Influencer Marketing and Personal Branding: Sham and Shame

Posted on Posted in Advertising, Brands & Branding

Recently a client was approached by a company selling a marketing tactic I have little respect for: Influencer Marketing.

As it is very linked to the idea of ‘personal branding’, which I also loathe, I thought I’d kill two birds with one blog.

What is an Influencer?

Urban dictionary definition: Influencer
‘A makeup, hairstyle, or fashion blogger who is instafamous only on Instagram or buys “followers” and “likes” and gets free products from companies who fall in their trap of fake fame.’

So ‘Influencers’ are only famous for having a ‘following’, not because they are famous in the real world. Not a conventional definition of ‘celebrity’.

The idea of ‘Influencer Marketing’ correlates a ‘large following’ to ‘influence’.

What is influence?

In his seminal book ‘Influence’, Robert Cialdini outlined six areas from which influence can be derived: Reciprocation; commitment; liking; authority, scarcity and ‘social proof’.

It is the latter which ‘Influencers’ and Influencer Agencies (Brokers) claim as the science behind the ‘value’ they deliver.

But the only thing ‘social proof’ has in common with social media is the word ‘social’.

And trying to influence someone isn’t being ‘social’.

Yes, ‘social proof’ is important for influence. But ‘social proof’ isn’t ‘social media proof’.

‘Social proof is a psychological and social phenomenon where people assume the actions of others in an attempt to reflect correct behaviour in a given situation’.

It’s got nothing to do with selling, and everything to do with ‘herd behaviour’.

So there is no proof that social proof is relevant or works.

Do Celebrity & Influence Work?

Celebrities are by definition national or international figures (entertainers, politicians, authors, experts).

They carry a reputation, they have millions of real fans, and can be very influential.

e.g. Oprah recommends a book, it becomes a bestseller; Lady Gaga wears a hat from a designer, the designer’s credibility is enhanced.

In the short term sales may even be increased by endorsement – paid or accidental.

However celebrity endorsement works best when it is long-term as affects a brand’s reputation. Especially with premium & luxury products.

Over a long time having a relevant ‘celebrity’ personality associated with a brand can absorb the values, reputation, trust of the celebrity.

It enhances brand equity.

Think Roger Federer and Rolex: Swiss perfection in timing. But Rolex and Roger both had brand equity to begin with. Brands that had years of reputation behind them.

Also, celebrities do not sponsor brands, it’s the other way around.

Brands sponsoring celebrities then need to spend more money telling people about the sponsorship.

That’s why we see ads.

What about celebrity endorsement rules?

If Oprah, or someone that is a celebrity in their own right that happens to be on Insta, can be bought they can generate massive awareness.

But they have to play by the ‘rules’. They must add #Spon #Ad or ‘Paid partnership with …’. Which makes it as transparent as ‘Advertising Feature’ does when used in print.

This means ‘we’ know it is not a true authentic endorsement and so therefore, paid promotions don’t imbue the values and perceptions of the celebrity on the brand.

A true endorsement can’t hurt, but it is not a long-term strategy to enhance brand reputation.

The challenge for brands (and one reason for the rise in this tactic’s popularity) is that a lot of micro influencers do not play by the rules.

Even when they do follow the rules their followers are not influenced to reassess brand perceptions even if awareness is increased.

Their spruiking of a product if transparently paid is weak and inauthentic, and if hidden is inauthentic and damaging.

Influence is active. Not passive. Influencer Marketing is a tactic. It’s sales, not marketing.

It is at best an awareness or top of funnel tactic, and not strategic.

That’s another reason why I’m not convinced it does the brand long-term good to engage with Instafamous personalities.

Fake influence

Instagram followers can be and are bought, acquired, sought (followme/followback).

So ‘Follower numbers’ are no indication of influence alone.

If there is no true evidence of actual influence, how can you value them?

‘Impressions, Likes, Comments’, can all be (and are) faked.

Even claimed ‘awareness’ is a dodgy metric.

Even if you could verify impressions, awareness is only part of the process.

Awareness is one thing, but ‘impact’ and creating long lasting perceptions totally different.

Why is it currently looked at as a good tactic?

The marketing industry loves new things because it attracts creative people and the job of someone that considers themselves to be creative is to solve problems.

If we do not use an attitude of ‘test, scale, repeat’ we are not serving our clients, however …

Influencer marketing is the devil spawn.

It’s unregulated, unmeasurable, and ineffective in all but the most impactful (expensive / freak) cases.

Personal Branding

Stylists and photographers looking for revenue opportunities have jumped on the ‘Brandwagon’ with very little understanding of the subtle differences between brand equity, brand strategy, branding, brand management or brand identity.

If personal branding is about how you look, how you speak, and how you act then it is styling.

Styling is what I call ‘putting lipstick on a pig’.

Branding is creating meaning.

A brand is a reputation.

A brand isn’t what you say it is, it’s what said about you.

If by ‘personal branding’ personal branders meant ‘signalling your authentic value’ then fine, but in the main they are helping people create a false face to the world in order to extract value from ‘targets’.

Tim Ferriss, “A personal brand shouldn’t be the goal; it should be the side-effect of having good goals and acting consistently.”

If by ‘personal branding’ they mean ‘reputation management’ then fine. Good even.

I think PR is the right place for this.

PR professionals have allowed the value they add in building personal profiles; coaching media interviews; and building relationships through access to comments; to be stolen and rebadged by people with less experience or expertise in these matters.

Everyone should manage their reputation in real life and online. In business or private life. Managing your reputation is about how you add consistent value to friends, partners, colleagues and clients.

For a CEO of a company, or a lawyer, or an estate agent or a photographer, being an authority on a subject matter is valuable.

Communicating and engaging with relevant stakeholders, building awareness and reputation through adding value and visibility are all incredibly important,.

But if it’s ‘managed’ and inauthentic it is unsustainable.

That’s why I baulk at the concept. It is generally mis-used and mis-applied.

Sir Richard Branson is a brand, because we say so, not because he designed himself to be.

Branson has earned and managed his professional reputation as a consequence of his activities.

There’s a massive difference between him and someone that seeks to enhance their revenue streams as a ‘subject matter authority’ or worse ‘Thought Leader’ through writing a book to get speaking engagements, then speaking about it; or dressing and talking in a certain way and video blogging on LinkedIn to draw attention to yourself.

The next time you hear someone speak about Personal Branding ask yourself what would Sir Richard do.