Not so long ago, tapping into influence meant signing up a celebrity brand ambassador and retaining full control over the campaign message and imagery. Now, a whole army of social media users, with audiences ranging from a few hundred to millions and with their own take on content, are available as retail marketing partners.
Although some retailers have embraced influencer marketing to good effect, the channel is still in its infancy, giving rise to questions around control, measurement, internal structures, and consistency—all of which can make influencer marketing troubling for senior retail marketer decision-makers when devising strategy.
“Retail brands have yet to utilise influencers as much as they will come to,” said Sophie Lewis, head of planning at creative agency Iris, because it means relinquishing control of the brand to some extent. “Working with influencers is more akin to a partnership than a piece of communication where, ultimately, the brand can determine exactly what the outputs are.”
Nonetheless, lack of control is also the very thing that makes influencers authentic and credible to the audiences they’ve built—and into potentially powerful allies for a retail brand, especially those in fashion, beauty, fitness, home, and food.
Asos Insiders, for example, is the online fashion retailer’s Instagram-focused influencer marketing initiative. Rather than sponsoring posts, Asos supports a group of micro-influencers in fashion, beauty, and lifestyle. Each runs an Asos-branded Instagram account, alongside their own blogs and accounts, where they share style advice, fashion tips, and shoppable Asos outfits. So far, the retailer says its 25 Insiders have added almost 17.9 million engagements to the brand through their total of 1.1 million followers.
Measuring the direct impact of influencer marketing on sales is a work in progress, so retail marketers are more likely to focus on shifting brand awareness than product, and measure accordingly. Even then, the lack of credible research means influencer marketing remains a bolt-on to many marketing teams.
Richard Ablett, client director at agency Brilliant Noise, argues that successful retailers are not waiting for proof from the market to forge ahead with influencer marketing strategies. Instead, they are creating their own value and investing in the capability of local teams to deliver and innovate. “Successful brands in this space have recognised the purpose of influencers as a method to reach elusive audiences and are leaning into the opportunity,” he said.
Driven by the need for authenticity, they are moving creative control away from the operationally efficient centre and making it the responsibility of local market teams to identify, negotiate with, brief, and measure influencers. “From the brand perspective, this brings greater targeting, strategy, and accountability for results—all within a commercial structure that feels close to a media buy,” he added. “In turn, the influencer is being paid for quality, has a creative partner and a long view of that relationship.”
A proliferation of intermediaries, such as influencer agencies and platforms, in recent years is designed to bring some much-needed structure and channel maturity into influencer marketing. When it comes to finding the right partner, consistency and a long-term view are crucial, according to Rebecca Robins, global director at Interbrand.
“The influencer debate has become such a prevalent topic, it has almost reached FOMO territory, similar to the rise of social media platforms, with brands feeling a need to be present everywhere rather than thinking whether what they’re doing as a brand aligns with who they are as a brand,” she said. In the high-end and luxury end of retail, Robins has advised, the result is “a lot of mismatches with influencers.”
Consequently, an influencer is another partner or brand collaboration, and the real question for brands is how an influencer fits within their ecosystem and strategic intent. Robins said she believes that strong brands start from within, and the more cohesive your business is on the inside, the more effective your brand is in driving authenticity, relevance, differentiation in the market, and, ultimately, in influencing choice and loyalty. With that in mind, any form of brand collaboration, whether with partners, sponsors, or influencers, needs to operate on the premise of shared value, according to Robins. Far too often brands say “why not” do this when the question should always start with “why.”
Mutual benefit underpins the Asos approach, as a number of insiders are drawn from the retailer’s own global employee base—a decision that turns its relationship with youth culture into one of participation at a peer-to-peer level rather than simply commoditisation.
For Rebecca Hall, global head of marketing at BzzAgent, the use of micro-influencers recognises a basic need for trust. “While the digital world is in a state of constant change, little has evolved when it comes to who we trust when pushing our on or offline shopping cart,” she said. “In study after study, year after year, the people we know, and those who are consumers just like us, are the ones we trust when making purchase decisions.”
Similarly, retail/influencer partnerships that span months or years as opposed to weeks often feel more authentic to an influencer’s audience, as it shows they have a more genuine affinity for the brand.
New Influencer Dynamics
As an evolving channel, retailer partnerships with influencers come in a range of guises, from sponsored posts with niche influencers who mirror their demographic, to long-term brand ambassadorships, creative collaborations, and distribution deals. At the same time, the lines between influencer, celebrity, and content creator are blurring.
Singer and songwriter Rihanna launched her Fenty beauty range with beauty retailer Sephora in a number of countries and exclusively with department store Harvey Nichols in the U.K. and Ireland. As one of the world’s most powerful cultural icons, the link-up brings a new dynamic to the retailer/celebrity relationship.
Meanwhile, content creation opportunities are driving the changes for Whalar, a platform originally set up to professionalise the relationship between influencers and brands. Co-founder James Street believes the business has “became less about the marketing and more about the community that can create any piece of content a brand needs.”
Adidas, for example, worked with Whalar to find influencers in Manchester to create content for a product launch in the city. The assets were used in paid social to target the local community. As a result, Whalar is changing its definition of “influencer.” “It’s not a word we like as we lean more towards creators and use ‘creators with influence,’” he said. “We will drop influence at some point down the line.”
It’s a shift that partly indicates how a new level of maturity is coming to influencer marketing. For senior retailer marketers, however, the challenges and pain points that surround a new channel will likely remain for some time.
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