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Influencer led branding

Influencer led branding

January 22, 2024

Influencer endorsement has been proven to strengthen authenticity, authority, reach and trust. But what’s the endgame? And is there a future for companies that fail to partner with content creators?

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The biggest of brands have been around for decades and feel, frankly, untouchable. But just because they’ve sat on the throne for so long, doesn’t mean they’ll be able to keep it. Are you familiar with MrBeast? He’s a 24 year old YouTuber with a combined 188 million subscribers, generating 27 billion views, and has a net worth on par with Vin Diesel and Lewis Hamilton. So, yeah, he’s a big deal. And when he acts, industries take notice. Earlier this year he launched a chocolate bar.. which immediately became the number one chocolate bar in America. He then opened a small burger joint.. and it was flooded with 10,000 patrons on opening day.

Similarly, to take influencer celebrity royalty, Kylie Jenner launched a make-up brand that, within a very short period of time, became a billion dollar business. In fact, everything that family touches seems to rocket to great heights. Skims, a shapewear clothing brand, was founded by Kim Kardashian in 2019 and has already become a 3 billion dollar brand.

If you can’t beat ‘em

So why should brands be scared by this? Entrepreneur David Friedberg is a co-host of the podcast All-In, which features industry leaders discussing the monumental shifts in contemporary business. In a recent episode, he stated that Penn Gaming buying the content creator Barstool Sports is a canary in the coal mine situation.

Penn Gaming does betting. There’s no real advantage in betting, you build a sports book, that’s it. The reason Penn Gaming bought Barstool is that they now have an audience they can drive to their sports books.

And that makes sense, right? After all, which is easier? Creating a decent product or growing an audience? Obviously, there are arguments for both but connecting an audience with your goods has always been the challenge.

But Friedberg took this a little further and championed the school of thought that future marketing and advertising needs these influencers and content creators as figureheads for their products. To the extent that those who stick to traditional marketing will be dead in the water over the next few decades; regardless of how big their brand has been in the past. Again, a very bold assumption, but one rooted in logic. Content creators have global distribution built-in. Not to mention they’ve earned a voice of authenticity and approval with their fanbase.

The homegrown approach

The trouble is, there’s a finite amount of viable candidates. You’re a big brand, you want a slice of that viral marketing, record-breaking-sales action. But you can’t just hire MrBeast, the guy’s clearly got his fingers in enough pies as it is. So you have to cultivate your own. Which is exactly what Macy’s did with the Macy’s Style Crew. Essentially, taking their in-house staff and elevating them to brand ambassadors.

And if you can’t find people already on your payroll, why not construct one? Leaps in computer-generated imagery and AI means certain companies will be enticed by the idea of a Virtual Influencer. A digitally-generated person – the perfect representation for your company, that can entertain, engage and, most importantly, sell.

Stormy waters

Before you scramble to YouTube in the hopes of snapping up the next big thing or assembling the perfect artificial trailblazer, let’s just stress test this entire premise. Regardless of whether you’re securing a spokesperson, brand ambassador or partnership, there are a few things we should highlight. Firstly, there’s the quality of the product itself. See, a growing pattern has emerged that these collaborations are limited to simple commodities. Things that people already use or need, which are incredibly easy to explain and sell. But just because a celebrity slaps their face on it, doesn’t mean it will succeed if the quality is lacking.

Remember how I said MrBeast opened a fast food chain and it was a glorious success? Well, it was but largely because it wasn’t the first time he tried it. In 2021, the burger chain opened and was hit by damning criticism for wrong orders, burnt buns and raw food. It was a disaster. So, they went away, reformulated and tried again to significant success – but only because they had the capital to do so.

Then there’s association. Say Kim Kardashian established a new, exciting jewellery company. Thanks to her fans and followers, there would be a market for it. Seems like an easy win. However, if she was pioneering a new automobile company named Cardashian, there would be intense speculation about the vehicle’s validity. That’s not a slight against Ms Kardashian, it’s just an odd pairing and your initial reaction, no matter how loyal you are to the individual, is one of surprise and concern.

A ticking time bomb

And that’s before we address the very real window of time to capitalise on the public’s attention and good faith. Humans are fallible and we all make mistakes but when a content creator with a massive audience steps out of line, it can be very hard to recover. In fact, the idea of a YouTuber apology video has become so synonymous with routine, they’re now incredibly false and formulaic.

So from a brand’s point of view, there’s significant risk of being tarnished by association; having given this individual an endorsement in the first place. And even if they are squeaky clean and never put a foot out of line, there’s the question of the longevity of the influencer themselves, not to mention the platform that carries them. If YouTube, Twitch and Instagram were to disappear overnight, would these influencers and content creators be able to cultivate the same impact in a different arena?

In truth, it’s all speculation. We’re not gonna sit here and tell you this is a guaranteed win or fail, all we can do is read the room, while looking to examples from the past. That being said, one thing remains clear: brands command respect but individuals curry favour. Apple will always be at the forefront of the tech game but, for better or worse, it will never escape Steve Jobs’ shadow. Ultimately, it’s a question of balance between what you have to say and who you choose to say it.