How to start working with brands (for bloggers/instagramers)

One of the most common questions I get from aspiring bloggers and friends alike is: how can I work with brands? I was struck with this question for months when I was first getting started in the blogging world too. It seemed super intimidating to approach a brand and being approached by a brand myself seemed impossible. Once I got my first few collaborations under my blogging belt I started to get the hang of it and understand the ins and outs of it all.

Before we get started, there are two things we have to get sorted. First, by no means am I a collaboration expert and of course I can’t guarantee your success. Second, before reading any further you have to promise to follow my collaboration rules to make sure no one gets hurt here:

Sugar and Sam Collaboration Rules

  1. I will not agree to a collaboration with a brand I don’t like or am not genuinely excited to support
  2. I will not agree to a collaboration if I don’t have any intention of posting or following through with the terms of the collaboration both implicit and written
  3. I will not accept a collaboration that could negatively impact another part of my life now or in the future

Agreed? Great, let’s get going.


Saturday morning #hotchocolate and blogging at @rossocoffeeroasters. 

A post shared by sam 🎄 (@sugarandsam) on

I posted a lot of coffee photos to try and show off my brand prowess before my first collaborations. I’m still posting coffee photos now because who can resist latte art?

Where do I even begin working with a brand?

Before any brand will start reaching out to you or accept your collaboration advances, you need to first show off your collaboration prowess. Think of it like this, if you’re a food blogger and all of your photos are of food you have baked without any branded products shown, how will any brand know what to expect from a collaboration with you? The remedy to this is simple: start photographing and intermittenly posting about brands you love. Not only does this help you practice your purposeful photo skills, it also allows you to learn what your followers like and don’t like AND shows prospective collborators that you can take a kick ass brand photo.

How do I know who to reach out to?

Once you feel like you’re feeling pretty confident that you can rep a brand you need to identify brands that you think would be good to work with. First and foremost, pick brands that align with what you post about. If you’re a fashion blogger but you really want a collaboration with Campbell’s Soup…that’s probably not a realistic pick. But if you’re a fashion blogger and want to work with a local clothing brand then that probably makes a lot of sense. Think beyond your general category too and think about what you represent. Do you post light and colourful photos? Are they more dark and moody? Take a look at prospective brands feeds and see if they align with yours. Not that they have to be identical, and not that if you’re dark and moody you can’t work with light and colourful, but there needs to be at least some connection there. Conversely, what are their values? Are you a family blogger who posts about your partner and kiddos messaging a company who regularly makes Tinder jokes? Or one that also loves to post about kids. You guys get the gist.

Unless you have insider knowledge, there is no way to tell if a brand is open to collaborations or not until you ask. Don’t be scared of rejection – you’ll never get anywhere if you don’t at least try.

How do I collaborate with a small business?

One of my biggest blogging pet peeves is when people take advantage of small businesses. Whenever you work with a small business you need to consider that whatever free product you get is literally taking money out of someones pocket. As long as you follow through with the terms of the collab then it’s worth it for that business. But if you’re defying it and not posting (or posting poor quality photos) then you’re just stealing. I have a lot of friends in the small business world and they talk…everyone knows who the bad bloggers are who take product and never post about it until the maker follows up (then they post and delete it after an hour). Don’t be a bad blogger.

Anyway, working with small businesses is my absolutely favourite part of about the blogging world. You have the opportunity to rep a brand that’s fresh and cool while making a material difference in the success of someone’s business. The best way to snag a collab with your favourite small business is to start by being their fan, then slide into the DM with your pitch.

One sure way to get yourself rejected is to try and initiate a collab with a brand who you don’t even follow. Be a loyal follower and a true champion for the brand (reminder of Rule #1). We all notice the people who like and comment on our posts regularly and when that person is a blogger it’s especially notable. At the same time, this is a great way for you to learn about the brand and see if you really would be a good fit for the collab. Bonus points if they notice you and reach out to you first!

Now that you know the brand, love the brand and are ready to collab it’s time to slide into the DM. I can’t tell you exactly what to write because every time I’ve approached a brand it’s been a unique message, but I can tell you this: introduce yourself, say what you love about the brand, and conclude with what you want to do. It’s totally fine to ask for a collaboration generally and work out the details later. Here’s what not to do: don’t message them and talk about how awesome you are then say send me free stuff.  And never, never ever copy and paste your message to a ton of businesses…they will see right through you.

A question that came up was: “Am I obligated to buy product before asking for a collaboration to show my appreciation?” No. Absolutely not. A collaboration should always be a mutual relationship and if a brand ever says “go buy my product at full price then we will talk” then this isn’t a brand you want to work with. Also don’t feel obligated to post specifically about this brand before asking for a collaboration. Does buying their product and posting about it in advance help? Certainly. But in no way is this mandatory.

One of the first big brands I worked with was Coach. When I received the email I was so shocked that I legitimately thought the email was fake until the bag arrived at my door. 


I want to work with big brands!

