#CumArZiceSmiley (WhatWouldSmileySay) — cover art

10 Lessons Learned from Making a Pact with a Brand

There comes a point in your life when you shuffle off the training wheels and it hits you — this thing’s for real, there aren’t any limits to where you can go, up or down. It’s scary, and exciting at the same time, to realize you’re the maker of your own destiny, and it’s only up to you to get it right. That there really are no limits, used to be hard for me to wrap my head around: I’d read about so-and-so making a splash in one of the industries I cared about (tech and cinema), but always with the detached eye of the beholder — that scenario was at most a pipe dream for someone who’d always thought of herself as swimming in the shallow end of a micro pond.

So you can imagine just how low my jaw dropped when I got the chance to work on something as cool as anything I’d been reading about my whole life. (Well, second coolest, after SpaceX).

Dear app devs, have you ever seen, or used, one of the brand-endorsed apps out there and wondered, ‘Huh.. what would it be like working with a star of that caliber?’ Well, that used to be one of my pipe dreams, and, just three months ago, I couldn’t have imagined a world where I’d ever get a chance to experience a similar type of brand association to get my answer.

Then, this April, T-Me Studios co-founder Matei Pavel, one of those guys who said YOLO before ma-ma, went and made a deal with one of the biggest singer-songwriters in Romania, Andrei Maria, stage name Smiley. He’d be featured in one of our apps, stickchat, which meant he’d be drawn from scratch by our artists, and his face and lyrics would be made into 25 animated stickers that we’d published in the app, for our users to collect, modify, exchange, and share with friends. The campaign would run for a month and, out of the users who collected all 25 stickers, 54 winners would be drawn.

In other words, in my celeb-addled mind, Smiley was cast in the role of Kim, T-Me Studios would play Whalerock Industries, with stickchat going full-on method as Kimoji. And I got to work on this every step of the way: on the ideas for the stickers, the PR campaign, the social media activation and so on. I did get my answer, and then some — most of all, I learned a bunch about playing nice with big brands with a view to getting as much from the liaison as they do.

All these lessons, I’ve broken down below: as it turns out, not everything will be within your control, it’s always a bit of a trade-off, like with any relationship. And, while I wouldn’t classify the collab as a ‘tug of war,’ knowing when, how hard and which string to tug at, sure is key.


