Depending on whom you speak to, influencer marketing is either the inevitable future of brand communications or a fad where the true value to advertisers will always be limited.
The one thing we do know is that this industry has become a magnet for controversy, whether it comes from a lack of evidence over how its effectiveness is measured or failures to properly label paid-for posts.
For the time being, at least, the money is pouring in: analysts have forecast that global adspend on influencer marketing could reach $10bn by 2022.
From a creative standpoint, the opportunities for brands in this space are potentially huge if they are willing to put influencers in the driving seat. Rather than pay for talent to promote a message cooked up by a creative agency, many marketers are now willing to pay "real people" to talk about their brand on their own terms.
This is because authenticity is at the heart of what makes influencer marketing an attractive prospect. Consumers are more receptive to the unpolished delivery of relative unknowns, because they may say things off the cuff and they often court (rather than avoid) controversy. And, now that anyone with a smartphone and internet connection has the technical means to be an influencer with a global reach, the sheer diversity of influencer marketing should make it innovative in ways traditional media will always fail to match.
Campaign looks at 10 influencers from different markets and areas of interest around the world and asks: why are these people interesting, what is distinctive about them, and why should marketers care? To help us, marketing experts from ad agencies, influencer marketing specialists and brand-building experts have highlighted the need-to-knows.
The social experts
Influencer strategist, Engine
Social and influencer lead, Karmarama
Vice-president, marketing director, Häagen-Dazs
Strategist, Bartle Bogle Hegarty New York
Founding partner, Lucky Generals
Chief executive, Sundae
Influencer marketing manager, We Are Social
Chief executive, Takumi
James Silverstone: With her colourful background, Bhad Bhabie isn’t the obvious go-to for brands. However, she has become one of the most popular rappers, internet stars and entrepreneurs of recent years. While many brands are looking for squeakyclean influencers, more alternative, urban brands might gravitate towards Bhad Bhabie. Her audience has grown up with her, so are invested in both her as a person and her story.
Jeremiah Rosen: Great for a brand whose messaging intent is "IDGAF". Her fame stemmed from meme culture and aligns well with GenZ.
Jennifer Jorgensen: Bhad Bhabie shows you can rise to fame no matter what your background.
Gemma Glover: Bhad Bhabie become hugely Insta famous after a clip of her at the age of 13 telling Dr Phil and his viewers to "Cash me outside" went viral. With more than 14 million followers on Instagram and 3.5 million on YouTube, she has a higher following than some top celebrities. Bhad Bhabie is not just a social influencer, she has created a career around it, having released several songs on Spotify. Only specific brands and collaborations work for her as she is becoming her own brand with a very clear audience and tone.
Katie Hunter: At this scale and given the nature of her content/music, this starts moving into celebrity territory, particularly when you look at Bhad Bhabie’s profile outside the digital space. But these meme-tomegastar stories are a great example of why we need to think about "influence" more holistically. Working with talent of this size is amazing when you have the budgets and a strong reason to do it, but, potentially, it would require very different ways of working (think contracts and deal memos) and a really collaborative brief to make things authentic.
Campaign says… A mix of moody and provocative shots has built up Danielle Bregoli's following and bolstered her music career
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Jonathan Mildenhall: I love Mrs Hinch. She is the Adele of influencers. She has such an honest and authentic narrative and I love the way she has turned the mundane into an art. So what if she has help. She is clearly obsessed by all things clean. If I were Unilever, I would be developing a direct-to-consumer brand with her immediately. Otherwise she will do it on her own and Unilever will have to pay her $1bn to acquire her in five years time. Mrs Hinch is influencer gold.
Andy Nairn: The central appeal of Mrs Hinch’s content is authenticity and her genuine shock at her popularity. More than just cleaning tips, Mrs Hinch has a purpose, sharing how she silenced her anxiety disorder through repetitive tasks as well as helping her fans find therapy in cleaning. While there is a lot to like about Mrs H, it is also slightly sinister; she is essentially a modern-day Stepford Wife. Rarely does Mrs Hinch mention that "Hinching" is a shared task, and her almost entirely female audience is praised for finding solace in creating a perfect home. Given this is broadcast 24/7, direct to people’s phones, Mrs Hinch sometimes feels eerily like a Margaret Atwood creation.
