LJ Gutierrez’s head is full of Pokémon, frozen pizza, and Legos. At Universal’s branding division, her 35-person team obsesses over musical side projects, such as a white-label pizza for which she’s recently locked in an artist partner.
“The frozen pizza industry has just skyrocketed through Covid!” she muses. Gutierrez is the general manager of Universal Group for Brands (UMGB), where testing frozen pizzas is not one of the more challenging aspects of her job — though it sure is satisfying. “It’s been so fascinating to see the way music and brands have changed over the years,” she says. She’s been at UMGB for 19 years, and has watched her team expand from two people to 35.
Brand partnerships exploded in the digital era, as fans’ lives moved online, and they’ve gotten experimental. Universal has partnered with Lego to sign a DJing llama to a record deal, orchestrated a Post Malone cover of a Hootie and the Blowfish song for Pokémon, and paired the Jonas Brothers with Lenovo for a virtual concert that fans could “control” from their screens, voting on songs and competing to design posters. (Universal was also behind Lady Gaga’s Chromatica-colored Oreos.)
In Covid-19 lockdown, consumers have been spending more time at home than ever before. As a result, Guitierrez says consumer goods are at the forefront of business’ minds. Her German teammates had the idea to launch the white-label frozen pizza line last year: An artist could name the product, help design the box, and pick the flavor profile. Guitierrez plans to mimic the model in major American grocery stores in 2022. While she can’t yet reveal which artists are on board, she says she dug through data to find out what genre of music the majority of frozen pizza buyers were listening to — and then looked for pizza-loving artists within that.
The longtime branding expert remembers a time when the red-hot deals with Coca-Cola, Walmart, and CD stores ruled her universe. The landscape underwent major shifts when the music industry moved into the digital download era. Before iTunes rocketed into ubiquity, her team at UMGB launched the first branded download store for a partner, creating a unique microsite with MasterCard. “It was one of the first multi-year partnerships that was ever done between music and a brand,” Guitierrez says.
As the Internet’s power evolved, so did the scalability of her partnerships. Before, it was hard for a lot of brands to make commitments to certain artists because packaged goods could require 24 months of lead time, she says.
“When you look at where we are today, we’re not just supporting a partner,” she says. “We’re actually creating products with them.” She points to Lego, with whom her team developed a masked star based on a Lego llama figurine and created a new music platform that can be most-easily described as a TikTok for kids. She believes brands’ openness to collaboration, which she’s seen increase significantly over the last two decades, has led to artists being “not as scared of the space.”
She adds that partnerships in general are more interactive and experiential than ever before. And while alcohol and travel deals were all the rage a few years ago, she says all eyes are on food and tech now. She also gets an abundance of requests for behind-the-scenes content series, as well charitable tie-ins.
Gutierrez describes a Marriott deal, which was announced in 2015, as the proudest accomplishment from her career so far, calling it a “huge undertaking.” “It was the first time we were looking at doing a true portfolio-to-portfolio partnership where we were partnering all the brands under Universal Music Group and all the brands under Marriott International,” she says. “When you look at a lot of hotel loyalty programs, they’re focused on sports and free nights. We were able to create these truly unique experiences like bringing consumers to Dubai to see Gwen Stefani and having a stylist session before the show… All the way to things like attending a cooking session to create vegan cookies with Billie Eilish at Coachella.”
The Marriott partnership was a win-win, because UMGB was able to “use our artists and platforms to help introduce their brands to a younger consumer.” Gutierrez fondly recalls surprising Art Basel attendees with James Bay and Chvrches performances at the Ritz-Carlton, as well as taking over a whole hotel and “turning it into a music venue” during SXSW. Partnering with a hotel brand also just felt natural, given that artists spend big chunks of their lives hopping from city to city. “The one thing that I can’t stress enough to anyone that we’re having a conversation with is ‘authenticity,’” she says. “You don’t want to create a partnership where you’re putting a square peg into a round hole because all you’re going to do is alienate the consumer by doing that.”
Authenticity was a big part of the year-long Pokemon 25th anniversary partnership that Guitierrez played a role in. All of the artists on the compilation album, for example, grew up with Pokemon. She argues that cultural moments like Darius Rucker talking about Post Malone covering Hootie and the Blowfish for Pokemon on Good Morning America can’t happen without authenticity and collaborative mindsets.
The Jonas Brothers’ deal with Lenovo was one of her favorite projects. The band had only recently gotten back together. Their fans were thrilled — but the band suddenly couldn’t tour. So, the parties came up with the For All Creators program, which was centered around a virtual concert — the visuals of which fans could control in real time. Fans could also vote on the set list. In the time around the show, there were contests to design show posters, website visuals, and exclusive merch. They were also able to give back in a crucial time for giving back by donating proceeds from the auctioning of some merch to Feeding America.
Many more artist-brand partnerships are in the works at UMGB; “a lot of them have to do with how artists have changed, how they work and how they’re recording, how they’re communicating with each other,” Gutierrez teases.
Even as the pandemic ebbs, Gutierrez is confident partnerships will keep gaining steam: “We have a lot of collaborations and recordings that are happening virtually, and not everyone’s in the studio together. So you’ll be seeing things in the future that tie into that.”