Awkward Alliances or Perfect Partners? – 3 Lessons from Bad Partnerships

Posted on: 31.05.2018

Awkward Alliances or Perfect Partners? – 3 Lessons from Bad Partnerships

Ever since the potential summit between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-Un was announced, I’ve been thinking about partnerships, and begrudgingly hoping this one works out.

I’m not feeling all that hopeful.

Since Trump cancelled last week, he’s been giving us mixed signals: Will they meet? Will they remain apart? Will they be charged for the catering?

There’s too many questions and not enough time. Anything could happen right now, including the small chance that they get on like a house on fire*.

So, to help the potentially happy couple – and anyone considering a similarly unlikely partnership – I’ve examined some of the weirder matchups we’ve seen over the last few years.


Even if you’re pitching to a rival, start on the right foot

Let’s start this off positively with a partnership that didn’t even pass the proposal stage. In 2015, Burger King asked McDonald’s if they wanted to build a McWhopper for World Peace Day.



Ironically, it was quite confrontational. And very, very smug. Just read their proposal. You can just smell the smugness. It’s very patronising. A little ego massaging is always necessary, but it’s hard to fondle a rival’s when you’re busy buffing your own.

Unsurprisingly, McDonald’s rejected the proposal. It ended up like Mayweather VS McGregor, a pantomime punch up rather than a duel of demigods.


The Lesson:

People can smell BS a mile off. And that doesn’t stand for Burger Sauce. It was obvious that Burger King were pulling a fast one by proposing a win-win scenario. If McDonald’s said ‘yes’ then the King could take credit for the idea. A ‘no’ resulted in Burger King taking the moral high ground, and a chunk of positive PR. Not KFC-chicken-drought levels of positive, of course, but positive nonetheless.


Don’t let your partner distract you from your real audience

Remember Apple’s iconic silhouette adverts, like the one soundtracked by U2’s Vertigo?



Cool song, cool ad. It bound Apple and U2 together as two innovative and outspoken brands. They had a ‘special relationship’ looking to ‘redefine the music business’, kicking things off with the U2 branded iPod.

It was the mid 2000s. We all had iPods and listened to the same U2 album on our free first generation earbuds. 10 years later we all had iPhones and streamed diverse and original music from new artists all over the world. Apple had lead the smartphone revolution, but was behind on the music streaming thing. And U2 had churned out some new guff and needed to grab some playtime now no-one was buying albums from Woolworths anymore.

So old friends U2 and Apple teamed up again to release U2’s new album for free, a tactic pioneered by digital evangelist like Radiohead. Unfortunately for us their ‘innovative’ idea was to stick it in everyone’s iTunes app. Without asking.

‘Thanks, guys. Saves us having to press download ourselves’ said absolutely no one. The backlash from the public was vicious, forcing Bono to make a weird apology ‘in the round’.

Currently, the state of the partnership is unclear. At one point they were working on a secret project together, but we’ve heard nothing since. I figure Apple have realised they don’t need old friends to succeed and can still produce cool adverts. And Bono is currently having a few issues with his charity, poor chap.


The Lesson:

Don’t hold on to partnerships that are past their best. Both brands got carried away and, even though the deal was intended as a goodwill gesture, it proved how out-of-touch they are.

For a start, Apple should have paired with a more relevant artist. What about Pharrell? Daft Punk? Or even, and I hate myself for saying this…Ed Sheeran?


You’ve got to have common ground, but also maintain it

For years one of the world’s biggest toy brands was partnered with one of the world’s biggest oil brands. They were an odd couple but it worked well, like Danny DeVito and Arnold Schwarzenegger in Twins. Lego produced Shell branded cars and petrol stations, which strengthened Shell’s brand presence and Lego’s global distribution.

Then in 2014, Greenpeace played on the success of the recently released Lego Movie to question Shell’s practices, and Lego’s ethics for aligning themselves so closely.



After the video went viral, Lego announced that it wouldn’t be renewing its contract with Shell.

Things can start well in a partnership, and go well for years. But at some point brands have to face the fact that ‘the times they are a changin’.’ Consumer concerns change too, and nostalgia is just not a good enough reason to stay together, just like it’s not a good enough reason to watch Twins again.


The Lesson:

Sometimes a partnership can be successful for years. But it can’t convince the public for long if there’s no longer common ground or shared values. We don’t expect Lego to comment on world energy policy and we don’t expect Shell to profess a joy for imagination and creativity**.


* Sorry for the apocalyptic expression.

** Shell have been trying to tackle this through their #MakeTheFuture campaign. If you want my opinion (you’re getting it anyway) I don’t hate it, I just find it dull.