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The Global Influencer Economy, Part 1: The Dangers of Playing It Safe

What boosts the bottom line from London to Lagos? BoF examines the dark arts of influence and why brands can't afford to play it safe.
Illustration by Mike Lemanski for BoF
  • Robb Young

In part one of a two-part series on the global influencer economy, we examine the dark arts of influence, the 'halo effect' delusion and why brands can't afford to play it safe.

LONDON, United Kingdom — Even her biggest fans would concede that she was a total trainwreck. If anything, that was part of her strange appeal. But whether you loved her or loved to hate her, a few years ago Nicole Polizzi was one of the biggest names in American entertainment. "Snooki," as the breakout star was known, had become a major money spinner for the MTV executives who cast her in the hit reality show Jersey Shore.

Famous for belching, getting arrested and revelations such as “I’m not trashy, unless I drink too much,” Snooki was clearly not conceived to be a role model. Manicured middle-class mothers heaped scorn on her as “a bad influence” on their daughters. The tabloids crowned her the world’s worst-dressed celebrity and Hollywood blamed her type for the dumbing down of showbiz. All in all, it was a pretty brutal indictment.

But the bombastic anti-hero does offer an enlightening case study on the business of influence. For one, Snooki’s story proves that cognitive bias and other tried-and-tested theories of psychology only go so far toward explaining how fashion influence works.

Fashion, with all its beauty, baggage, irony and idiosyncrasies, presents an exotic environment for influence to grow. Fashion influence pathways, however, are shaped by the same set of animal instincts that drive human nature the world over.

But most tellingly, perhaps, the sensation that was Snooki reveals how the business of influence has a darker side that some fashion insiders will seek to exploit — and an ambiguous nature that leads more than a few executives to distraction.

The dark arts of influence

For many working in New York’s fashion industry, watching Jersey Shore was a guilty pleasure. It was a way for achingly cool Manhattanites to see exaggerated stereotypes of “bridge and tunnel” people come to life while indulging in a spot of tawdry television in an era before the Insta-famous took over their feeds. Simon Doonan of Barneys New York was among those enthralled with the likes of Snooki — not least when the Madison Avenue merchandiser discovered how the wider fashion industry was engaging with her.

“There is a wicked new marketing strategy currently sending shock waves through the high-stakes competitive world of luxury fashion. It’s devious, delightful and deliciously dirty,” wrote Doonan in his salacious column for the New York Observer back in 2010, aptly called “How Snooki Got Her Gucci.”

Doonan described how Snooki was always seen with a Coach handbag until recent weeks, when she had been sporting several other brands, including Gucci. Global luxury brands were aggressively gifting Snooki with free accessories, he revealed, but rather than sending their own branded goods, the PRs had their assistants go buy handbags from their competitors and send those instead. The implication being that one of Gucci’s rivals had actually sent her the Gucci bag.

Snooki was papped everywhere you wouldn’t expect a Gucci Sukey to be and the irony of it even made headlines in Condé Nast glossies. Doonan declared her a “pawn of pre-emptive product placement,” because the bottom line was that “nobody in fashion wants to co-brand with Snooki,” though he did amusingly predict that “she will soon be able to sidestep the whole issue and buy her own Birkin, thereby precipitating a mass Jonestown suicide over at Maison Hermès.”

While the underhanded tactics allegedly used by luxury brands eight years ago are not exactly common in today’s fashion PR playbook, neither are they unheard of. Known in psychology circles as the “horn effect” referring to devilish horns, this phenomenon is the opposite of the more familiar “halo effect.” The latter, employed by fashion brands for countless endorsements over the decades, assumes that celebrity stardust rubs off on them. The “horn effect,” however, would give brands a mucky stain from a D-lister.

The worry for Gucci was that the perception of its brand would be unduly influenced by a single negative trait — namely the association of its handbags with the likes of Snooki. But unlike Burberry's brush with the "horn effect" a decade earlier, when Eastenders actress Danniella Westbrook got blamed for making Burberry's brand equity suffer, the danger to Gucci in the US was minimal because Snooki's interest in Gucci didn't represent the broader market reality — unlike Westbrook, who was emblematic of Burberry's very real link to British "chav culture" at the time.

Today, Gucci is arguably the most influential fashion brand in the world. Snooki, on the other hand, is a mildly reformed character, with 10.7 million Instagram followers, fronting an online store that sells merchandise inspired by her highly distinctive wardrobe. Cue “Pink-alicious Snookini” swimsuits and T-shirts emblazoned with slogans like “Vote for Pizza.”

Clearly, Snooki still has a sizeable fanbase, buoyed in April by the Jersey Shore reunion show which saw her gang romp through Miami. But once you compare Snooki-the-personality with Snooki-the-would-be-fashion-influencer, a far clearer picture emerges from the haze.

The whole point of influence is influence itself, not the influencer.

