The PINE team has been spending some time in China. In our industry there is a lot of press and discussion on China. Alibaba, Ten Cent, Bingo Box, 1.4 billion people, cashless society and more.

We had been to China before but hadn’t seen the most recent changes. We decided to invest in ourselves and make the trip. If we aren’t willing to invest in ourselves how do can we sit across from clients asking them to invest in working with us? And if we don’t have rich experiences at a global level how will the work we are doing be the best possible for our clients? Somewhat rhetorical questions but you get the point. We lined up dates, found an Airbnb and bought our plane tickets. We knew the experience would take us out of our comfort zone, stretch us and help us grow.

For those who don’t know us, we are consultants. We advise brands in the areas of research, strategy and design; adding value that drives their businesses. We know consultants’ outputs are only as strong as their inputs; experiences, projects and problems solved. The answers and inspiration to impact a business aren’t on Google, they are not in the news and they are definitely not on social media.

So far, we’ve spent time with locals, business heads and old b-school friends and have tried to weave ourselves into the society during our stay (breakfast at Family Mart), with one of us indulging in the local delicacy of Chicken feet. All the while staying on top of our project work (the beauty of a connected world).

We even got the chance to facilitate a research session with an MNC exploring the Chinese Post 95 (those born after 95) consumer. The China they were born into is vastly different than previous generations.

We still have plans to spend time with some expats living in Shanghai, visit some more local Chinese retail and go to Hangzhou to visit the headquarters of Alibaba. Expect to hear more from us on what we have learned and if you have anything you think we should check out before we leave definitely let us know.

Btw, none of us has had the guts to try pig snout.

History has shown time and again that brands achieve great success from finding partners that align with them and/or complement their offer. 
The 1 + 1 = 3 calculation of sorts.

In the marketing world, this is commonly referred to as Complementary Branding or Co-Branding for short. Defined as “when two companies form an alliance to work together, creating marketing synergy” as described in Co-Branding: The Science of Alliance.

People love a good duo (see Sonny & Cher, Hall & Oates and Milli Vanilli to name a few) and the branding world is no different. Partnering with the right brand can create new attention and interest and drive additional engagement all the while introducing you to new markets and audiences. We have seen successful partnerships in recent years across a range of product categories including Ro-Tel + Velveeta, Nike + Apple, Pottery Barn + Sherwin Williams and BMW + Louis Vuitton. These brands aimed to forge long-term partnerships each could leverage over the course of time, and they succeeded at doing so.

All that said, we think it’s time to flip the script to win, enter Contrast Branding. We are not advocating that brands completely shy away from finding a expected partner to drive increased relevance, experiences and so forth, but the world has changed. Gone are the days where Print, Out of Home and TV were the key vehicles to reach consumers. Brands now face an almost insurmountable challenge to stand out in today’s overcrowded environment where consumers are inundated with messaging everywhere they go. It is time for brands to re-evaluate who they partner with and how they evaluate the success of those partnerships.

So what is Contrast Branding? It’s a partnership between two brands that a consumer would likely never think of having connection with each other. The goals of contrast branding remain the same but it flips the traditional approach. Until it spreads and becomes the norm, Contrast Branding done well can have the stopping power that brands need to stand out and establish relevance in the marketplace.

While this is not an entirely new concept and also not necessarily a simple task, if a brand can truly create a Contrast Partnership it will stand out in a way that Co-Branding cannot. It will create relevance, conversation and experiences (e.g. social currency) for a brand, while also exposing it to incremental audiences well beyond a traditional partnership.

Take Dodge + Hello Kitty for example. On the surface it sounds a bit ridiculous, how would this ever work? But when you dig a bit further, Hello Kitty did $6.5B in licensing during 2015 alone. This particular type of Contrast Branding partnership might not create synergies that foster a 10+ year ongoing partnership and that is completely fine in today’s environment.

Still not convinced? Challenge yourself to think differently and push your brands further. If Star Wars + CoverGirl can partner, why can’t Hennessey + Vineyard Vines, Taco Bell + Southwest Airlines, Rice Krispies + Sriracha or Lululemon + Mich Ultra?

Girl you know it’s true, disruption breeds opportunity! Get contrasting!

Michael Reda is Partner of Strategy and Business Development at PINE.
His first concert was Milli Vanilli & Young MC in 1990.

Our clients are faced with a range of challenges in the changing competitive landscape yet Voice continues to be a source of discussion in meetings. It also feels like you can’t go more than a few minutes without finding something about its relevance, impact and (potential) power.

Some industry leaders are wondering if Voice will be the death of brands. Others are taking a more pragmatic approach. And, JPMorgan Chase is committing by naming VaynerMedia as their Voice Agency of Record. A bit more searching and I would find a myriad of other takes and honestly, don’t know if my brain can handle that.

So with all of these hot takes spanning such a wide range, how do you make sense of it all?

I don’t know that you can (fair warning) right now.

Voice seems more noise than form or function at the moment and it is way too early to tell how it will impact our lives overall, let alone how it will impact the role of brands. I do know that no matter how it comes to life, Voice will cause significant disruption and with disruption breeds opportunity. And we personally believe Voice is much more of an opportunity area for brands than it is a death sentence.

Brands will have to deal with a world in which a consumer can simply say “Alexa, order more detergent”, but will they be willing to have an Amazon Basics arrive vs. their preferred brand?

Early on, we don’t see consumers willing to sacrifice quality. But assuming Amazon’s product prowess delivers on its promises and can match or exceed quality where it matters, Voice will most certainly level the playing field if shoppers just rattle off the product type, “Alexa, I need dish soap”.

But if brands are willing to stick it out, continue to develop products that consumers value and can do so before Amazon makes a duplicate, Voice offers retailers and brands some potentially innovative ways to drive ongoing consumer engagement and loyalty. What if a food brand could provide you simple recipes through a certain voice command that is linked to the packaging? Or if that awkward sound you get when you squeeze an almost empty bottle of ketchup was able to be purchased by Heinz, specifically to trigger re-order (think bidding on key sounds, not keywords). And the myriad of other ways Voice could equate to opportunity.

Be excited (I know I am), we live in a unique and very challenging time for marketers, retailers and brands. But with every challenge comes opportunity.

Michael Reda is a Partner of Strategy & Business Development at PINE.