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As businesses they are solitary creatures and look with suspicion on rivals and other professional services that they believe are bent on taking their marketshare. And with many running as supremely profitable businesses, there appears to be no need to open dialogues with other companies. This is particularly true when it comes to that most jealously guarded asset, the company's name, brand and position.
Marketing is something that is done alone. This is not to say that firms are unwilling to work with others - the unspoken and under-utilised world of pro bono is an example of partnerships that benefit both the firm and the community. But marketing in conjunction with A. N. Other, well, it's a minefield.
Last week, utility company npower announced that it was teaming up with Greenpeace to launch an ethical electricity product for consumers. 'Juice' will generate power from onshore wind power and hydro-electric sources, adding a wind farm at sea by 2003. Next month's launch will see an international consumer campaign backed by that other ethical trademark the Body Shop. Juice follows hot on the heels of GreenPlan from Powergen and the World Wildlife Fund, which promises that for every unit of electricity a customer uses, Powergen will buy or generate the equivalent amount from a renewable source.
My aim is not to get into the minefield of ethical marketing - for some a hostage to fortune that distracts marketers from building brands, and for others, a chance to forge new relationships in a complex political-social world. No, the issue here is one of partnerships.
npower has built a new product. Whether it did this and then looked for an environmental name to attach to it, or invited Greenpeace in at an early stage, is unknown. The thing is, it knew from the start that this product would work only if it was a partnership. npower needed Greenpeace, it will be that brand that carries the product and does the work marketing npower.
Among npower's target audience, Greenpeace is a powerful brand. npower is unlikely to see the deal backfire with its partner suddenly being exposed as having anti-environmental credentials. Whether Greenpeace has the same security, only time and scandal-hungry hacks will tell.
This shows one of the problems of partnerships. Getting into bed with another brand carries the risk of that brand having skeletons in the closet, or the risk of it straying from the straight and narrow. It is not unknown for those brokering such deals to demand pre-nuptial agreements.
A second issue is control. Greenpeace and npower each have their priorities. It is not just the profit share or the relative size of logos that need to be managed, but the discursive. Who says what to whom? How is the new product communicated? How is its unique selling point positioned?
A third issue is the lifespan of the partnership. Both partners need to agree on the life-cycle of this incarnation and on any future developments. As well as the option of an amicable divorce, there needs to be plans at the early stages for how any children of the marriage will be brought up.
"A nightmare," I hear you cry - it is easier to let the marketing manager book ads on Chancery Lane tube, repackage the e-commerce team and maybe sponsor a cricket match or two. But this is missing the point. Juice will be a success because it does what neither partner can do alone, not just generate and sell ethical power, but generate and sell ethical power as an idea that is attached to npower.
Whether any firm would look to create an ethical legal product is an interesting question, but what of an e-business legal product in partnership with a struggling, but still highly powerful, IT name? What of a media legal product built with a business news provider or service? The question is to look at your customers and ask not just what new name they'd go for, but what names and images already resonate with them, then ask whether it's worth fixing up a date. You never know where that date may lead.