbuilt flaws of interruptive advertising are easy to recognise in a social context: who warms to a person who enters a party uninvited, beating his chest and boasting for 30 seconds?
Social lubricants can include an introduction from a trusted friend, or a setting where common interests or values exist. In these contexts we lower our guard. Not only that, we’re also more likely to pay attention to new experiences and show interest.
Brands increasingly exploit this dynamic in their communications, but too few recognise the relevance of context to how they curate products and services.
Baking special content into familiar products can have a profound effect on a brand’s social appeal. Exhibiting a certain attitude and swagger creates a more engaging context.
Content that resonates with existing tastes and beliefs can make products and services more endearing to consumers. It connects with them emotionally and rationally, often times in moments when they are at their most vulnerable.
Showing consumers a product that encapsulates their interests, inspirations and tastes gives brands social charisma
A Better World
Marimekko’s cachet makes it possible for Finnair to pull off the ultimate magic trick in branding: by confounding passengers’ (already high) expectations, the airline succeeded in creating a promise of a better world.
In this better world, the airline’s attention to detail is abundantly obvious. It’s a place that’s memorable, shareable and remarkable (i.e. it gets remarked on). It allows Finnair – and destination Finland – to enrich its identity and demonstrate warmth, design sensibility and savoir-faire.
“Like a good host at a party of strangers, Marimekko provides a gateway to discovering Finnair’s essence.”
If Finnair had used any other tasteful duotone floral theme to decorate its cabins, I’m sure it would have charmed some passengers, but purely on a visual level.
As a brand that has been regarded fondly for generations, Marimekko is more than a visual aesthetic. It connects intellectually and intertwines with consumers' refined sense of taste. Marimekko's mojo is what makes us feel more engaged and included. It's precisely what gives Finnair's initiative its specialness.
Only two aircraft carry the Marimekko makeover but the collaboration has enjoyed wide exposure. Extensive coverage in travel and design channels has included articles in Huffington Post, Wallpaper* and Architectural Digest.
Oh, and since the partnership launched in 2012, both companies have been earning profits from sales of an exclusive collection of accessories – mementos destined to spark conversations in kitchens and dining rooms around the world for many years to come.
Making Products Social
Finnair’s flirtation with Marimekko is a very good brand collaboration, but it’s no isolated example.
Collaborations are most prevalent in markets where consumer passions run hot.
Music and art are the classic domains, but so are personal expression categories like accessories and shoes. In these businesses, news about collaborations breaks almost daily. For many of them, such campaigns have become a cornerstone of their differentiation strategy and a vital tool for remaining relevant.
Everyone knows H&M’s designer collaboration mega-events, but brands like Eastpak, Liberty, Vans and Moleskine also make powerful use of collaborations to boost their relevance, reach and affinity.
Outside of these high-rotation businesses, few marketing and communications teams devote energy to conceiving or developing brand collaborations.
Many lack project management resources or know-how but for most companies, brand collaborations are not even on their radar.
Some understand the possibilities but are afraid of risk, dissonance or loss of control.
Indeed, when Finnair was briefly embroiled in a plagiarism dispute with a Ukrainian museum, it was a useful reminder of how collaborations can go wrong without sufficient foresight and governance.
A 2013 BCG report on luxury sector trends observed an important shift under way. Luxury brands – normally cast as the ultimate control-freaks – increasingly view themselves as inhabitants of a broader ecosystem. Maserati sports cars are outfitted by Zegna; Leica is making special cameras with Hermès, Moncler and G-Star; Montblanc and Samsung are making products for each other. It’s a report entitled “Controlling Your Brand While Letting It Go”.
As luxury brands discovered, brand collaborations offer pay-offs that are too big to ignore. Rather than devolving control, they generate the type of social resonance that makes products and services shiny and remarkable.
“Luxury brands increasingly view themselves as inhabitants of a broader ecosystem.”
Collaborations work. In fact, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that collaborations like the one between Finnair and Marimekko create ROI beyond the horizons of conventional marketing and communications.
The idea that Finnair’s campaign pays for itself (at least in part) while creating reach, meaning and stickiness seems too good to be true. But efficiencies can always be captured when marketing actions align with natural patterns of social behaviour.
Building Persuasive Products
Collaborations are most persuasive when they come across as intuitive and legitimate.
Whenever the host brand's desire to express itself seems effortless and the guest brand is perceived to be applying its creativity in a satisfying new way, a kind of alchemy occurs.
Notoriety is an important active ingredient in brand collaborations but it’s not the only one. Lesser-known names with a unique voice or authority can also be powerful agents for remixing products or giving a familiar formula a new lease of life.
“Brand collaborations add to our sense of discovery by moving narratives in revealing new directions.”
Limited editions, designer collaborations, diffusion collections and co-branding are examples of innovations that generate tangible, experiential outputs. They add to our sense of discovery by moving narratives in revealing and satisfying new directions.
They are socially relevant because they carry in-built visual, verbal and value content that overlaps with what consumers know and trust.
The ability of brand collaborations to deliver heightened experiences at low cost makes them an ingredient that should not be ignored.
The fact that they increase both leads and conversions should interest not only brand and marketing directors, but sales and finance management as well.
Gavin Brown is a marketer and growth-hacker based in Spain, M2M´s brand strategic partner. He tweets about brand innovation at @CrescendoBrands