New Brand Ambassador or Unforeseen Liability?

Joe Nicchi is fed up with “influencers” asking for free ice cream. Courtesy of The Guardian.

By Chad Olson, Staff Writer

At Thunderbird we hear a lot about the Fourth Industrial Revolution. This is largely a result of Dean Khagram’s belief that focusing on this revolution will keep Thunderbird students competitive as strategic business leaders. What does this change mean for the future of marketers? This is a question that Dr. Patrick Lynch, a clinical associate professor at Thunderbird, decided to answer this summer, as he prepared for a workshop that focused on marketing in the digital era. I was lucky enough to provide what help I could as he delved into the vast world of influencer marketing.

For those who are unfamiliar with the term, or what it entails, influencer marketing is a new marketing trend that has taken the spotlight due to the emphasis that social media has on consumer behaviors. The core concept of influencer marketing is that social media users who have a large following can influence their following to purchase a particular brand or product that has been advertised on their profile. These posts are often done because the brand or creator of the product reached out to the influencer and asked them to advertise on their profile in order to reach the audience that follows that particular influencer. Doing so allows companies to bypass the hesitation of consumers to purchase goods based off of advertising alone, because the audience trusts the influencers’ opinions.

Word of mouth has always been the most reliable source of information for consumers, and influencers allow companies to create targeted advertising campaigns utilizing a word of mouth strategy, something that would be incredibly difficult to do just ten years ago. I can practically hear Dean Khagram’s voice saying it now: “The Fourth Industrial Revolution is changing everything.” Is influencer marketing the solution, though? Are social media users with large followings the new brand ambassadors?

The social media environment is rapidly changing, which makes for an enticing, but also challenging, landscape. With new technological advances, the way we communicate is getting faster and faster every day. That also means that when someone does something stupid, the world knows about it immediately. This becomes abundantly clear with influencers. The risk of influencer marketing is putting your brand image in the hands of a stranger. Most commonly, this person is a twenty-something-year-old on social media. People make mistakes. The issue here is when someone makes a mistake on social media, news travels fast. Suddenly, a brand finds itself now associated with a negative image that it never would have faced before. One such example involves 26-year-old Australian Belle Gibson, who fabricated a story about having been diagnosed and cured of cancer utilizing diet and alternative therapies. Perhaps the strangest part of Belle Gibson’s story is that she is still on social media, attempting to regain a following and continue as an influencer.

A cursory search of influencer marketing leads to many stories about the backlash influencers are facing in the media. In fact, some marketers think that this influencer backlash is a trend that will continue, as more and more brands push back on the notion of influencer marketing. This backlash is the result of brands claiming that influencers are merely contacting them in an effort to get free products. One such story involves an ice cream truck owner that became fed up with influencers asking for free ice cream cones under the guise that they would bring more customers to the truck. Instead of allowing influencers to try his product and post about it, the owner now charges influencers double to enjoy the ice cream.

Despite the risks associated with influencer marketing, I still believe that when approached carefully and strategically, influencers can help create value for brands. However, perhaps part of the strategy for influencer marketing should now include a “what to do when influencers do something stupid” contingency plan.

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