10 things I learned from partnering up with a brand

‘We were dreamers, now we’re winners’ — Smiley’s fans call themselves Smiley’s people, so we portrayed them in this sticker wearing T-shirts that said just that.
  • Choose a brand your users resonate with — The great thing about Big Data nowadays is how deep you can go when analyzing your following. As an app dev, you’ll know your demographics down to their shoe size (jk, but who knows what the future holds?) and if you know anything about anything, you’ll use that treasure trove of knowledge to give your users what they want. We figured out our fan base dovetailed with Smiley’s more than any other brand’s early on, and the partnership was a no-brainer after that.
  • Trust the Brand — That’s the first thing you learn, and it seems like a tough choice at first, seeing as you’re used to ruling the roost on your turf — i.e., the tech scene — but you don’t have any info as to the yardsticks in their’s, in entertainment, namely how the brand works, how fast they react and give feedback, and how much of that you’re to take at face value. Luckily, we trusted the folks at HaHaHa Productions, Smiley’s management, and they turned out to be as no-nonsense, open-minded and professional as us. (I did put my foot in it once, when I expressed my surprise when I saw Smiley knew the campaign hashtag when we did a FB Live for his 3 million fans (gulp!) — I ate humble pie and realized it’s true what they say about how you only make an ass of yourself when you make assumptions!)
  • Be upfront, transparent with the brand about your goals — This is where stickchat differs from Kimoji, which was solely developed for pushing Kim-centered content on fans, and especially their friends, in chat apps. When you’re a stand-alone app with not-so-modest world-domination goals — any app secretly harbors those — what you need to have in mind is you’re not a content farm for the brand you’re partnering up with. The talk about both your goals and the brand’s has to come first, even before inking the contract — your goals must not cannibalize each other, and ours surely did not: we needed this campaign to work for a case study of sorts, to see what the numbers would tell us about this MO, while Smiley’s team wanted to reach the younger generations where they lived, in chat apps, and convey their larger-scope, 1-year-long campaign that marked the 10th anniversary of Smiley’s solo career.
‘Open up your eyes!’
  • Don’t get starry-eyed about the brand — As a PR officer for stickchat, i.e. the counterpart to the brand in an equal-footing partnership, I had to clamp down on a few butterflies that went amok in my stomach when first meeting the brand. And I don’t just mean the man himself — for the longest time, Smiley’s team too, though they were all unassuming and down to earth, seemed like visitors from some far-off out-of-reach Sunset Boulevard. I guess entertainment people always do. But whatever vibe they give off, and however much you’re into the brand personally, fangirl-ing is only going to mess with your compass when what your team needs is for you to keep a steady course and your eyes trained on your campaign goals. (I’d advise imagining the brand in their underwear to calm your nerves, but on second thought that would surely backfire if you were working with, say, Jared Leto!)
  • Don’t obsess over iffy KPIs — At the end of the day, if you chose it right, the brand’s bound to have different results on the metrics you’re also hoping to crush with your app. I’d get hung up on ‘fair-weather fans,’ the ones who just installed the app for the duration of the campaign, just for the chance to win a VIP backstage pass to Smiley’s anniversary concert. But that’s the whole idea of enlisting a tween whisperer’s help: it adds cachet to your app, and users that, sure, you have to work to keep, but with marketing and remarketing making such great strides these days, it’s hardly Sisyphean. So, instead of comparing apples and oranges, remind yourself constantly that it’s the brand’s massive following that drew you to it in the first place and… enjoy the smoothie!
‘Many think I’m brill’ — all the stickers featured lyrics from Smiley’s songs
  • Learn everything you can — To expand on the previous point and take it to its natural conclusion, you have a great opportunity to study the brand, its tone of voice, its inner workings, the whole how-to behind their crush-worthy image, so grab it with both hands! If you focus on where your paths converge, rather than how they diverge, you’ll realize people are people across industries and your new best friend, the Brand, knows what makes them tick, and click, so why not study and emulate the brand? While you’re at it, make a point of actually asking for pointers — now that you’re pals, you don’t need to be lurking in the dark figuring their moves out, you can go right to the source!
  • Take the time to celebrate a special relationship — Having said all the above, I should point out that we were particularly lucky to partner up with Smiley and his people, all of whom are digital-savvy millennials and showed a genuine desire to help. They pushed the campaign in the artist’s TV and press interviews, on all of their social networks and even got a few celeb friends to jump on the sticker-sharing bandwagon. That’s going above and beyond, which you won’t see brands do very often. When you’re fortunate enough to work with a like-minded entity, remember that 90% good is as close to perfect as it gets, and take the time to recognize your next one will probably not be a rinse-repeat kind of affair. Also, do mark your good fortune with a thank-you shindig, for instance.
Smiley with a cameo from Pavel Bartos
  • Power through mistakes and make corrections on the fly — Do you know how people say it would be so great if there were an Undo button for real life? Well, every PR person who’s ever sent out a press release is among those people. There’s nothing worse than having it go out with a mistake and then, having the brand call you up with the correction. I wish I could tell you I was quick to act when that happened to me — but, as non-committal as it sounds, it’s exactly how I’d describe my first reaction to the botched release. Now, with the benefit of hindsight, I can preach about keeping a clear head and not burying it in the sand, but in the moment, I was paralyzed with rage for what felt like hours (but, judging by the timestamps of the emails I sent to the media outlets, was thankfully just a few minutes).
  • Come prepared, but don’t get too hung up to pivot — Any press officer or marketer worth her salt will tell you the most important thing to plan for is… anything. Thinking on your feet is paramount and, while you’ll do well to have a plan, namely a content calendar, in place before the campaign kicks off, you’ll also need to be prepared to adapt it on the fly, especially with your brand partner top of mind. When Smiley was in the news for releasing a new single, we were ready with a newsjacking post of our own that brought the social chatter around to our campaign. That led to the realization — predictably, perhaps — that none of the social posts and guest posts I’d devised in the abstract, beforehand, could have achieved the results of that one well-timed piece of content piggybacking on brand news. The lesson here is, don’t assume that just because you’ve done your homework weeks in advance, the painstakingly-thought-out content is automatically sure to perform better than something you put out at a moment’s notice.
‘She’s a looker, but that’s about it’
  • Your suPRpowers are only as good as your overall involvement — Everybody pitches in at every level in a startup, so even when the campaign was just a gleam in Matt’s eyes, it was all hands on deck. I suppose other companies will take a different approach, but for us it was important having all the creative types in the war room together, and that includes yours truly, strategizing and thinking up the app content (the campaign stickers). For my part, I’m convinced that being hands-on from the get-go was crucial to the deployment of the campaign later on. We ended up with a surfeit of content and a bunch of ideas that I could repurpose along the way, which I wouldn’t have even known about if I’d just been handed the end results of the brainstorming meetings.

When all’s said and done, I’d say the biggest takeaway from our #CumArZiceSmiley (WhatWouldSmileySay) campaign is that a brand partnership is as much about controlling what you can as it is about going with the flow. It’s a fine line to tread and, between keeping up with the brand’s own PR moves and making sure your Facebook messaging badge stays green, you can’t count on getting much sleep for the duration. But I found the rewards, in terms of the usage and status boon to our app as well as my own professional growth, well worth it.