There’s More to Influencer Marketing Than Product Placement

·11 min read

MILAN — In Netflix’s 2020 documentary “The Social Dilemma,” the infinite scrolling on social media was compared to the way slot machines function, both resulting in addictive behavior as they induce the user to pull a lever to receive an instant reward — be it money or new content.

Throughout the past year of digital fashion weeks, chances to hit the jackpot have significantly spiked as brands have relied on digital activities more than usual to amplify their momentum on social media and draw attention to the presentation of their collections.

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But just like with slot machines, for many companies, winning consists of having a streak of the same pattern, such as multiple influential personalities dressed in total branded looks.

A buzzy example is Burberry tapping around 30 top high-profile names for the unveiling of its fall 2021 collection. From Madonna toasting from a balcony to Jessica Chastain portrayed on a rooftop — passing by the likes of Isabelle Huppert, Marina Abramovic, Naomi Campbell, Natalia Vodianova and Irina Shayk, among others — talents responded to the brand’s chief creative officer Riccardo Tisci’s call to post pictures wearing Burberry looks on their respective social accounts. Likes, comments and reposts — including from Tisci himself — magnified the resonance of the show.

A common practice for years, product placement is at the base of brand’s social media strategies. Even when physical events were the norm, VIPs attending a show were outfitted head-to-toe by the brand hosting them. Yet, when these events shifted to the digital format, dressing personalities to watch a show from home felt less authentic and detached from the reality of the pandemic in the eyes of part of the audience.

“While some may say that the transposition of these placement activities made them feel forced…we have found that sending total looks prior to the event as part of the reveal of the collection is effective,” said Alison Bringé, chief marketing officer of the data research and insights company Launchmetrics. As an example, she mentioned Givenchy‘s virtual front row that “gave the public a chance to preview the collection before the launch thanks to having dressed top names like Kendall Jenner, who generated $1.5M in media impact value from a single post.”

For Saisangeeth Daswani, head of advisory — fashion, beauty and APAC at trends intelligence business at Stylus, the strategy is “still commonplace as it creates broad appeal to a highly relevant audience.”

“If anything, it’s now more necessary than ever as consumers’ inspiration and discovery process have diversified so significantly since the pandemic and now encompass a larger share of the digital and social space,” she added.

Yet both executives agreed that this strategy is no longer enough and evolution is needed. “Brands need to create impactful moments, along with authentic and relatable experiences, that will be translated into creative content. This is especially key in [this] era, where we have seen a shift from authenticity toward reliability — which is one of the biggest movements in influencer marketing strategies we found as a direct result of the changes since COVID-19,” Bringé said.

“The previously advantageous strategies have come with their downsides, leaving many consumers feeling as though brands are casting too wide a net in aligning with them,” added Daswani, underscoring how in recent years, micro- and nano- influencers have emerged as the ones better placed in building trust and credibility. “They are more engaged and have deeper reach within their niche communities, resulting in higher customer conversion rates.”

But with the pandemic affecting companies’ budgets over the last year, many players opted for concentrating their efforts and going big in order to be safe.

According to Bringé, media impact value generated by “All-Star Influencers” increased by 65 percent — compared to a 30 percent growth for the other tiers — while the number of accounts and placements both decreased. “It means that brands are focusing on the biggest influencers that they can activate, to create more noise with less,” she explained.

To further support her point and address the net difference between categories in terms of media impact value, or MIV, Bringé referenced the brands’ presentations even before addressing their corollary activities.

For instance, for the Versace show in March, the Hadid sisters generated an average of 45 percent of Versace’s total MIV, whereas notable yet “traditional” models Mica Argañaraz and Rianne Van Rompaey’s posts generated an average nearing only 2 percent of the brand’s MIV.

In particular, Gigi Hadid’s return to the runway created buzz not only through the model’s three posts for the brand — which generated a total of $3.3M in MIV — but also thanks to her media popularity, which helped to double the return and total $7.1M in media impact value.

With the lack of street style, backstage and front row contents, to recreate the VIP access has been the priority of brands as well as of talents, but for how immediate and effective, providing total looks is only one way to do it.

Some companies opted for elaborate invitations to send to their guests to promote the show. “When shows first went digital, some brands were sending exuberant yet excessive gifts to celebrities and influencers, such as physical look books or posters of looks from collections. These gifts seem to serve little purpose, and questions around waste quickly emerged,” Daswani said. So brands started to gift more useful items, such as those intended to enhance the viewing experience, inducing some influencers “to create impactful and authentic content out of the gesture.”

Most recent examples include the “GucciQuiz!” booklet filled with puzzles, crosswords and brain teasers the label distributed ahead of its Gucci Aria collection last month, with the likes of Serena Williams and Lou Doillon appearing in posts while trying to solve the games.

“This activity tapped into the growing desire for more mindfully driven and analogue-based pursuits. The games within the book were also all tied to the brand’s history and products, so it was a great initiative to build brand image,” Daswani noted.

“Influencers can be instrumental in readying the audience to watch the digital fashion show through teasing activities before the event and then accompanying users to the moment of the show. Watching the presentation together, like a ‘watch party’ can also be interesting to stimulate comments and participation,” said Vincenzo Cosenza, chief marketing officer of influencer marketing platform Buzzoole.

After-show commentary and conversations peaked over the past year, providing a new solution to brands to extend their momentum and boost the engagement with the audience. This strategy answers to users’ demand for more access into a brand’s world and values and for having their voices taken into consideration. Shifting users’ status from spectator to active interlocutors offered new inputs to companies, additionally helping them to offset the lack of immediate feedback they received with physical shows.