Kevin Ma: Mrs Hinch has redefined the way we think of household chores, as an act of therapy. People are into the idea that they can elevate their happiness simply by making a few changes to their cleaning habits. It’s no surprise that Mrs Hinch is part of the new trend of "tidying up". Mrs Hinch doesn’t exactly tell us what to do, but provides us with a blueprint of how to make our lives better.
Adam Williams: Mrs Hinch’s cleaning hacks and real-life experiences are the glue that keep people coming back to her profile. Her dedicated use of Instagram has enabled her to successfully create a new trend in cleaning and increased sales of household products. Many of these have sold out in record time, thanks to Mrs Hinch’s endorsements. Mrs Hinch is also extremely relatable about many of the struggles she has experienced.
Jennifer Jorgensen: In carving out a niche within a popular audience she’s done a great job. Is she more of a fad than a trend? We’ll see. Having been flooded with brand approaches, she’ll need to stay true to her story if she’s to maintain engagement.
James Silverstone: Mrs Hinch is an unexpected success story. Her account has made cleaning glamorous and aspirational, and her influence is clear: when she posts about certain products, supermarkets often have to limit the sale of these items to one or two per customer. This gives brands who might not be traditionally "social" or aren’t particularly big on visual platforms like Instagram, a chance to reach the masses through aesthetic content.
Campaign says… A glossy selection of Sophie Hinchcliffe’s spotless interiors and media appearances
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Andy Nairn: There doesn’t feel like a lot to say here. Part slick product announcements and part "real-life" exposé, including "intimate" photos of family and friends, the staged glossy content of Ms Jenner feels a bit boring. Perhaps it’s not her fault, because she’s so copied and we may all now have Jenner fatigue, but from a brand perspective, it’s still clear what her appeal is – she’s open for business (but only if you’re prepared to pay the rumoured $1m price tag per post). In early 2019, 21-year-old Jenner was declared the youngest-ever self-made billionaire – well, "self-made" in the same way Donald Trump is, given she was born into a wealthy, famous family and marinated in reality TV.
Jonathan Mildenhall: Polarising for sure, but, my goodness, Kylie came out from the shadows of the most high-profile family in pop culture and slayed her own path to independence, distinction and fortune. Yes, it’s all a bit shallow but she owns superficial better than anyone else.
Jennifer Jorgensen: Great if you’ve got the dollars but in reality your brand might get lost among her brand promotion.
Adam Williams: Posting half of the top 10 most-liked Instagram posts in 2018, the youngest member of the Kardashian-Jenner empire has transformed herself from TV personality into Instagram entrepreneur. Building her influence from Keeping up with the Kardashians has enabled Kylie Jenner to grow a dedicated community of followers. She has also created Kylie Cosmetics. By announcing the launch on her social channels, the products are essentially fast-tracked to those most likely to purchase. Kylie generates excitement among millions of fans, who are invested not only in the products on offer but also her start-up success story. Instagram in particular has acted as a catalyst for this direct-to-community brand-building. She has kick-started a trend of social influencers building their own brands. As their following grows, these influencers find themselves with a set of skills that allows them to reach a ready-made audience eager to be involved in the product-creation process.
Kevin Ma: Kylie Jenner embodies the saying that "any publicity is good publicity". She is the ultimate influencer who has never had to turn to another person for promotional assistance. It’s likely that we’re going to see Kylie Cosmetics become stronger, possibly saturating the make-up industry at large. She has always been able to adapt her strategies as social media evolves. When Snapchat’s use was declining, she shifted all her ad efforts to Instagram to stay connected to her young fan base. Her ability to fluidly move through the social platforms makes her the ultimate influencer. Now taking on motherhood, Kylie has expanded her sphere to encapsulate young mothers who defy the stereotypes. She has been a face for fashion brands, vitamins, workout equipment, and now, potentially, the best baby-care products.
Campaign says… Like everything in Kylie Jenner’s life, her Instagram feed is a curated version of her reality
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Adam Williams: Paperboyo’s approach to his feed offers a completely new take on the world around us. From stunning travel pictures to food and drink, he’s proved that, with a little creativity, brands can be incorporated into content in a fun, engaging and, most importantly, different way. In a time where selfies and egos can often rule, Paperboyo is about being clever with content, which cuts through and resonates with consumers.
Jennifer Jorgensen: A cool, interesting take on content creation. Even when Paperboyo works with brands, he stays true to his distinct style. I think people appreciate the creativity and uniqueness of an influencer like this.
