A New Breed of Influencers Emerge During Covid-19

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“Influencer” has become a dirty word. Brands were slowly gravitating from macro to micro influencers before the pandemic. But “Covidiot” influencers such as Arielle Charnas––who took a very public trip to the Hamptons seven days after being diagnosed with Covid-19––have expedited the idiocy process. Even though Nordstrom hadn’t worked with Charnas since 2019, social media users called out Nordstrom for months until the retailer issued a formal statement saying they had no plans to work with her in the future.

It’s a challenging landscape: Retailers are operating in a time of heightened consumer sensitivity. Consumers are all too ready to boycott brands that take actions that don’t align with their values, and brands face the challenge getting customers who are currently or were previously quarantined to re-engage with the ultimate goal of incentivizing full-price purchases.

[callout]Younger consumers are unimpressed with aspirational marketing. This is especially true when nearly 1 million Americans are unemployed and many more are struggling with reduced hours. Instagram photos of luxurious shopping trips to high-end designers stores now feel privileged and insensitive.[/callout]

When the outbreak began, brands began to postpone campaigns with influencer marketing agencies. Sponsored posts on Instagram went from representing 35 percent of influencer content in mid-February to just four percent in mid-April, and macro-influencers (users with more than 1 million followers) took most of the hit. Sourcing Journal reports that macro-influencers made up just one to three percent of brand partnerships over the past 16 months. While about 40 percent of all brand partnerships were with smaller influencers.

Opt for Expertise Over Privilege

Younger consumers are unimpressed with aspirational marketing. This is especially true when nearly 1 million Americans are unemployed and many more are struggling with reduced hours. Instagram photos of luxurious shopping trips to high-end designers stores now feel privileged and insensitive. But some type of influencer marketing is necessary to reach homebound consumers… because when the nation took to their homes, next-gens took to social media. WhatsApp, Facebook and Instagram saw a usage increase of over 40 percent from 18 to 34-year-olds. But selling a “lifestyle” by flaunting wealth isn’t the way to reach them.

The growing customer base of next-gen “have-nots” are pretty annoyed with the “haves” at the moment. Influencers with expertise in a specific category are more credible than those that simply take glamorous photos––especially when the collective consciousness is hyper-focused on the downfalls of privilege. James Nord, Founder and CEO of influencer marketing firm Fohr, says that subject matter experts will be more successful than those producing aspirational content in the months that follow. And what better subject matter expert to communicate with customers than the company CEO themselves?

Rebecca Minkoff and the Rise of the Influencer CEO

Influencer CEOs have been big in the tech realm for decades. Movers and shakers like Steve Jobs, and Elon Musk set the tone for the movement that’s happening in fashion and retail today. As brands struggle to connect with consumers during shutdowns, company founders are once again stepping up to create an emotional bond with consumers.

Rebecca Minkoff recently spoke on a digital Retail Summit where she said that “influencers are dead” because brands can no longer depend on them to sell. Minkoff no longer pays influencers, as they’ve failed to demonstrate measurable ROI. She said that brands need to choose one credible spokesperson, such as the company’s CEO, to get their message across during the pandemic. This strategy is helping Minkoff’s namesake company excel while others fail. Minkoff does everything as the public face of her business––writing all of the blog copy, starring in all of the ads and serving as the spokesperson at industry events.

The celebrity CEO isn’t a new concept, but consumers expect a new level of transparency from company leaders. Minkoff’s Instagram product livestreams and the brand’s founder’s active presence in industry discussions demonstrate the accessibility necessary to make this strategy work.

Fenty Beauty House for TikTok Creators

Smart brands have pivoted to a C-commerce (consumer commerce) model to create relatable content. With C-commerce, the consumer actually participates in content production and commerce. Rihanna’s Fenty beauty line got a head start on this trend with Hype House––an aesthetically pleasing house chock full of flattering mirrors and lighting, as well as Fenty beauty supplies for the consumer influencer use in creating TikTok videos. The plan was to house a rotating array of influencers who would stream original branded content.

After three weeks, however, Fenty had to pivot due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Now the consumer influencers are working from home and the #fentybeauty hashtag already has over 44 million views on TikTok.

Companies as Influencers

Katie Hunt is a Co-founder and CCO at Showfields, the experiential art and retail concept that allows consumers to try out products that are usually only available online. And tech is the tool that Showfields uses to create customer experiences. As a result on the pandemic, customers want to direct their own shopping experience and may be wary of interacting with store associates IRL. Showfields lets customers interact with store associates as much or as little as they want through the Magic Wand App. The app allows customers to guide their discovery of over 60 rotating brands and artists. Consumers can engage with NFC tags throughout the store by tapping their phone against the “Magic Wand” icons to get product information, and to access an audio/video tour that guides them through the store.

Hunt states that that corporate businesses have emerged as the new influencers in 2020. Corporations are expected to have an “opinion,” or take a stance, on key issues. Businesses prove their relevance to customers by their actions regarding issues impacting their customer base. Right now, these issues include: the upcoming election, #blacklivesmatter, and of course, Covid-19 itself. Showfields itself is a great example of this. They recently collaborated with American Express to showcase 10 black-owned businesses in a complimentary pop-up retail space, with the intent to bring attention to black creators. The brands were hand-picked by influencer/designers Coco and Breezy––with the initiative bringing attention not only to the 10 brands featured, but to Showfields, as well.

Nordstrom Rack also takes a stance on social issues. But in this case, it’s Covid-19. (Make no mistake, coronavirus is one of the most controversial, oddly politicized social issues of our time.) Rack stands out in their commitment to taking precautionary measures to prevent pathogen spread. If you go into any Nordstrom Rack store, you’ll hear a manager announce, “alright team, time to clean” over the loudspeaker at regular intervals throughout the day. This public announcement helps to comfort customers, who may be wary of pathogen spread when shopping in physical. Nordstrom also provides health screenings for employees and has released blog content on their website that speaks to how they’re dealing with the pandemic as the situation develops.

Macy Lets Consumers Become Self-Driven Ambassadors

User-generated content is nothing new. However, enabling almost any consumer to make a post with an affiliate link for a sales commission is an innovative (if risky) concept. Macy\’s recently opened its Style Crew ambassador program to almost anyone with an Instagram. There’s no minimum number of followers needed to join the program. Although there is a screening process for applicants, this move will obviously give Macy’s a lot less control over brand positioning. But if you’re wondering what Macy’s was thinking, consider that 60 percent of consumers say content from friends or family influence their purchases decisions. Compare this to the measly 23 percent who say that content from celebrities and influencers are impactful, and it becomes a lot easier to understand why Macy’s is mobilizing their customer base.

Whether more influencers will mean more negative press for Macy’s (see “Covidiots”) remains to be seen, as well as whether adding a more personal touch to their influencer marketing program will bring new life to the ailing retailer.

We Won’t Go Backwards

Covid has accelerated the shift towards authentic, consumer-driven content. How this is executed varies by brand. Some brands are enabling customers to self-navigate through an in-app experience, some are enabling consumers to create their own content, and other brands are responding to consumers’ global concerns through social initiatives.

Now that next-gens have witnessed brands getting personal and have seen their favorite models and celebrities create ad content from home, it’s very unlikely that they’ll go back to responding positively to high-flying, airbrushed influencers. Flaunting wealth and privilege won’t be back in season for a hot minute, if ever, so retailers need to start thinking about how to get real with their customer base.



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