Top brands are managing to harness influencers to cut through the noise. Marketing execs from brands including McDonald’s, Visa and Samsung gathered at a roundtable discussion hosted by Publicis Media to share influencer marketing best practice and the challenges they are facing.
One such challenge is choosing the best people to work with in a marketplace that is now swamped with influencers.
HL Ray, VP of marketing at Samsung believes it's so important to keep his team focussed on the end goal. "It's about why we are doing this and who do we want to work with. There’s so much noise. It’s really easy to get caught up in it."
Guisy Buonfantino, CMO at Kimberly-Clark, believes that the notion of an influencer has changed in recent years and is now a profession in its own right.
Jennifer Utz, VP of buzz marketing and partnerships at Marriott International thinks the power of influencers is "pretty amazing" but the stakes are high for marketers to get it right. "The most powerful bloggers can make or break you. They really have the ability to influence perception of a brand – from what you buy to what hotel you stay at."
Lack of industry standards
However, despite the personalisation on the influencer side, brands and agencies are still being caught out by the unstructured nature of influencer marketing as a whole.
"We need payment standardisation because it is all over the place right now," says Kimberly Kadlec, head of global marketing platforms at Visa. "I think the influencer community is taking advantage of the fact there are no standards so prices are being driven up."
Mark Waugh, global and EMEA/APAC content lead at Publicis Media, says that agencies should build upon the great work done by the Influencer Marketing Council, where his agency has a seat.
"We've come together to define best practice and anti-fraud guidance, but that is now table stakes; agencies can help exert a scaled leverage over so many more elements of this fragmented ecosystem by, for example, simply refusing to work with those plaers who don't commit to minimum quality, reporting and vetting standards," says Waugh.
Kadlec believes the formalisation of the influencer role has proved a double-edged sword because the rise of contractual agreements can stifle creativity.
"Sometimes it is really hard to stay true to the strategy when you’re working with an agent or business manager, you get really tactical talking about contracts and you get so far away from what you are trying to accomplish," says Kadlec.
The best influencer marketing comes when it is a true creative partnership between influencer and brand.
"I always say ‘how can we create something together that we wouldn’t be able to alone?’" says Ray. "With someone like Ellen [DeGeneres] you end up getting more value out of that because you have a relationship, it is not just I have to do two posts with ‘#ad’ and call it a day. It is about the relationship and the resource exchange, what are we doing together."
General Mills has also worked with DeGeneres through its Cheerios brand and Brad Hiranaga, chief brand officer of General Mills North America, believes the partnership has worked so well because the Cheerios brand purpose aligns with DeGeneres’ personality.
"When the purposes match up it becomes really easy to know who to partner with. The most prominent one we talk about internally is Cheerios and Ellen because they have both got positivity and kindness [at their heart]. When you put them together it works really well.
"We have given her tonnes of liberty with the brand too, and I think that is down to the trust factor."
Authenticity breeds credibility
Authenticity is key to effective influencer marketing and due diligence is needed when selecting influencer partners.
Richard Oppy, VP of global brands at Anheuser-Busch InBev, cites a recent incident where he was approached by an influencer over LinkedIn who wanted to work with Budweiser.
However, after checking her Instagram posts he saw she had recently been promoting a rival at Coachella.
"I think this influencer was just chasing money and did not really care what brand they were partnering with. That is where you lose credibility," says Oppy.
Authenticity is something Samsung places great emphasis on when using influencers to amplify its brand message, which is based around the concept ‘we make the things that can’t be made so you can do the things that can’t be done’.
"We look at partners who can help us amplify our message and speak authentically from the inside out," says Ray. "Whether that is through micro influencers or celebrities, it doesn’t really matter. When we talk about Gen Z you want to meet them where they are, you want to be authentic for them."
Michael Kahn, global brand president at Digitas, believes an influencer could also be called a "connector".
"An influencer with an interest or passion has a unique relationship with their audience and there is a chance for a brand to get in that mix and connect as well," says Kahn.
As an example, Kahn cites the work Digitas has done for KitchenAid with The Blender Girl, to create a series of recipes and video content that provides sought-after utility to their audience.
Conversely, McDonald’s has flipped things on their head by using influencers who were not fans of the brand to dispel myths about its food.
"There is a lot of misinformation out there," says Colin Mitchell, VP director of global brand at McDonalds. "We have been contrarian and got brand sceptics to address the reputation issues we have, and to come in and look at the food production or the labour practices."
Influencers as a creative talent pool
The best influencers should be viewed as "creators" and can provide an invaluable service to both brands and agencies alike, according to Instagram product lead Ashley Yuki.
"What sets creators apart is how literate they are with the platforms," says Yuki. "Some of these creators just really know how to seamlessly navigate their audience across formats.
"Creators are almost a creative agency of sorts, they are able to help brands figure out how to connect in a way that audiences are willing to be connected with."
Waugh agrees that agencies have to learn to see influencers as powerfully creative talents but that they should be integrated into the wider creative strategy, and not operate stand-alone.
"We embrace the fact that influencers themselves natively understand the syntax, grammar and features of a specific platform better than anyone. But for branded content we find the best ones actively welcome our role in briefing, quality control and co-ideation. And how the partnership fits with the wider content strategy."
Most of the marketers at the roundtable said they have now formalised their influencer marketing operations.
Oppy explained Anheuser-Busch InBev has set up a global structure to help local markets be better informed about its influencer strategy, because in the past it had been "ad hoc".
Meanwhile, General Mills has begun to bring its influencer partners into the creative process much earlier.
"Now it is moved further up the funnel most of our best ideas are coming from our partners," says Hiranaga.
This formalisation of influencer marketing operations within brands and agencies suggests the industry will soon be tamed. When this happens influencer marketing will no longer be viewed as the Wild West it once was.
Until then marketers must be careful with how they approach influencers and those that are clever will reap rich rewards.