Key implementations in this sense include Gucci scheduling Instagram Live conversations last year when it unveiled its GucciFest event and miniseries. At the time, every episode was followed by a dialogue between personalities — often hailing from different industries to further stimulate the exchange of opinions while widening the brand’s reach — with each video registering an average of 237,000 views. Talents included Alexa Chung in conversation with art dealer and curator Kenny Schachter; Susie Lau with artist and photographer Petra Collins, and Zoë Bleu Arquette with Jared Leto, among others.

Prada’s post-show conversations have also become a traditional appointment, each time offered with a new perspective. The brand’s co-creative directors Miuccia Prada and Raf Simons debuted the format last year by answering questions the audience submitted in advance on the Prada website. The following season they engaged in a conversation with select students from international universities and, most recently, they involved an eclectic group of creative minds, such as Marc Jacobs, Rem Koolhaas and Hunter Schafer.

This communication strategy’s authenticity was further consolidated by similar activations throughout the year, ranging from talk series on Instagram to the Prada spring 2021 ad campaign that also embraced the conversation dynamic by posing questions.

Leveraging new platforms is an additional solution to create buzz and enhance the engagement, as Burberry did by livestreaming its spring 2021 show on Twitch. “Viewers could watch in squad mode where they could chat with like-minded brand fans, while enjoying multiple views and perspective of the show including a pre-show discussion between celebrities such as Bella Hadid and Rosalía, backstage views of models prepping, musicians and producers working the show,” recalled Daswani, who underscored how the brand “cleverly empowered consumers to explore new technologies” while giving them the desired insider access.

In the same chords, conversations on Clubhouse and content with a gaming angle also rose as alternatives, further proving that tangible goods are not always necessary to amplify a brand’s message.

“Thinking beyond products and gifts, the brands that are winning in the engagement and amplification space are the ones that are providing consumers with heightened value and more closely aligning themselves with evolving lifestyle needs,” Daswani said.

“Brands must learn to value consumers before demanding attention, by asking themselves what they need and how they can satisfy them,” echoed Cosenza. “People don’t always need glossy images and fun, sometimes they may need quality and useful content,” he added, mentioning practical styling guides, among others.

According to Cosenza, companies should prioritize value over product by not considering influencers as mere “mannequins” but empowering them to tell stories as well as communicate corporate values through different formats.

Alessandra De Siena, cofounder of the Digital Dust agency which specializes in influencer marketing and content production, concurred that storytelling is now key and the main attention trigger. As people got used to product placement, explanatory contents providing access to how a product is designed and manufactured are becoming more relevant. She mentioned one-to-one interviews with designers shared on IGTV or visits to a company’s factory among the most effective solutions, while Instagram Reels and TikTok empowered talents to experiment more with playful entertainment.

“In the past, we could say that the cool styling and the personal identity were enough to make the influencer interesting, but now it’s shifting: That sort of superficial excitement has to go deeper, somehow there has to be a meaning and connection behind that,” added Jaana Jätyri, founder of the Trendstop trend forecasting agency, noting that going forward collaborations need to move toward “a holistic elevation.”

Since the pandemic and recession led consumers to reconsider the talents they follow and the money they spend, the demand for quality content increased across the board. “They want gorgeous style, they want brands that stand for something and hopefully do something good in the world, whether it’s for the environment, diversity, community….When brands collaborate with influencers or celebrities, if that collaboration is not well-thought through, it can look a little bit artificial and not authentic and consumers are more and more becoming attuned to that sort of manufactured feeling,” Jätyri said.

De Siena noted that this approach fueled the common misconception around influencers being paid to promote and tell everything a company wants. “Truth is that talents that were consistent with their own message are the ones that are remaining popular over time because people really trust them…And people that have declined some collaborations to do less but better, are those that eventually benefited more in the long run,” she said.

As a consequence, long-term partnerships are gaining traction compared to spot ones. A brand becoming an integral part of the life of a talent is perceived as more credible and triggers an emulation process, with consumers wanting to integrate the same products in their daily habits, too.

In this framework, developing capsule collections is one of the remunerative ways to cement a partnership while equally spotlighting the values and creativity of both the brand and the talent.

So tapping the right “voice” and right channels has become essential for companies, with Bringé noting that “leveraging celebrities is successful in building awareness and creating authority, whilst working with influencers provides consideration and conversion.”

Along with the need to intercept different targets, conversion rates are among the elements pushing brands to divert their budgets from printed media to online platforms and influencer marketing.

“These implementations still work not only because talents are an incredible vehicle for the messages and values of brands, but also because companies have a real and immediate overview of their return of investment and of what these personalities brought them, by monitoring the visualizations of stories or ‘swipe up’ formats,” De Siena noted. “And this element proved to be pivotal, especially in a year when physical stores where closed and online was the only channel to do business.”

Yet the digital landscape is becoming more and more complex in light of the plurality of platforms, each with its own language and target, which demand a higher analysis and sophistication of these activities. According to Cosenza, Instagram will continue to stay relevant, especially if it will enhance e-commerce functions, but TikTok is exponentially growing and will be key in intercepting younger generations, which are “fleeting and little loyal.”

“Although Instagram might be the ‘go-to’ platform for Western audiences, platforms like Weibo, Douyin or RED are the ones dominating the social media landscape in China,” noted Bringé, underscoring the importance of developing dedicated contents.

In addition to these, Daswani also mentioned Snapchat, Clubhouse and Dispo, forecasting that “some brands might also follow in the footsteps of Burberry with Twitch.”

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