Gemma Glover: London-based photographer Rich McCor (aka Paperboyo) is not just a typical influencer on social media, he has his own unique take on producing content. He is very specific about what he posts and, as a content creator, he should be involved in the full creative process. You would give Rich a complete, open brief and ideally pitch an idea to the creative agency, because telling him what to do would not work.
Katie Hunter: Paperboyo is a long-standing industry favourite, thanks largely to the consistency and quality of his channel. There’s a humour and creativity that means it’s easy for (the right) brands to partner him without losing their cool or creating something jarring. Again, though, the same rules apply: make sure you’re being collaborative with the brief and open with creative control to get the best from the work. He clearly knows what’s working.
Jeremiah Rosen: Paperboyo seems to be extremely malleable for content creation (as seen in his existing sponsored content) and he would be best suited to have open guardrails, so as not to limit creativity. Paperboyo knows his aesthetic and has built a following that likes and trusts him.
Campaign says… Rich McCor’s followers love his paper cutouts, which he uses to playfully transform photos
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Jennifer Jorgensen: He is quite interesting and establishes himself well as premium, but the photography-led approach can serve to make authentic brand partnerships challenging.
Jonathan Mildenhall: What a dull man. What could he possibly influence me to do? Cole Sprouse is influencer yawn.
Andy Nairn: An 11-year-old reliably informs me that Cole is a Disney Channel teen heartthrob, yet there appears to be little evidence of this on his highly curated Instagram page. A mix of landscapes, portraits and art photography, it is more polished and editorial than many others. The surprise is that it’s all shot by him and that (shock!) Cole appears to be using Instagram as a creative outlet. Cole is funny, too, as his current bio "Please buy my essential oils" takes the piss out of cringey Instagram bios and he often pokes fun at his appearance and celebrity status. So could it be that Sprouse is a refreshingly authentic voice on Instagram, using it because he genuinely enjoys photography? Or could it all be part of a bigger plan to transition himself from teen heartthrob to more serious actor?
Kevin Ma: When you’re a Disney star, it’s hard to break out of the shell and rebrand yourself. People are always anticipating your downfall. But Cole Sprouse is one of those rarities that did not fall. He went from the mischievous Cody at the Tipton Hotel (in The Suite Life of Zack & Cody) to the moody and melodramatic young adult that everyone now loves. Cole Sprouse has redeveloped and taken roles that are relatable to millennials who don’t see themselves as normal… and, quite frankly, that’s a lot of us. When I think about Cole, I think of my neighbour in Brooklyn whom I might spot at a local coffee shop or thrift store – and this type of familiarity is what keeps him around. On his main Instagram account, Cole has also become a powerhouse in photography and fashion, capturing moments and ensembles that are beautiful. But he also holds another popular Instagram account (@camera_ duels) that brands and consumers can engage with. The latter is lighthearted and documents all the times other people have tried to subliminally take a picture of him. The duality of these social accounts embodies all that we love about Cole; he has progressed into a man with impeccable taste in the arts, but retains the playful spirit that makes us chuckle.
Adam Williams: Cole is an artist and photographer whose influence and impact comes from his creative visual content, with his profile acting as a gallery and portfolio of his work. He has gained a great deal of exposure from a young age and has featured in a Netflix original series, which broadened his appeal to a wider audience outside his first Instagram demographic. However, unlike many of his industry counterparts, Cole uses his social platforms to explore his interest in photography – and he rarely personally features. Here, we see Instagram used as an artistic medium and showcase.
Campaign says… Former Disney star Cole Sprouse has successfully used his Instagram to broaden his appeal by sharing his own photography in a knowing way
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Andy Nairn: Perhaps what’s most fascinating about Angelababy is that, despite being thousands of miles away from the Kardashian-Jenners, in a different cultural context, her Instagram appears to be the same as big influencers the world over. In fact, as a pseudo-model, who got famous fuelled on plasticsurgery gossip, and married an equally famous partner, Angelababy appears to be the Kim Kardashian of China. And, just like Kim, I suspect her appeal is that her content lets people into her life to such a degree that they feel that they know her personally. But it’s her openness to old-school displays of material wealth that make her massively appealing to brands, compared with Western markets, where such gratuitous displays of wealth are now largely seen to be gauche and outdated. I’m not sure this is a helpful contribution, given the current concerns about over-consumption.
