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The Global Influencer Economy, Part 2: Why Credibility Trumps Celebrity

Influence is a thorny business at the best of times. BoF examines trust in the era of fake news and why credibility is more powerful than celebrity.
Illustration by Mike Lemanski for BoF
By
  • Robb Young
BoF PROFESSIONAL

In part one of a two-part series on the global influencer economy, we examined the dark arts of influence, the "halo effect" delusion and why brands can't afford to play it safe. In part 2, we examine trust in the time of fake news, how cultural insight boosts the bottom line and why credibility is more powerful than celebrity.

LONDON, United Kingdom — When it comes to the business of influence, Haggai Klorman of digital agency Preen.me believes that there is a bigger issue to resolve than the debate around macro versus micro. It is the imperfect way we still measure influence itself.

“We can do an analysis of metadata [and] some are obvious, like benchmarking, but others are not. It’s not that there’s something wrong with EMV [the standard metric of earned media value], it’s just a simplified version of what you need. You lose a lot of scope of data and context. For me, that level of information lacks insight. That’s why we pair it with other forms of data, like focus groups,” he says.

In the age of Facebook’s fake news and data privacy crises, trust is an even bigger issue than it once was. The manipulation of online influence used to be the realm of hoaxsters and harmless pranksters, like Oobah Butler, who famously deceived the public into believing that a non-existent restaurant in the shed of his London garden was the top-rated restaurant on TripAdvisor, by having friends write fake reviews. But things are a lot more serious now that major names such as Samsung have been fined a six-figure sum for paying people to write negative online reviews about a competitor’s mobile phones.

In today’s fragile and sometimes farcical influence economy, American companies like Sylo and Dovetale have emerged to try to root out fake accounts on Instagram. For a few hundred dollars, tens of thousands of fake followers can now be bought in the US on the black market. It has become so endemic that companies like Devumi reportedly sold Twitter followers to celebrities using bots that they buy “wholesale” from other sites.

It gets worse. In China, according to a white paper on influencer marketing released by AdMaster last year, a staggering 69 percent of KOLs (key opinion leaders) evaluated by its system engaged in fraudulent practices such as “zombie accounts” or so-called “corpse accounts,” lower-grade counterfeits that just boost overall numbers but not engagement.

What is remarkable, however, is that in some Chinese marketing circles there is a lot less stigma around this. Sometimes marketers are even transparent about the proportion of fake followers to real followers. Openly buying social media “likes” harks back to 19th-century opera houses in Paris where professional “claquers” were employed to clap on cue during performances with the full acceptance of the audience. Just like the French firm L’Assurance des Succes Dramatiques that hired out “claquers” way back then, today’s Chinese zombie account enterprises get rich selling fake engagement.

Even when strategies are entirely legitimate, problems measuring influence crop up in opaque markets like China. L2’s latest China-focused KOL report found that influencers’ WeChat post view numbers (a proxy for their followers) do not correlate with engagement on their posts about brands.

“Whenever brands pay fashion bloggers or celebrities to mention their name, they are really taking a gamble on the amount of engagement they’re going to get out of it. Three-quarters of top KOLs posting about luxury brands achieved below-average engagement compared to their peers,” says L2’s Liz Flora. “And the most well-known fashion bloggers aren’t guaranteed to get the top engagement for brands.”

For example, according to L2’s analysis, Chinese fashion blogger Mr Kira received over 1.5 times more engagement on WeChat posts about brands than Gogoboi, one of China’s most famous KOLs. For comparison, Gogoboi has over 7.4 million Weibo followers and Mr Kira has about 2.3 million.

“I think part of the problem is that local offices in Asia don’t always feel like they can stand up to HQ when HQ is about to make a mistake investing too much in the wrong influence strategy or the wrong local influencer. Or HQ just doesn’t always listen anyway,” Yeh says.

Improving speed through localisation

Jamila Halfichi is witness to the same problem in the Middle East. As fashion editor of Asharq Al Awsat, a leading pan-Arab newspaper, she has noticed some global luxury brands floundering behind the scenes because they fail to localise enough of their marketing, advertising and PR efforts.

