Kian Bakhtiari Contributor
Human beings are social creatures; we rely on cooperation to survive and thrive. The emotional need to be an accepted member of a group is as true today, as when our ancestors first roamed the African savannah. Psychologist Robert Cialdini coined the term social proof to define this deep-rooted need to belong. According to social proof theory, when an individual is unsure of the correct way to behave, they will often look to others to help choose an appropriate course of action.
For centuries companies have used the power of social proof to reach new audiences and sell more products. In 1765, British potter Josiah Wedgwood produced a tea set for Queen Charlotte. Wedgwood was canny enough to use royal endorsements as a brand building tool. His status as “potter to Her Majesty” allowed him to sell his products at double the average market price. Two hundred years later, television took celebrity endorsements to an entirely new level. During the 1950s, Hollywood stars acted as agents for brands. John Wayne represented Camel cigarettes. Elizabeth Taylor advertised Whitman’s chocolate. And Albert Hitchcock promoted Western Union. But for the main part, celebrities had no affinity or connection to the brand or product. Nevertheless, spending on TV grew from $1.5 billion in 1959 to $3.5 billion in 1969 as advertisers figured out how to communicate with the masses.
In the 1980s, advertising exploded. Companies had more money, enough money to attract celebrities with huge sponsorship deals. In 1983, PepsiCo struck a $5 million deal to make Michael Jackson the face of their new “choice of a new generation” campaign. This signaled the start of a new era of modern marketing founded on strategic sponsorships and fully integrated campaigns. A year later, Nike took a gamble by teaming up with a young, talented Basketball player named Michael Jordan to co-produce the Air Jordan brand. At the time, the shoes were banned by the NBA for being too colorful. Today, Nike’s Jordan brand generates $3.14 billion in revenue. What started as an instinctive deal between a player and a brand has become the most iconic sponsorship in sports marketing history.
The model of celebrity endorsements largely remained unchanged, until the emergence of reality TV in the early 2000s. When shows like The Apprentice, Pop Idol and Big Brother became household staples. This was a departure from the highly produced, expensive, superstar laden programs of the 20th century. The new format, whether scripted or unscripted made the audience feel more involved. But then, social media changed everything. Sites like Myspace and Facebook opened the door for ordinary people to have a say and showcase their talents. Suddenly, a one-way conversation facilitated by television turned into a digital republic. Media owners, brands and advertising agencies could no longer maintain their grip on content, distribution or attention. They now had to compete with a teenager posting makeup tutorials on YouTube from the comfort of her bedroom.
Media fragmentation gave rise to a completely new phenomenon: social media influencers. The term influencer can be defined as someone who is able to affect the buying habits and actions of others by posting content on social media. In the early days, influencers were a breath of fresh air. Their content felt more honest and authentic than traditional advertising. People absorbed the message because it came from a real person, rather than a faceless corporation. Besides, sponsoring an influencer was considerably cheaper and more targeted than a TV spot. What’s more, many of the early influencers like Soulja Boy, Casper Lee and Kim Kardashian understood the new media landscape far better than brands and their media agencies. During the early 2010s, influencer marketing represented an excellent opportunity to increase brand salience and rebuild consumer trust.
But like everything else in the attention economy, supply eventually overtakes demand. Despite the influencer marketing industry being on track to be worth $15 billion by 2022. The market has become increasingly oversaturated. In recent years, serious questions have been raised about the transparency and effectiveness of influencer marketing. According to a recent study by cybersecurity company CHEQ, 15% of all influencer ad dollars are spent on fake followers. Influencer fraud costs brands $1.3billion annually. And that’s not all, many brands seem to be measuring the wrong metrics. Meanwhile, influencer marketing agencies use vanity metrics such as likes, impressions, comments and views to mask useless business results. The majority of influencer campaigns lack strategic insight or creative direction, they are merely a glorified product placement.
Moreover, followers don’t guarantee influence. A point perfectly illustrated by social media influencer Arii, who failed to sell 36 t-shirts despite having 2.6 million followers on Instagram. Today, being an influencer is mostly a transactional endeavor. In most cases, influencers have no interest in the brand they are promoting. They can promote toothpaste in the morning and sweets in the evening. In many ways, influencer marketing has become the antithesis of authenticity, an inverse image of what captured the imagination of followers in the first place. Luckily, some innovative brands are divesting their budgets away from big influencer marketing sponsorships. We are now beginning to see a move away from social media influencers towards creators, people who actually care about the product. Though creators may not have the same reach as influencers, they possess a far greater level of brand affinity and authenticity.
The biggest development in marketing today is the shift from influencers to creators. Unlike influencers, creators produce content they genuinely care about, content that adds value to their respected communities. For example, Rihanna recently unveiled the Fenty Beauty TikTok house to provide the “next wave of content creators” with a space to get their ideas off the ground. Rihanna selected five creators who shared Fenty Beauty’s mission of “Beauty for All” to take over the brand’s TikTok account. Influencer marketing operates through the prism of sponsored posts, whereas true collaboration is built on a set of shared values. Ultimately, the brands that empower the next generation of creators today, will be the same brands who will drive future business results through purchasing intent, brand affinity and sales.
For centuries companies have used social proof to reach new audiences and sell more products. It started with royal approvals, then celebrity endorsements and more recently, influencer marketing. But as media becomes more fragmented, influence becomes more distributed. And we are about to enter a new era of people-powered marketing. Where real people, not royalty, celebrities or influencers have a chance to collaborate with brands and create genuine, creative content. Because ultimately, influence and influencer are not synonymous.