It was only a few years ago that ‘Influencer Marketing’ was the buzzword du jour at any advertising, media, marketing or technology conference or seminar that you were lucky enough to be attending. Once again, this makes perfect sense: The notion of people you like/respect/trust/admire ‘influencing’ you into making certain purchasing decisions, through brand endorsement. This is nothing new. In the 1950’s cigarette companies would tell us how many Doctors preferred their brand. In the 1960’s Bobby Moore told us to ‘look in at the local’. In the 1970’s Leonard Rossiter extolled the virtues of Cinzano. In the 1980’s... and so on and so forth – you get the picture.
But somehow ‘Influencer’ marketing was going to be different. Influencers, you see, weren’t like the celebrities you’d seen in these TV ads who had no obvious connection to the brand they were advertising. These ‘Influencers’ were real experts. Authoritative leaders in their sector, who were able to evaluate and measure the respective merits of each of the products in the category, and provide you, the hapless punter, with their recommendation on which product you should buy. “Great!” I hear you all shout. Finally an expert, not tainted by the filthy lucre to endorse whichever brand happened to be the highest bidder, providing the man on the street with the sort of guidance that we’ve all needed when faced with an overwhelming choice of products and services. Someone I can trust. Someone impartial.
And of course, here’s where that wonderful concept was once again ruined by us, The Advertising Industry. Agencies realised that if they could wheel out experts to provide their endorsement, it would have a stratospheric effect on sales. And then experts started getting agents who would tout out their endorsement to the highest bidder. And then we were basically back to where we started. Except then social media platforms changed the way in which these ‘Influencers’ could share their opinions on products. Using their mobile phones, they could simply tell the world, instantly. No more early starts, hours in the makeup chair, in wardrobe, and on set shooting an ad. They could ‘influence’ without even leaving their house. In some cases I’m sure, without even leaving their beds. The Supermodel Linda Evangelista once joked that she and ‘Christy’ (Turlington) wouldn’t ‘wake up for less than $10k a day’. Nowadays she probably wouldn’t need to.
Now we see Celebrity Influencers who have millions of Instagram/Twitter/Facebook fans lazily churning out posts for cash. That’s not to say it doesn’t work. When celebrities ‘like’ products, inevitably the brand in question sees a huge boost in sales. They don’t even need to be experts or have qualified opinions. Consumers don’t care for expertise – as Michael Gove famously said ‘people.... have had enough of experts’.
But I fear that if it’s not careful, Influencer Marketing could jump the shark:
Noise. In the early days, when only a few forward-thinking celebrities had jumped onto the social media bandwagon, what they were doing was exciting and new. They were talking directly to their fans. Not through PR machines, or TV shows, or magazine articles, but directly to them in an uncensored, real-time fashion. People were excited to hear what they had to say. Nowadays, everyone is on Twitter, and about half of them are ‘blueticked’. Everyone’s pushing something or other, and everyone’s bored.
Laziness. Some celebrities are famous not because of their brains, or ability, or even any discernible talent. We live in a reality TV pop-culture where ‘stars’ are created by corporations because they’re ‘interesting’. Arguably the most famous family in America are the narcissistic, preening offspring of a guy who became famous for getting OJ off. One of them once ‘broke the internet’ by removing her clothes. And she married that rapper guy. Anyway, I digress. These types of celebrity are not ‘influencers’ in the original sense. They don’t even try to pretend that they like the brands they’re promoting anymore. They sometimes can’t even be bothered to strip out the information from their publicist before uploading the image of them ‘endorsing’ a product.
So whilst consumers might realise that their favourite C-list star hasn’t evaluated the respective merits of every product on the market before endorsing their ‘favourite’, the celeb in question should still at least pretend to uphold the illusion that this isn’t all a complete sham.
Price: In the early days, celebrities would command relatively low endorsement fees, or even none at all if the requirement to record a vine or post an Instagram pic were rolled in as part of a wider product endorsement deal. This was because the discipline was in its early stages and there weren’t many brands looking to exploit social in this way. There also weren’t as many agents or agencies brokering deals. This has changed, with prices soaring as more and more brands jump on the bandwagon quicker than the associated supply of celebrities. With true ROI being difficult to measure, the greater the cost, the more cautious brands will be to ensure that they’re getting value for money. This may result in fewer deals being done.
Politics. The problem with some celebrities, is that with great power (over social channels), comes great responsibility. Given that the last 18 or so months have seen some seismic changes in our geo-political spectrum, several celebrities have jumped on soapboxes and started expressing opinions. As we all know, opinions are dangerous, and they’re particularly dangerous to individual celebrity brands (if they’re not the ‘right’ opinions). Woe betide any Hollywood actor who speaks out in support of ‘The Donald’, if they ever want to work again. On this side of the pond, Gary Lineker is someone who has taken the unusual step of stepping out of his ‘Mr Nice of English Football’ comfort zone, and expressed strong opinions on Brexit, the refugee situation in Europe and President Trump. He’s come under a lot of criticism for this, with some claiming that he’s abusing his position as the anchor of the BBC’s main football show, and that ‘we don’t pay his wages to be lectured on Brexit’ etc. Obviously he’s clarified that he’s a contractor to the BBC and not an employee, and that his personal Twitter feed is, well, personal, but he’s walking a fine line when it comes to potential future sponsorship and advertising opportunities.
Brands are usually quite wary of those with ‘opinions’. It appears that his 22 year strong relationship with Walkers isn’t under threat, which is nice to see seeing as it’s one of the most genuine ‘endorsements’ I can think of. A man who grew up in Leicester helping his dad on the family fruit and veg stall – endorsing a Leicester based potato crisp company. It has that ring of authenticity that so much Influencer Marketing lacks today. That said, I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s missed out on other potential lucrative opportunities because he’s chosen to take the ‘controversial’ step of expressing strong opinions.
So what for the future?
2017 looks to be the biggest year yet for Influencer Marketing, but I can’t help feeling that that’s paradoxical to the other main theme which agencies and brands seem to be championing – authenticity. When celebrities receive hundreds of thousands of dollars for a single Instagram pic, it evidently doesn’t need to be a true, heartfelt endorsement from the Influencer to be successful, and I think that’s a shame, as the discipline has deviated a long way from its original purpose. It’s not surprising. We’ve seen it with email marketing & native advertising. These have been ruined by unscrupulous spammers pushing low quality, irrelevant and ineffectual content with low cost but high volumes. It would be a shame if a good concept was ruined in this way. ‘Give the people what they want’ is the old idiom. It’s just a shame that the people want Kris Jenner hawking discounted Onesies..