Graph by Jan-Nico Meyer for BoF

“The cut-and-paste formulas are just not cutting it any more,” Halfichi quips. “Some global influence campaigns are universally appealing or aspirational; of course they are. But there’s way too much imposed from [high up] that doesn’t work regionally.”

On the other hand, there are local nuances that global brands don’t always understand or care to acknowledge. In the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) region, for instance, female news anchors and television presenters are more often style icons than elsewhere. However, their influence profile doesn’t always sit well with luxury brand executives trying to keep ambassador contracts consistent with other markets, where the tendency is to partner with highbrow film stars.

“People in the Middle East look up to [actresses], bloggers and influencers to make them dream, but they also look up to conventionally successful people too. TV presenters are supposed to be beautiful and educated at the same time and that makes them very attractive here,” Halfichi says.

Diala Makki, a popular broadcaster on one of Dubai's TV channels, was only really accepted into the fashion influencer fold once she started producing big historical documentaries in Arabic on Coco Chanel and Christian Dior.

“If you use the same tactics around the world, you’re going to be leaving money on the table. Brands know they have a tactic that worked in one market but they need to be smarter and more analytical before [deploying tactics elsewhere],” says Klorman.

Klorman’s team at Preen.me has been using what they call a “next-phase model of community marketing” to speak directly with advocacy groups to garner immediate, business and product-related decisions from their communities. “By mining your community, it makes a breadcrumb trail back to your end user who is buying your product,” he says.

Whenever brands pay fashion bloggers or celebrities to mention their name, they are really taking a gamble on the amount of engagement they're going to get out of it.

It is only at that juncture that influence strategies can be conceived in a more platform-agnostic or market-agnostic way. Implementation and execution, however, need serious tailoring at every stage thereafter — whether it is creating customised content to fit VKontakte, Moscow's answer to Facebook, to reach Russians living in Dubai or suggesting fashion-forward Kuwaitis to download messaging apps like Line and KakaoTalk before they go on their annual shopping trips to Tokyo and Seoul.

Increasingly important details like these are still misunderstood or underexploited once consumers cross borders. "Luxury brands started having official accounts on Line and it has become a key marketing tool here because brands can send direct information to the shopper," says Mizuyo Yoshida, founder of Japanese fashion PR firm Steady Study.

Influence marketing moves at an incredibly fast pace wherever you are in the world, but the pace of change is further accelerated in many emerging markets. Just ask Alia Fawad.

Fawad is the director of ITP Live, a Dubai-based social media and influencer marketing agency launched last year, representing more than 40 media brands including the Middle Eastern editions of Esquire and Grazia. “What we see in this region is a lack of sustained strategy and sometimes not having the power to react fast due to strict brand guidelines. Anyone who can react instantly has the influence,” she says.

This is a sentiment echoed by Alice Ferraz, the Brazilian fashion publicist who opened her own influencer agency called F*hits in São Paulo. "My favourite question to PRs nowadays is this: 'How are you changing the way you think and act to become a 4G PR, a PR that is connected with the speed of our times?'" she says.

“We have 320 influencers at F*hits, from macro to micro, and we’ve mapped out Brazil to understand people with the highest influence in each and every Brazilian state. It’s a cliché but ‘think global, act local’ has never been so important.”

Regina Barrios, co-founder of Latin American fashion trade show Caravana Americana held in Mexico City, agrees. “Most global brands now have work to do to really capture the imagination of Mexicans or tailor their approach to Mexico in a relevant way. Right now, independent and emerging designers are great influencers in Latin America, they’re key to communicate directly to our target market,” she says.

“H&M recently did an influencer campaign here [called #hmlovesmadero] which was with everybody local — stylists, photographers and [politically charged] fashion designer Barbara Sánchez-Kane. It gained a lot of attention because it showed a refreshing side of Mexico — the tough streets of urban areas that don’t usually get featured in campaigns shot here. The campaign was colourful, joyful, funny and true — very Mexican,” she said.

