So, you’d like to have a brand collab

Collaborations with home furnishings brands can elevate interior designers’ reputations and may boost their incomes.

They can even be fun — if you maintain realistic expectations and put details in writing, say both designers and brands who came together to talk about “Navigating Brand Collaborations” during last month’s Vacation Rental Design Summit in High Point.

The ‘Navigating Brand Collaborations’ panel included Tom Van Dessel (from left), Dann Foley, Lindsay Schleis, Margie Kaercher and Kristi Hopper. Ericka Saurit moderated the discussion.

The panel included Dann Foley, a Palm Springs, California-based interior designer who has licensing deals with a number of home furnishings brands, among them StyleCraft;  Kristi Hopper, founder and principal designer of Kristi Hopper Designs in Lewisville, Texas; interior designer Margie Kaercher of Tampa, Florida-based Hearth & Honey Homes; Lindsay Schleis, vice president of business development for outdoor furniture source Polywood, based in Syracuse, Indiana; and Tom Van Dessel, owner of Splashworks, an art reproduction, graphic design and printing studio in High Point. The panel was moderated by Ericka Saurit, founder of Saurit Creative, a strategic brand marketing firm.

Here are some key takeaways from their conversation:

* Assess what’s right for you at this stage of your career. Brand collaborations come in several types, starting with small deals with brands to feature their products in design projects. Through influencer partnerships and brand ambassadorships, designers tout brands via social media, at markets and in other forums. The most complex — and potentially lucrative — collaborations include licensing deals in which designers lend their design expertise and name to lines, whether capsule or full collections.

The panelists agreed that a “crawl, walk, run” approach often works best, with designers and brands beginning with small collaborations and building from there.

* Be secure in what you have to offer brands. You don’t have to be a celebrity designer to benefit from brand collaborations, Kaercher said. “I’m living proof of that. Anyone can land brand collaborations. Brands see value in micro influencers, which typically have anywhere between 5,000 and 15,000 followers,” she said. “So, it’s not like (you have to have) 100,000 or 200,000 followers. In fact, (for my) brand collaborations, I probably have their smallest audience, but I landed them because of quality content.”

Kaercher recommended putting together a media kit that explains a little about you and your firm, including career highlights and your audience’s key demographics. “I always put a few photos of my work in there,” she said, “and, at the end, I add something personal — a little about my personal life and philanthropy and things I like to do.”

* Join the club. If you’re new to brand collaborations, Kaercher suggested researching brands’ current marketing initiatives. Do they have partnerships with other designers or influencers? Before making an overture, be sure it’s the type of company you want to be associated with. Kaercher noted that she crossed a company off her list of possible brand partners after ordering a product from the company and discovering that its customer service left much to be desired. “Their communication was so bad that I’d never in a million years want to work with them,” she said. “I can’t have my brand associated with that. So, there’s a lot to consider before doing any partnership.”

* Focus on what you love. A good first step in forming brand partnerships is to approach the brands you love and regularly use in your projects. Among other collaborations, Hopper has deals with bedding, bath and apparel brand Cozy Earth. “I bought a set of sheets on my own and loved them. They are life-changing sheets,” she said with a laugh. “… I give every client Cozy Earth because I love them so much. So, it makes sense to have a collaboration with them.”

“If you like the products, let them know and see how you can help them,” added Hopper, who also has collaborations with Harp & Finial and Geometry.

* Form genuine relationships: “We invest in our partnerships and collaborations,” Pollywood’s Schleis said. “If we’re partnering with you on a project, we’ll bring you to our campus to meet our CEO and see our process firsthand. It all starts with trust and relationships because, ultimately, we need to feel comfortable with each other at the chemistry level in a one-on-one relationship. But it’s also about meeting each other’s needs so that we’re both successful.”

Splashworks’ Van Dessel noted that one of his company’s most successful partnerships is with a designer who “really understands our capabilities.” “… We’ve become her go-to and that’s an ideal collaboration because you’re doing project after project after project,” he said. “You learn to work together.”

* Put the details in writing. Hopper told the audience about a partnership she had with a luxury bedding brand that fell apart when the company abruptly “changed direction” and the details of their arrangement hadn’t been formalized. “The lesson I learned is always do a contract,” she said. In addition to compensation, such contracts should detail deliverables, timelines and deadlines, the panelists said.

* Be prepared to work hard. “I’ve never met a designer in any market who didn’t want their name on a product — who didn’t want a licensing deal,” Foley said. “The thing you need to know is that licensing is really, really hard. … I still run a design firm because that’s where I make most of my money, so I go to work early every single day before the rest of my folks get in because I literally need a couple of hours on the phone with the East Coast to review product.”

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In addition to designing products, Foley also devotes time to tracking sales and, during furniture markets, meeting with sales reps.

As your brand collaborations grow, Foley suggested hiring an agent to handle contract negotiations.

“What really made (collaborations) work for me, to create a highly successful and legitimate brand was having an agent,” said Foley, who also has licensing deals with nearly a dozen brands, including A&B Home, Phillips Collection, Orchids Lux Home and Loloi.

* Be realistic. Licensing deals aren’t as lucrative as you might think, Foley said. He now has more than 600 SKUs with StyleCraft, and it took reaching nearly that stage for the partnership to be a significant source of income.

Foley said when he’s considering licensing deals now, he focuses on a company’s distribution. “How far do they send the products? How widespread are their sales? What are their markets? Now I’m looking for companies that have international distribution,” he sais. “It’s about volume and moving product.”

The panelists agreed that brand collaborations can be a great way to expand an interior design business but noted that they are most successful when you approach them with the right attitude.

“Don’t do it because you want to make a living,” Foley said. “Do it because you love it.”

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