Here’s the thing with most big brands: they use PR firms. Here’s the thing with PR firms: they use programs to find bloggers to collaborate with based on their engagement and following. This doesn’t mean that having 1,000 followers means you will never get noticed by the big brands, it just means that you can’t slide into their DM and expect results. The best thing you can do to get yourself noticed by the big guys is to keep posting quality photos, keep building your following and focusing on engagement. Every collaboration that I’ve had with a big brand has been a result of them contacting me and none has been a result of me reaching out (have you had a different experience? I’d love to hear about it!).

But how about mid-sized companies? Take a look at some mid-sized companies and send them an email similar to how you would with a smaller company. Mid-sized companies get less requests for collaborations and are more likely to manage their influencer programs in house. Also a lot of mid-sized companies have affiliate or ambassador programs so always make sure you do a quick google before cold emailing them. Hint: check out Manitoba Harvest’s ambassador program for a great example of a mid-sized company that is awesome to work with and will give you a good taste of the ambassador experience.

I was given a discount code, what now?

So you reached out to a brand and they gave you a discount code instead of free stuff. Don’t panic – this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. A lot of brands get bombarded with requests for collaboration and may have been hurt in the past by bloggers who took advantage. Some businesses offer a blogger discount instead of free product to both protect themselves and to facilitate the massive number of inquiries that they get. Here’s my rule with discount code collaborations: if this is a product that you would buy anyway, take the discount and post about it. If it is a product that you wouldn’t buy: say thank you and move on.

Am I addicted to @glossier? It’s possible. #noshame 

A post shared by sam 🎄 (@sugarandsam) on

I still post lots of branded photos that I don’t get any compensation for. I always want to be sharing brands and products that I love no matter if I’m compensated/given free product or not. 


What should I watch out for?

You are going to, if you don’t already, get messages from people all over the world offering you discount codes, affiliate deals and to become a consultant. It’s easy to get excited about being noticed (and you should) but you need to keep level headed when you’re reading these offers. Here’s what to watch for:

Situation: A random brand that you’ve never heard of and hardly has any photos randomly messages you and offers you a discount code with no strings attached and no posting requirements.

What to watch for: Some people will try to take advantage of eager bloggers by offering discount codes on marked up products. The scam is that you buy their product for say $5 after discount, but really the product is worth $0.50 so they make money on you. Again the rule stands: if you want the product and feel it’s worth it’s value then get it, if not then don’t bother.


Situation: You are offered a discount code and commission in exchange for promoting the product.

What to watch for: In most cases, there’s nothing shady about this. You promote the product and make commission, and the brand benefits from your sales. Be aware that the product you purchase and the photos you post may not result in a huge return of commission. There is a risk that you may not profit or make your money back in commission. Also be aware that if you push a product too much you may annoy your followers. Prime example of this model: #Sandcloud.


Situation: A person contacts you and ask you to sign on to be a coach or join their team.

What to watch for: While this can be extremely complementary, in most cases this is a current consultant for a brand like Shakeology, Beauty Counter, Monat, or any of the other gazillion similar companies. I won’t get into this since it’s super contentious but just make sure you know what you’re singing up for before you do. Some people love these companies and have been successful by them, but just as many have spent a lot of money that they never got back.

Honestly, I just want free stuff.

Thanks for being honest. In our big internet world there are solutions for you to get free stuff without having to do the whole cold email/wait for them to notice you thing. There’s a website called Influenster that will literally just send you free stuff in the mail for you to post about. The better you do at posting and promoting the product, the more free stuff you get. You can even leverage your Facebook friends list (all those friends from High School coming in handy) to up your follower number. I honestly tried this and hated it because I felt like I had to post about something no matter what I thought of it…so I didn’t post about it and quit the website. But if you just want free stuff this is your spot.


K sorry I wrote a novel…and if you can believe it this is the version with about 1000 words cut. At the end of the day, be yourself, find a brand you love and ask them to be your friend. Be authentic, take nice photos and soon brands will notice you.

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  • Reply laurenslighthouse December 1, 2017 at 12:53 pm

    Thank you, Sam! Your blog was super insightful and reminding of how important it is to be true to yourself (I loved the Collaboration Rules!). I have a lot to take from this. Thank you for spending the time to put this post together, and I honestly couldn’t care less how long it was. You had my attention throughout. 🙂

  • Reply Joydrop December 2, 2017 at 10:07 am

    Great advice and well written!

    • Reply sugarandsam February 8, 2018 at 9:56 pm

      Thanks so much! I’m glad you found value in it! 💕

  • Reply isabelvaloria January 31, 2018 at 1:25 am

    Love this post! Thank you, Sam 🙂 will be referring back to this for sure. Btw, why are you on sabbatical til spring?? Miss your content!

    • Reply sugarandsam February 8, 2018 at 9:55 pm

      Hey! So glad you liked the post.

      I’m giving myself a little break to reconnect with other things and reprioritize my life a bit. I’m already so excited for my April comeback though!

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