Cultural insight boosts the bottom line

In order to exert deep and lasting influence in the Middle East, suggests Louise Nichol, editor-in-chief of Harper’s Bazaar Arabia, it is vital to connect to an Arab audience beyond the physical or aesthetic. “It’s key [for an influencer] to embody the values that the region holds dear — family values, decency, philanthropy, education or a sense of entrepreneurship,” she explains.

The wealthy Lebanese diaspora has traditionally been fertile ground for luxury brands. Influencer favourites include Lana El Sahely who was born in Cameroon, Central Africa, and Jessica Kahawaty, whose parents emigrated to Australia. Karen Wazen and Dana Hourani are Lebanese living in Dubai.

Belatedly, some brands are finally beginning to experiment with more local actors and performers, Nichol suggests, pointing to Egyptian actresses such as Tara Emad and Yasmine Sabri and Tunisian-Lebanese Nadine Njeim Nassib. “With the right image management, this is where the future Arab brand ambassadors are likely to come from. High jewellery brands are embracing them quite readily and it will be interesting to see if luxury ready-to-wear follows suit,” Nichol adds.

According to Halfichi, however, the trouble comes because the regional marketing divisions aren’t empowered by the brands’ CMOs. “That’s why they need to empower imaginative local people, yes, but they have to be more than that. They have to be brave, imaginative people who can take big decisions on influence strategies — not just yes-men or locals who follow orders blindly. Basically, the big brands really need to stop tip-toeing around the market,” she adds.

Paradoxically, she suggests that brands do not allow for enough error in the trial-and-error approach that most are forced to employ across emerging markets.

Graph by Jan-Nico Meyer for BoF

In Shanghai, Western marketers are pleased when young women seem willing to wait hours in line to get into Chanel's pop-up Coco Café to post photos of their Chanel logo coffee cups, giving the brand free publicity, because it is what they expect. The same goes for livestreaming on apps like Yizhibo or Meipai from the Vivienne Westwood café in K11 or at Gucci's glamorous Shanghai restaurant.

However, some high-potential influencers in other Chinese regions are often overlooked because their social media feeds put off European luxury executives. Their passionate selfies with exotic pets like pigs, snakes and lizards make some marketing executives in the ivory towers of Paris wince. According to Yiling Pan, associate editor of Jing Daily, some wealthy influencers in Chongqing and Chengdu love posting a barrage of unfamiliar and disconcerting local food dishes in their feed. But wearing Chanel at a favourite dive bar or Prada at a ramen shack isn't "off brand;" it shows an affectionate intimacy with the brand that should be appreciated, not rebuffed.

On the other side of the world, brands are making very different errors in judgement. “I just had a meeting with one of the Middle East’s biggest womenswear and jewellery distributors. They said that recent market research with sheikha-level clients revealed that these women resent seeing special pieces on influencers before they have been shown to them,” says Nichol of Harper’s Bazaar Arabia.

Indeed, brands need to ask themselves if influence campaigns are worth it when they alienate the incredibly wealthy, discreet members of extended royal families across Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, who have traditionally been the most loyal and prolific luxury shoppers in the region. Or whether expanding private trunk shows for the sheikhas ahead of online influence campaigns, for instance, would even be enough.

The royal connection is a tricky one. Paris couture front-row favourite Princess Sirivannavari Nariratana managed to grow her online influence back in Thailand even as she launched her own fashion line. But the pathways of modern royal fashion influence are often very unpredictable. Among the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in Israel, Kate Middleton’s style has surprisingly big influence, compelling Haredi women to buy her preferred brands even though few of them actually dress like the Duchess of Cambridge does.

Since photographs of women are forbidden in Jerusalem’s Haredi media, most Haredi women don’t even have access to images of her, but a few working women find ways to access the internet at the office, where it is not censored, and regularly forward pictures of Kate’s latest outfits to each other in private groups on WhatsApp. Something similar happens in Iran when women use the encrypted Telegram app to share images from bloggers working to promote smuggled designer imports via local resellers.

Choosing credibility over celebrity

“It’s time to face it — audiences don’t believe the individual post any more. They want to see influencers that really love a brand in order to believe them — and that requires a basic marketing fundamental — repeated exposure,” says Eyal of HYPR.

