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Edition 2 · BS or Brilliant: A match made in hell

Updated: Nov 24, 2021


Certain things are better together


Avocado and toast

Me and pina coladas

Rave pants and the remote past

Spaghetti and everything

Apple and Target don’t belong on the list.

To recap, America’s first trillion dollar company deepened its partnership with Target, announcing an expansion of its stores inside 17 Target locations. Customers can expect an ‘elevated Apple experience’, and employees will receive specialized product training.

Our take? The move premiumizes Target, but takes from Apple’s cachet. Increased accessibility and exposure may boost Apple’s short term sales, but on a longer horizon this accelerates Apple’s journey to the bargain bin.

Apple’s as close as they come to a sacred cow in marketing.

It’s tough to imagine a more competent brand builder.

The brand has more iconic brand moments than Madonna’s got plastic surgeons. ‘Here’s to the crazy ones’, ‘1984’, ‘1000 songs in your pocket’, these are some of marketing’s highest achievements. Apple’s creativity conditioned an entire generation to ‘think different’.

Apple is a luxury brand. The brand earned itself luxury stripes with ultra modern brand temples in the most lavish of locations. Stroll along the ritzy end of New York’s 5th Ave and there’s Apple. Tokyo’s Ginza, Paris’ Champs-elysees, London’s Regent St, you’ll find them there too. The luxury cred comes in part thanks to the company’s vice like grip on distribution. Apple was the first electronics brand to go ‘all in’ on owned stores.

To bolster their luxe price point, they made clever use of partnerships, linking arms with premium-counterparts Selfridges and Hermes. Apple’s pathbreaking series of daring, idiosyncratic decisions earned it the title of America’s most valuable company.

But even the mightiest stumble. Apple. Selfridges. Hermes. Target. One of these is unlike the others. The entire internet disagrees, but here’s why this is a match made in hell for Apple.

Ubiquity is anathema to luxury: Over enthusiastic expansion is a well worn path to the graveyard of luxury. Looking for S/S 2021 Ralph Lauren, Michael Kors or Tory Burch? You might find them in the bargain bin at Macy’s. High priest of luxury and CEO of LVMH, Bernard Arnault says “If you control your distribution, you control your image”. Savvy superbrands know this already. Nike famously cut ties with many of its wholesale partners, opting to focus on direct distribution and owned channels instead. While Apple undoubtedly has a buttoned up agreement with Target, the brand won’t be able micro-manage its image and price like it does in its opulent stores. A quick Twitter scan reveals some consumers are already swooping up cheaper deals at Target. To draw again on our fancy Frenchman Arnault “affordable and luxury, these are two words that don’t go together”.

That’s not to say luxury and mass are oil and water. Missoni masterfully partnered with Target in 2011 to much fanfare. Generating an ocean of awareness for a brand that previously had close to none in North America. Under the right conditions, luxe and mass can partner in a way that creates excitement and energy for both brands.

And as Ritson noted in 2011, well thought out co-branding is as good as marketing gets.

So what makes a sturdy, iconic brand partnership? Alignment, novelty, and creativity are some of its hallmarks.

With their Target partnership, Apple looks a little more Tim Cook, a little less Steve Jobs. Logical and operationally-sound, but lacking the jazz-hands that make Apple, Apple.

What do you think, is this a good move? Or would Steve roll in his grave?


E.l.f is a brand on fuego . Their sizable success is a tale of creative commitment, smart partnerships and prodigious audience understanding.

In an industry obsessed with cookie-cutter, regurgitated segments — think 30-something, time-poor-but-beauty-loving-and-socially-conscious-mums, and urbanite-experience-guzzling millennials — e.l.f shines for seeing a shopper outside the bounds of traditional beauty.

E.l.f’s observant eye dates back to the company’s origins. The brand began after the founders noted women in beamers and benzes buying bargain cosmetics at 99 cent shops.

Since 2019, they’ve blazed a lucrative trail fueled by creativity. Here’s a look at some of the moves that earn them brand genius stripes.


An e.l.f social survey showed 70% of its followers play video games, and 65% like to watch game streams. This tidbit evolved into a partnership with Loserfruit,the second most followed female gamer on Twitch. The duo kicked off their partnership with a Youtube video where Loserfruit used e.l.f products to recreate her Fortnite skin. The pair will partner this year to launch e.l.f U - details are vague but it's an initiative that’ll support e.l.f’s ‘empowering others’ pillar.

Contrast e.l.f’s well thought out intro to gaming with Estee Lauder’s ANRcade, a branded microsite created to launch its new line of serums. The site features four product focused games, including product focused games, including ‘Beauty Bounce’, ‘Repair Racer’, and ‘Smooth satisfaction’. While Estee’s execution is cute (and undoubtedly pricey), their approach smacks of narcissism and navel-gazing. One of these brands understands the need to meet customers where they are, the other is a brand in love with itself.

But! We digress. Back to e.l.f..

Why stop with gaming when you can add guac? E.l.f. also partnered with Chipotle to create a chip-and-guac inspired eyeshadow palette. The novel match made waves and was picked up by everyone from Youtube megastar James Charles to Refinery29 to Food and Wine.

What makes this great? Chipotle and e.l.f.’s audiences are complementary, but not the same. As we know from ‘How Brands Grow’ (thanks Byron Sharp), growth comes from a brand incessantly introducing itself to new consumers. The atypical tie-up exposes e.l.f. to a pool of new potential shoppers and serves up interesting, new associations, all with a pang of unexpected delight. As with human unions, the best partnerships should make sense but also make you feel a little fuzzy in the babymakers... In a lovely example of continuity between initiatives, E.l.f tapped Loserfruit and other gamer influencers to help spread the word. Plus, this was the second time they paired with Chipotle. A smaller partnership last year saw them launch a makeup burrito bag. The brand scores top points for creative commitment from us.

And the numbers shout! E.l.f’s stock was up 45% YoY by the end of 2020. They moved into 2021 with, 6% market share, up 1 percentage point from the prior year.

The e.l.f team deserves a margarita with that guac.

Considering a brand partnership of your own? Check out our partnership scorecard. A tool to help you evaluate partners and boost their impact.

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