Adam Williams: As with many model influencers, Angela’s audience follows her for the bespoke, behind-the-scenes-style footage she shares. This aspirational content is engaging for her followers and provides them with a unique insight into the life of a celebrity model and actress.
Kevin Ma: Singer, actor, and model, Angela is a triple threat. But she’s most famous for being known as the Kim Kardashian of China. Like Kim, the public is very critical of her, judging her relationships with men, bankability and personal appearance. But, similarly, she has been able to mould this judgment to her own benefit by taking the private bits of her life and making them public. Most recently, she graced the cover of US Vogue magazine as one of the top 14 most famous actresses in the world. Other big names on the list included Scarlett Johansson and Deepika Padukone. This is notable because Asians remain largely unseen in film and media. Although some argue that other Asian actresses should have received the honour over Angelababy, it’s still a "win" to see an Asian face on a high-profile magazine. The battle for representation persists but at least we can have a debate as to who should have made the list, as opposed to just not making the list at all.
Jennifer Jorgensen: She certainly seems influential among her core audience within Hong Kong.
Campaign says… Yang Ying has been described as the Kim Khardashian of China and her feed drips with images of her clad in labels
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Kevin Ma: "Unboxing" videos are not new to YouTube but Ryan’s mother has cleverly mastered creating videos that combine a personal vlog with this trend. Ryan’s videos now extend beyond unboxing but in every video, his overwhelming happiness is captured. There’s joy to be found in watching the real antics of a child, and Ryan is the pinnacle of childhood innocence. Although he falls into the same category as other product reviewers, Ryan is a differentiator in that he doesn’t just speak about a product, he reacts to it. It’s that raw reaction that can really launch its fame. His family also generates content surrounding the toys, such as a catchy song or humorous story. So, not only do toy brands get to tap into Ryan’s reach, but also his imagination, which brings the products into entirely new frameworks.
Andy Nairn: While Ryan started out reviewing toys, his content is a mash-up of reviews, comedy sketches, vlogs, unboxing and sometimes (genuine?) play, which is a lesson that you don’t necessarily have to stick to a single approach to find success. Being an "influencer" is the most modern of professions, but Ryan’s content feels strangely old-fashioned. The cheesy sketches, canned sound effects, bright colours, low production values and naked consumerism are reminiscent of Saturday-morning kids TV. And, in a world where kids are protected from traditional advertising, channels like Ryan’s appear to be getting around these regulations in an, arguably, more pernicious way. I wonder whether the reason kids love him so much is not so much his content, but more what he’s reviewing. The long-format nature of his content means kids get unadulterated, on-demand access to some of their favourite characters.
Adam Williams: Ryan has established himself as a key voice in the toy industry. With the help of his parents, Ryan, eight, uses YouTube videos to invite viewers into his house and introduce them to his family. He is seen as a friend or brother figure that kids and parents can relate to play alongside and enjoy the excitement of opening new toys with. Ryan has credibility and authority when it comes to reviewing toys and his followers trust his opinions implicitly. As a result, brands look to Ryan to launch their products and increase sales, as well as collaborate on exclusive offers.
Campaign says… Ryan Kaji shares photos and videos of his technicolour life, which is full of new toys and family outings
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Gemma Glover: Tao Liang is a blogger, best known as Mr Bags to his three million social-media followers. He is China’s third-most influential fashion blogger, according to BNP Paribas 2017 rankings, and has a huge following across Weibo and WeChat. He is, of course, known for his knowledge of fashion and the luxury handbag market, which has made him a go-to source in China. His content is very specific, so a creative agency would need to ensure the type/style of content would fit on his channel. He does fewer paid-for ads now and bigger partnerships. For example, he partnered Givenchy to create a capsule collection for Valentine’s Day, which was sold solely through WeChat to his followers. All 80 pieces of the collaboration sold out in 12 minutes.
James Silverstone: Mr Bags has found his niche and stuck with it. Many fashion creators post endless streams of generic looks, but Mr Bags has fully embraced one topic. While his feed may not emulate the same creative quality as others, his passion is clear. A less curated and more "real" feed can be refreshing to see at times, especially in the world of fashion – and his collaborations with some of the biggest names in fashion prove he knows his stuff.
Jeremiah Rosen: Mr Bags would be great to align with if you’re a brand in this sector with a focus on China. However, it will be challenging to translate his appeal to non-Chinese audiences.