There's nothing worse than an inauthentic attempt to tell a local story

Victor Luis, the chief officer of Tapestry Inc, which owns Coach and Kate Spade, believes that consumers are now constantly triangulating because they have so much information, but that the credibility that truly authentic influencers bring can help consumers who are discovering a brand for the first time.

“It’s an influencer society in some ways and there’s a lot of talk about a backlash around [whether] influencer marketing is going to hurt or help. My very strong belief is that if it’s done authentically — and this is where the consumer knows and can make a distinction — then I think that the impact is still very, very real,” he told BoF late last year.

One way that some global brands can improve the perception of authenticity for their influence strategies is by hiring more local advertising and marketing firms and allocating more budget to them to supplement global campaigns.

Akerele cites Bola Balogun’s Nigerian marketing agency Glam Brand Agency as an example. For Lancôme, Balogun brokered several local influencers for the brand’s global campaign for 40 shades of foundation.

“There’s nothing worse than an inauthentic attempt to tell a local story,” says Shukri Toefy, chief executive of Fort, a South African marketing agency that taps into cool, edgy storytelling for clients like Uber, MTV Base and Nike.

“There are instances [when] global campaigns will resonate well and enhance brand perception and drive action and performance in local African countries. However, this needs to be done in conjunction with local campaigns that use local influencers, find local consumer insights, build authentic cultural narratives and drive diversity,” he says.

Graph by Jan-Nico Meyer for BoF

For example, Fort, along with Native VML, created a punchy online video for Nike featuring several stylish footballers from a Johannesburg Premier League team. However, Toefy’s firm is still a small and sporadic player dominated by huge global ad agencies or their South African partners owned by the likes of WPP, Publicis and Omnicom.

Toefy has made waves on the continent by calling for the “decolonisation” of Africa’s creative economies from so many foreign-owned firms. In a heated interview with Marketing Week, he said that “in South Africa, you drive down the street and at universities they’re tearing down statues of Cecil John Rhodes and all these colonial leaders, but then you drive further and there’s Ogilvy and Saatchi & Saatchi.”

However, it doesn’t take a revolution to make progress adapting influence strategies to perform better across international markets. Sometimes it is a matter of keeping a closer eye on regional advertising trends.

For instance, most fashion executives are still singing from the hymn sheet extolling Korea’s pop culture influence on China. Few would be aware of the more recent impact Thai advertising is having online in China. A Thai TV commercial for skincare brand Ocean Skin became a huge hit on Weibo, kicking off a wave of Thai influence thanks to cheeky ads like KA brand lip balm that tickled viewers with an unexpected gay twist or another format of so-called “sadvertising” that uses epic Thai tear-jerker ads that resonate well in China.

It is not an easy time to be a global brand. In a post-truth world where customers are as diverse, sensitive, sceptical and hyper-connected as ever, keeping track of rapidly evolving influence dynamics is hard enough. Staying one step ahead often requires brands to take risks. But this seems at odds with fashion which, as an industry, has traditionally been very precious about a brand’s ad imagery and cautious about new marketing touchpoints.

Yet another paradox is that brands now need to loosen their grip on the reins, even though influence partnerships can be potentially explosive, with consumer backlashes, boycotts and PR disasters erupting out of the smallest of missteps. Greater flexibility is key — and an understanding that fashion’s relationship with influence needs to be less reactionary and a lot more visionary.

“My sense is that brands don’t always think about [influence] in the same way that they do with other business goals. They don’t think in terms of short-term, medium-term and long-term goals [like they do with other business areas],” says Klorman.

The biggest issue of all, however, is that our expectations for influence itself are probably far too high. “If you look at any of the advertising phenomena that took place over past decades, you soon realise that there is no silver bullet,” he says. “And neither is this.”

This article first appeared in BoF's latest special print issue: The Age of Influence. The issue — which includes our special report on The Business of Beauty — is available for purchase at shop.businessoffashion.com and at select retailers around the world. If you sign up to BoF Professional before June 29, 2018, you'll receive this issue as part of your annual membership, which also includes unlimited access to articles, exclusive news and analysis, invitations to networking events and our members-only iOS app. Subscribe here today.

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