Grow Your Food Brand by Building Partnerships the Right Way

Whether you’re a startup just getting off the ground or a seasoned player in the food industry, building partnerships is a great way to make connections and grow your reach.

Partnering with others brands can be a great way to reach a new audience. It can strengthen your brand values by piggybacking on someone else’s fanbase.

But understanding the value of partnerships and knowing how to go about building them are two different things. At Eco & Beyond, we’ve been building partnerships since we launched the publication in mid 2015. It’s been a slow and steady learning curve of what to do and what not to do.

In this “lessons learned” post I want to take you behind the scenes and offer some tips of what’s worked well for us over the years.

Here’s the highlights:

  1. Pick partners who share similar values and audience
  2. Always look for the win-win
  3. Build a process around reaching out
  4. Use a customisable email template
  5. Keep your pitch short and sweet
  6. Make the most of every opportunity

Pick Your Partners Wisely

Choosing the right brands to partner with is an important first step. You’re likely picky about your romantic partners. So business partnerships should be no different – just don’t get into bed with them!

Partners may approach you or you may approach them. Either way, you need a way of assessing whether they’re a good match.

If you’re a food brand that has a very clear purpose, values or mission it should be easy to determine if the potential partner shares these traits. If you’re all about reducing single use plastic you’re unlikely to partner with a company that sells plastic bottles of enriched water. That’s an easy no. But sometimes it’s not as easy to determine whether a brand is worth partnering with or not.

At Sapling and Eco & Beyond we approach a lot of brands for partnerships. We’re approached by a lot of them too. Whether we’re reaching out or someone comes to us, we ask the following questions to assess suitability:

  1. Is the individual/company/brand ethical, sustainable or good for people?
  2. Do they have an audience that’s a similar size or larger than ours?
  3. Do we want to work with them?

The first one weeds out the majority of people who reach out to us. You wouldn’t believe some of the bizarre requests we get!

You can pose a similar qualifying question for your business. Just replace “ethical, sustainable or good for people” with your most important brand values or attributes.

The next question deals with size. If you’re looking to use partnerships as a growth strategy, size does matter. It’s not about sheer scale, it’s all relative. If you’re looking to grow you want to partner with brands that are at least the same size as you are – preferably slightly larger.

If you’ve only got a couple of thousand followers then don’t go chasing partners with followings of six figures. They will likely not be interested (they too will be looking for partners with similar or larger reach).

If you’ve got a small but highly engaged following, this is something valuable to a relevant brand. Even if their following is larger than yours, it can be still worthwhile for them to partner with you. Reach out to start a conversation. The worst they can do is say no or ignore you. If that happens, just move on. It’s not personal. It’s business.

Our last qualifying question is perhaps a bit strange. This is here for people who approach us. Maybe they tick the first two boxes but we’re just not that into them. (The dating metaphor continues!)

Collaborating with someone for any period of time takes work. Make sure you actually want to work with them or the whole experience will be less than enjoyable.

Building Partnerships Is All About Finding the Win-Win

The best partnerships occur when everyone gets what they want out of the experience. It’s all about finding the common ground where each party benefits. It’s all about the win-win.

If you’re the one approaching a potential partner it’s best to have an idea of what you want out of the partnership. It’s wise to have a couple of suggestions up your sleeve. Then you can offer a range of options and your partner can choose the one that works best for them.

If you’re looking for inspiration for the kinds of partnership activities you can do, have a read of this post on 7 Ways to Build Partnerships with Other Food Brands and Influencers.

Once you’re armed with the type of partnership you want to build, it’s time to take the next steps. These are to make a list of potential partners, contact them and collaborate.

Build a Process Around Reaching Out

You’ve got a set of criteria to judge potential partners against. You’ve got a load of creative ideas for how to work together. Now you just have to put yourself out there.

Approaching people cold can feel a little bit awkward at first. Once you get into the swing of things and get a good idea of the kinds of messages that people respond positively to, it gets much easier.

