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What Brands Are Doing Instead of Influencer Campaigns

With pre-pandemic budgets slashed, brands are relying less heavily on influencers, using what marketing dollars they have left in creative ways.
Brands like Bonobos and Andie Swim have paused influencer partnerships because of Covid-19. | Collage by MC Nanda for BoF

NEW YORK, United States — Bonobos used to pay the likes of New York Giants football player Nate Ebner and menswear blogger Moti Ankari to promote the brand on social media.

But since Covid-19 became a global pandemic, the company has gone in a different direction. Influencer partnerships are on hold; in their place, Bonobos is sending more emails, including a newsletter packed with viral animal videos and satirical blog posts about the different types of people who appear in Zoom conference calls.

Bonobos joins a score of brands that have downsized their influencer campaigns due to the coronavirus pandemic. Around 30 percent of the fashion sponsored content that influencer talent agency Digital Brand Architects had signed was cancelled in April, DBA chief executive Raina Penchansky told BoF.

The best influencers have a connection with their followers that is hard to replicate. But brands are turning to the next best thing, from tapping employees to talk up products on social media to sending more emails. Aside from being cheaper, those methods also guarantee marketing will stay on message; no brand wants to get swept up in the next scandal involving a quarantine-flouting influencer.


The shift has fashion-minded social media stars scrambling to find new sources of income. The influencer economy was in flux even before Covid-19, as companies experimented with new marketing formats and up-and-coming platforms like TikTok. Some question whether brands will come back to fashion influencers in the same numbers once the pandemic ends.

“It feels like all the typical ways of marketing have gone out the window,” said Melanie Travis, founder of the swimwear brand Andie. Her company had previously worked with mega-influencers like Arielle Charnas and Erin Foster but is now sending free product to women with as few as 2,000 Instagram followers in exchange for posts.

Why brands are stepping away from influencers

Influencers at the top of their game can command as much as $20,000 per post, and even so-called micro-influencers with small, loyal followings can charge a few thousand dollars. Before the pandemic, brands were expected to spend $10 billion on influencer campaigns this year, according to Mediakix. For many brands, marketing budgets were one of the first things cut after the pandemic triggered a global economic meltdown.

Travis said Andie is not only saving money by cutting back on sponsored content, but also because she no longer has to pay retainer fees to agencies that represent the biggest influencers.

The glossy, envy-inducing lifestyle that defines many fashion influencers is also ill-equipped to speak to the times, when shoppers are riddled with anxiety. Some have even faced a backlash for what would have been normal behaviour before the pandemic, whether it’s Arielle Charnas chronicling her trip from New York City to the Hamptons or Naomi Davis driving her family to Florida to wait out Covid-19.

“Influencers, by definition, have to promote themselves and that’s counter to the mood that’s happening right now,” said sociologist and branding specialist Ana Andjelic. “We used to digest their content, but that was during a time of aspiration. Now, the reality is different and there is no time to be aspirational.”

Influencers, by definition, have to promote themselves and that's counter to the mood that's happening right now.

In a crisis, brands prefer to control the entire storytelling process.


“For us, it’s about tone,” said John Jannuzzi, director of content and product marketing at Bonobos. “We want to speak to our customers in the right way, and keep that on our channels.”

Some influencers counter that their posts are seeing record engagement, making their endorsements more valuable than ever. But not all brands believe those clicks will lead to sales.

“Traffic is way up on our site too, but conversion is down because shoppers are only poking around,” said Andie’s Travis. “Influencer engagement might be up, but we’re not hearing that it leads to conversions right now.”

Turning to email marketing

The new weekly emails Bonobos sends around include branded content, such as a link to Bonobos’s selection of sweatpants. But Jannuzzi said selling product is not the main goal.

“We know people are looking for content to brighten their day, and it’s a way to engage with customers and show the talent within Bonobos,” he said.

The newsletters have the added bonus of being more or less free, with Bonobos staff putting them together, and the email list drawn from existing customers.


We know people are looking for content to brighten their day, and it's a way to engage with customers.

Rent the Runway too has recently started an upbeat email newsletter, complete with book recommendations, poached eggs tutorials and inspirational quotes from Amy Poehler.

“We want to cultivate community with subscribers and have an opportunity to build a connection now,” said Gabby Etrog Cohen, senior vice president of communications and business development at Rent the Runway. “That’s how we’re thinking about marketing right now: connection with a brand. It’s very different from being transactional.”

Email marketing will likely be a huge win during Covid-19, said Ryan Urban, chief executive of marketing tech company BounceX, which works with brands like Uniqlo, Forever 21, the Honest Company and Hugo Boss. Email open rates are currently up 25 percent, he said, while unsubscribe rates are down.

This is a rare time when people are treating their inboxes like their news feed.

“This is a rare time when people are treating their inboxes like their news feed, so sending any promotions would be the most effective right now,” Urban said.

Looking to retail employees

Andjelic recommends brands lean on brand employees rather than influencers right now. Staff already know the ins and outs of a brand’s DNA.

“People are craving community and fashion employees are the community behind the brand,” she said. “This is a direct shift away from an individual cult personality of an influencer.”

Andjelic pointed to Marc Jacobs, which has been showing off employees' outfits on Instagram.

“The smart brands will figure out how to turn sales executives into influencers, and have them sell directly to consumers,” said Mary Keane-Dawson, chief executive of influencer marketing agency Takumi. “Employees are usually passionate about the brand and the product, and they come with expertise. You cannot get that from an influencer.”

Keane-Dawson pointed to the success of department stores in China like InTime, which had employees live streaming on Taobao Live while its 27 locations were closed during the coronavirus outbreak. The store sold about $14,000 of goods in one hour, according to a report from Fung Business Intelligence.

Looking to real people for influence

Since the outbreak of Covid-19, brands like Farfetch have begun to use Zyper, a marketing platform where fans produce their own content for brands in exchange for free products and other rewards.

Keane-Dawson recommends brands step outside their comfort zone and think more creatively about who is an influencer at this current moment.

Doctors on TikTok like Jason Campbell, a 31-year-old anesthesiology resident in Portland, Oregon, have become global icons, simply for posting viral dances and advice about Covid-19.

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Campbell said he’s been approached by brands, including Crocs, which sent him shoes that he’s since worn in new TikTok dance videos. He said he’s open to collaborating with other companies as long as it feels “authentic.”

“I think it’s funny that they assume I’m a good doctor just from seeing me dance, but I guess they appreciate that we are putting ourselves out there,” Campbell said.

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