Jennifer Jorgensen: Having a hook, like always featuring a bag, appeals and makes Mr Bags different from other influencers. It also means he’s well set up for commercial partnerships. I know his Instagram following is nothing compared with his Weibo following, but he’s managed to really establish himself as a trendsetter in the world of fashion.
Katie Hunter: This is an account with a clear, consistent theme and aesthetic, albeit a very different topic. One consideration his account poses is the question of audience relevancy. The importance of selecting influencers because they’re talking to the right audiences as well as creating the right content for the brand and/or product you’re looking to promote can’t be understated. The influencer landscape varies a lot across different territories, too – particularly looking at China as the example here. It is therefore valuable to do your research about the audience, where they’re consuming content and what’s resonating with them.
Campaign says… Tao Liang shares glossy images of himself enjoying his life – punctuated by lots and lots of bags
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Gemma Glover: Model, selfie queen, political activist and singer. She is not like most social influencers as she isn’t real. She is a computer simulation, designed for reasons that, as yet, remain unclear. Lil Miquela collaborated with music producer Baauer to produce a single, Hate me, which, in under a week, had garnered more than 76,000 views. Social media is often heralded as the opportunity to show how authentic your brand is, using influencers and homemade-style content to build trust and show ‘"we get you". But social media also plays the role of escapism. Lil Miquela is an embodiment of what we all engage in: stylised content masquerading as a documentation of reality.
Katie Hunter: The AI influencer world is ridiculous and brilliant. It’s been interesting and entertaining to see how it’s moved into mainstream consumer culture (Colonel Sanders for KFC). That was obviously a parody to an extent, but that’s what I like so much about the absurdity of AI influencers in the main. Why the hell not? However, you do need to have a serious think about the audience and creating an authentic story for your brand here. For certain brands, you risk losing the human, honest touch. Equally, followers of these influencers know what they’re watching and I imagine it’s the entertainment value they’re after, which could work for brands when done in the right way.
Jeremiah Rosen: Because Lil Miquela is CGI, she is great to use any time, anywhere, with boundarypushing ideas. Her alliance with causes (for example, Black Lives Matter) makes her a strong personality and platform for brands. And, because she is nontransactional, there is the opportunity to look for meaningful and symbiotic brand relationships.
James Silverstone: Accounts like this prove that influence doesn’t have to come from a real person. If Lil Miquela’s intentions are authentic and the recommendations she makes resonate, there’s an opportunity for brands to leverage her engaged audience. Most millennials and Gen Z are digitally fluent and understand that being honest and open about fakery speaks to avatar culture and will have a better response than inauthentically trying to make the impossible look real.
Jennifer Jorgensen: It’s astounding that a fictional character has managed to establish herself as such an interesting open-minded leader. Is she the future of influencing? People will still take more interest in real profiles, but Lil Miquela is incredibly successful at challenging the norm.
Campaign says… It turns out life as a CGI influencer is much the same as a human one. Lil Miquela posts pictures of a life of parties, friends and swimming pools
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James Silverstone: Chessie focuses on empowerment, liberation and body confidence, sending an important message that you shouldn’t compare everything you see on Instagram with your own life. This plays to the shift towards authenticity. For brands, working with Chessie would offer an opportunity to push out genuine and more trustworthy messages to a receptive audience.
Gemma Glover: Chessie King has become an inspiration to her followers due to her honest and open attitude to life with her realistic, unedited images and body positivity posts. Online articles about her have featured the "Instagram vs reality"-style images she uses, showing the more real side of Instagram. She also founded C.Krets (where she creates prints based on quotes she finds inspirational) so, as for most influencers, brands should involve her in the early stages of the creative idea. Chessie knows her followers and the content that performs best on her channel, so you would need to consider the type of message you want her to share and whether it matches with her own values and what she talks about.
Jennifer Jorgensen: Chessie embodies the backlash against the perfect Instagram life. She’s body positive and real, which is what her Gen Z and millennials audiences want to see.
Katie Hunter: I love her page and her ethos on healthy body image and what that should look like. She does "real" but in an aspirational way which is often what I’m looking for (and I would imagine many others are) when I open Instagram at 10pm. As a brand, I would be careful with partnership offers, though, and think carefully about whether the product or service is a good fit for her channels. I’d hate to lose the humour and authenticity she has in favour of shoehorning in a smoothie.