Strategic partnerships are one of the essential keys to operating, maintaining and growing a successful business. In a previous Inc article, I discussed 3 critical partnerships your business needs, outlining the connections that matter most for your brand's success.

Not all brand partnerships are the same, however. The type of partnership that your brand should invest in will depend on what you're trying to achieve. Is your brand simply looking to increase profit margins, or are you trying to build a better connection with your consumers? For instance, when thinking about costs and supply chain impacts - is it is it better to partner with a local manufacturer versus one overseas?

I recently spoke with six executives including entrepreneurs, marketing executives and c-suite leaders from the lifestyle consumer goods industries, to find out what type of partnerships fuel their businesses. I wanted to know what those partnerships looked like, the results they yielded, and what best practices they could shed light on for other entrepreneurs who are looking to take their brands to the next level. Here are their insights and some key takeaways:

DISTRIBUTION PARTNERSHIPS

"Packaging is important. It was our first distribution partner that gave us REAL feedback on our packaging and ultimately influenced our decision to place our product physically on the outside of the packaging. Our distributor also asked us about additional SKUs that could be add-ons to our primary product. This ultimately led to us adding pre-packed BRIPE coffee in sealed test tubes and our BRIPE torch. It helped diversify our product offering as well as gave us a better story to tell our customers and fans of BRIPE."

Matt Massey, VP of Marketing for Bripe

Takeaway: A distributor is one the most critical partners a brand can have. Not only is their expertise in helping expand the availability of your products invaluable, but their experience in the markets they serve puts them in a unique position to offer insights that can positively influence business decisions and positively impact the success of your brand.

BRAND INFLUENCERS PARTNERSHIPS

"Being the fastest and most accessible delivery service in the country, it is important that goPuff operates in the same spaces that our customers' favorite brands, teams, and influencers are. As goPuff continues to grow rapidly, partnering with large consumer packaged good (CPG) brands, sports teams, hotels and other influencers allows for us to connect with our existing and potential customers in innovative and entertaining ways. Furthermore, goPuff partnerships give the particular brands we work with the opportunity to provide more value to their customers because of our unique position within the on-demand industry. Our one-of-a-kind business model bridges the gap between want and fulfillment; it has constructed the opportunity for customers to be gratified at the exact moment of impulse. This gratification may take the shape and form of a customer's favorite product or the ability to enjoy a moment without the inconvenience of running to the [traditional convenience] store. It is for this reason that goPuff partnerships are crucial to the growth of our brand as we expand into new markets and cultivate our existing ones."

Rafael Illishayev and Yakir Gola, goPuff cofounders

Takeaway: Understanding your customer's needs and wants is a key to success for any business, but making sure your products - or services - are accessible carries just as much weight. Partnering with brands that can extend that reach, and through association, encourage trial and build trust, should never be overlooked. Don't forget that partnerships go both ways, so make sure to sell the value you're offering as well.

CONTENT PARTNERSHIPS

"As part of the growth team at professional networking app Shapr, our most important partners are content providers. With apps, your goal is to reach several people who will not only download your app, but also be active users. For this reason, we are selective in choosing partners to advertise our app. We look for high quality publishers and blogs who attract interesting professionals interested in growing their careers and networks, and who understand the meaningful networking message we are trying to convey. Your business partners need to understand your product and be excited about sharing your brand story!"

Mandy Menaker, Shapr

Takeaway: Exposure is important, but make sure it's with a strategic partner who is aligned with your brand messaging and values. A partner who can help convey those values and your brand's differentiators to the right audiences is incredibly important and will ensure you're getting not just visibility, but the right visibility. Moreover, as the saying goes, content is king. Having quality content providers who can amplify your brand message and drive engagement, is a competitive edge that can yield significant results.

CUSTOMER RELATIONSHIP PARTNERSHIPS

"While this may be a less obvious response, my greatest business partners are our customers. They provide us with honest feedback in terms of products, customer support, and often have very useful recommendations for new product ideas and improvement on existing products. While manufacturers and fulfillment center partnerships are important, it is imperative that customers feel respected and valued as without them there would be no need for a business entity to exist. Once customers feel that their opinions are valued and appreciated there seems to be the likelihood that they will become an ambassador of your brand which is something that not easily bought."

Craig Marshall, CEO at Hynt Beauty

Takeaway: Rethink how you view your relationship with your customers. Don't always treat that relationship as a one-way street where your brand is simply selling. Look beyond the revenue and express sincere, genuine interest in their feedback. You may be surprised by what they have to say and the business insights you will be able to pull from that information.

IT & TECHNOLOGY PARTNERSHIPS

"As a small business--with only 11 full-time employees--our most significant relationship is with Rackspace, the company that hosts our servers. It is an understated partnership but one that has lasted almost a decade. What it lacks in glamor, it makes up for in utility--as an eCommerce site, we're relied upon by millions of shoppers a year to provide offers all over the world as expeditiously as possible. That isn't done with a contract--it's done behind the scenes with live people from both our companies working constantly ensure a pleasant and seamless experience for our community. Establishing a near-perfect a customer experience for people in both Downtown LA and rural Alaska presents unique challenges, and candidly, the type of work we do with Rackspace is thankless and far from the recognition we bestow on our new business relationships. All the more reason then to celebrate almost a decade with a true partner."

Mike Catania, Chief Technology Officer at PromotionCode

Takeaway: When it comes to the long-term success of an online brand, backend technological operations are crucial. There's no room for error for online brands when it comes to selecting the right IT partner. Pay close attention to their services and capabilities, making sure they're able to scale with you as you grow and are equipped to handle traffic increases or unforeseen challenges that may arise. A rock solid IT foundation is a must - the customer experience depends on it.

MANUFACTURING PARTNERSHIPS

"We value the relationship we have with our manufacturer in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. As a business, I believe we offer an unparalleled customer experience because his interests and philosophy are aligned with ours. Many businesses look at the labor cost alone and don't even give manufacturing locally a chance. We appreciate the labor cost is higher in the US than abroad, but we believe quality, reliability, integrity and the ability to offer bespoke services for clients should factor into overall decision making. Long-term growth of a brand requires consistency but also flexibility. In less than one year we have already introduced over 50 SKUs and do not feel like we are 'hung' with excess inventory - an impossible feat if not for the valuable relationship we have with our manufacturer."

Jamie Lewis, Founder & Designer, JLew Bags

Takeaway: Manufacturing can be one of the most costly aspects of running a business and there are a lot of factors that must be weighed when choosing the right partner. Some brands may choose to manufacture overseas to help reduce costs and improve margins while some may choose to manufacture domestically for added control and flexibility. No matter what manufacturing partner you choose, ensure that quality and reliability are always top of mind and never sacrificed, as the customer experience and long-term success depends on them.

If you want to learn more about strategic partnerships, check out our resources page or download our our eBook, "Emerging in eCommerce: A 360° View From The Inside."

Published on: Apr 13, 2017