Here’s what I do to get into a flow with partnership building. First, I create a spreadsheet with a list of all the potential partners. Next, I contact them one by one using a personalised email template.

In the past I would pick the first partner, write an email and send it. Then I’d go to find the next partner, write a similar but different email and send that. I’d then go looking for the third partner – and so on.

I found that the searching kept interrupting my flow of sending emails. I would have to overcome the awkwardness of contacting someone every time I got to the “send an email” step.

Splitting the process into two steps helped me compartmentalise and focus on different tasks at different times.

To start with, my job is to find a bunch of suitable partners and add them to a spreadsheet. Easy. Next the job is to email a bunch of people from a list. Easy. When you have a simple process to follow, it’s much easier to get into a state of flow and get the job done.

Keep Your Pitch Short and Sweet

When contacting people out of the blue, one of the first stumbling blocks is knowing what to say.

I have learned two things when it comes to the initial contact:

  1. Say as little as possible while still getting your point across
  2. Use just enough of a personal touch to prove you’re not sending a mass mailout

People are busy. They get lots of email. They have people looking to take, take, take all the time. There’s a far greater chance of getting a positive reaction if you keep it short and give as much as possible (remember the win-win?).

From a personalisation standpoint, I’ve tried a whole range of tactics. In my opening email I’ve tried referring to recent (positive) news about the company. I’ve tried commenting on their social posts before reaching out. I’ve tried mentioning a mutual contact or how I got their details.

While personalisation can be a good way to build rapport, it breaks the “say as little as possible rule”. It can often make your opening message bloated.

Try to add enough personalisation to prove you’re not a robot. But favour short over personal every time.

So you can get an idea of what I mean, here’s the exact email template I use when connecting with new partners for the first time.

Subject: Interested in collaborating?

Hi, {{ Contact First name }}

My name is {{ first name }} and I’m on the partnerships team at Eco & Beyond, a family-focused food website helping people fit sustainable choices into their busy lives. We love what you guys are doing at {{ Company Name }} and I’m getting in touch today to see if you’d be interested in collaborating with us.

We’ve worked with all sorts of brilliant brands over the last couple of years on content swaps, guest posts and competitions. Would you be interested in partnering up on any of these?

Hope to chat soon

Cheers
Guy

There may be room for improvement here but so far this email performs well. In the last week I’ve seen 80% open rate and an 65% click rate from 10 emails. Not bad.

There is a small amount of personalisation – the text within the curly braces. This is automatically filled in by the CRM tool we use (HubSpot, if you’re interested). HubSpot also automatically tracks opens and link clicks. And the paid version gives you even more insight into the effectiveness of your emails.

I like this template because it’s short, friendly, and personal. It’s up front about who we are, what we do and how we could potentially collaborate. All that remains is to discuss options and agree the scope of the collaboration with your contact.

Make the Most of Every Opportunity – Even the Bad Ones

Once you’ve secured a partner, hammered out the details and started working together, one of two things happen. It either goes well or it doesn’t.

Fortunately I’ve not had any disastrous experiences yet. Some projects run smoothly, some less so. Some people are a delight to work with, some are a little more challenging. It doesn’t matter whether you have a good relationship or experience a few bumps along the way. It’s just important to make the most of every partnership.

Maybe you don’t reach the tens of thousands of people you hoped for? Perhaps you gave more than your partner gave back? Or, maybe you dropped the ball on something?

Every experience is a learning experience. Next time you’ll be more prepared. You’ll know what questions to ask to avoid known risks. You will know what to expect and will have experienced the whole process from end to end.

There is always a risk that things don’t go to plan. Just try to choose the right partners and look for the win-win. In my experience, that will set you well on your way down the right path for a fruitful collaboration.

If this is a strategy you plan to use in the future, I’d definitely recommend building a process around it. This will help make sure all the necessary steps are covered. And it gives you something to adjust and improve as needed in the future.

Good luck with your future partnerships! If you’d like to collaborate with us at Sapling or over at Eco & Beyond, do get in touch and we’ll take it from there.