Whenever I tell someone that I specialise in working with influencers, I know exactly how they’re going to react – if not out loud, then at least in their head. To the vast majority of people, ‘influencers’ means people online who are only famous for being famous, amassing huge followings for doing very little and cashing in on make-up and fashion brands at best, or at worst by promoting products which are totally unrelated to them.
It’s just one of those things where a very specific idea gets attached to a term and drowns out all of its nuance and complexity. This seems to happen especially with things that are associated with the internet. ‘Memes’, for example, which are at heart just jokes, and those have been around as long as people have. Or ‘fake news’, which is too often used in a way that implies that, before the internet, nobody lied about politics.
In just the same way, while influencer marketing might feel like a very recent phenomenon, it’s worth taking a step back and thinking about what is actually happening when a brand takes the influencer route.
In the cliched example of, say, lipstick being promoted on Instagram, the goal isn’t merely to reach the influencer’s followers: paid advertising could do that just as effectively for less money. The point is to attach the brand to a personality which the audience, on some level, already trusts, respects, or relates to. From one point of view, this is what the communications industry has always aimed to do.
That was certainly the case in the darker early days of professional marketing and communications, before regulations and structures of accountability were put into place. In 1929, one of the fathers of PR, Edward Bernays, famously helped the American Tobacco Company to promote smoking amongst women by associating it with the growing feminist movement, calling cigarettes ‘torches of freedom’ and paying women to smoke while marching in an Easter Parade. In 1976, the Trident chewing gum company ran a campaign claiming that four out of five dentists recommend their gum – and started an industry cliché in the process.
Even today, when the industry is much more ethically and truthfully minded, the value of securing coverage in a newspaper or magazine is not just the readership, but the association of that message with a (trusted, respected, relatable) outlet. It’s always about putting the right message in the right context. What we today call influencer marketing, then, is just the latest form of what communications has always pursued – and once we recognise that, it opens the influencer option to every brand.
Who does your industry look to for advice? Who do they read, who do they follow, and who do they emulate? These aren’t always easy questions to answer, but whether your business offers SaaS platforms, electric vehicles, cybersecurity tools, or – yes – lipstick, there is an answer out there.
And once you have that answer, you also have a whole new route to building your brand.