The gap between the 142,000 Instagram followers on her online shop account and the 10.7 million people on her official account implies that less than 2 percent of her fans are actually influenced by what clothes she wears or which orange tanning lotion she might endorse. The remaining 10.5 million people following her feed could be motivated by any number of reasons — from being entertained by her antics to having an unhealthy fascination with her slang (calling diminutive women like herself “meatballs” is one of many corkers).

The verdict? Snooki still doesn’t wield enough relevant influence on the millions following her — which include many genuine luxury consumers — to change their perception or impact their behaviour when it comes to fashion. The Snooki “horn effect” is a myth.

The halo-effect delusion

"The whole point of influence is influence itself, not the influencer," offers Haggai Klorman, co-founder of, a digital solutions agency with beauty clients ranging from Charlotte Tilbury to IT Cosmetics.

It is true that an influencer can occasionally be catastrophic or critical to a brand’s success, but it is usually the substance of the influence strategy behind the influencer that determines the broader business outcome. Though a very important part of the equation, the influencer is just one factor in a complex influence dynamic.

Phil Rosenzweig, a professor of strategy at IMD business school in Switzerland, suggests that the halo effect is not as straightforward as it seems, either. He characterises it as a potential “delusion” when it is applied to certain kinds of decision-making processes, but even the theory’s truest believers must realise that the halo effect can’t be deployed on a wing and a prayer.

Think back to the moment when the top brass at Burberry and Chanel first saw photographs of Kate Moss allegedly snorting cocaine. Dropping Moss from their campaigns was a necessary act of crisis management but neither brand was seriously tarnished by the association. Disaster averted; halo intact.

Brands can be disappointed with the outcome of a halo-effect investment even without a PR disaster. When big money is paid to a big-name celebrity, the return on investment (ROI) is a factor of relevance as much as it is of risk. According to Gil Eyal, whose influencer search and discovery firm HYPR counts Michael Kors, Pepsi and AOL among its clients, one of the most poignant examples of this is when Estée Lauder-owned Bobbi Brown signed Sports Illustrated model Kate Upton as brand ambassador.

“It was a three-year multi-million-dollar endorsement deal, [but when you examine] Upton’s audience demographics, 80 percent of her audience are males who are interested in humour, basketball, football and gaming. Not only was Upton’s audience predominantly male, but they had no interest in cosmetics,” says Eyal.

It gets even worse when brands leave their familiar markets in the West and get to places like China where conventional wisdom can get turned on its head.

On the flipside, he suggests, is Australian beauty brand Becca, which was also acquired by Estée Lauder. Becca collaborated with YouTube beauty influencer Jaclyn Hill after she used the Shimmering Skin Perfector in a 2014 video, causing sales to skyrocket. Eyal believes this was a success not only because Hill’s brand affinity for Becca was considered authentic, but also because the brand did its due diligence on Hill’s audience demographic — which is 91 percent female and genuinely interested in beauty and fashion.

"Sounds obvious, right? Well, apparently, it's not. So many brands are still getting it so wrong. It's crazy," says Shaway Yeh, group style editorial director of Modern Media Group and founder of Shanghai-based consultancy Yehyehyeh. "And it gets even worse when brands leave their familiar markets in the West and get to places like China where conventional wisdom can get turned on its head."

The beauty business provides yet another case in point. While Covergirl and Maybelline have made unprecedented moves by tapping men for recent campaigns, female influencers are still overwhelmingly enlisted to promote women’s beauty products in Europe and the US. Yet in China, a recent report confirmed what locals already suspected: that male celebrities can actually achieve more social engagement there.

Graph by Jan-Nico Meyer for BoF

“In fact, seven out of the top 10 Weibo posts by beauty brands studied featured a male star,” says Liz Flora, editor of Asia-Pacific Research at digital agency L2.

The Weibo posts by male pop star Luhan promoting L'Occitane, for example, generated 186 times more engagement than the brand's average for its own account, and L'Occitane said he was a major cause of a 250 percent increase in China online marketplace sales. "Our report also found that he generated 89 percent of Cartier's total Weibo interactions last year," Flora adds.

But fashion brands can't always afford to play it safe with megastars like Luhan. Saccharine sweet, squeaky clean pop stars like him have been upstaged by edgier Asian artists such as Kris Wu, Li Yuchun and Chaelin Lee (aka CL), who have scored campaigns with Burberry, Givenchy and Alexander Wang respectively.

Now, even as China’s government censors target rappers and the older generation finds Chinese “boybands” like Acrush scandalous (its members are actually five cross-dressing women), fashion consumers in the region are tuning into ever more rebellious singers for style cues.

Perfectly imperfect idols

Take Oh Hyuk, the leader of Hyukoh Band, an underground indie band in Korea, who went mainstream having had exposure in TV programmes like Infinite Challenge. With a shaved head, face piercings and plucked eyebrows, the striking bad boy made it on the cover of the Chinese and Korean editions of Dazed, but is only on the radar of a few international brands.

“He’s known for his fashion sense and works with a very talented stylist, Kim Yeyong… who’s styled numerous covers for Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar,” says Inhae Yeo, the Korean founder of communications agency Oikonomos.

"I love Hyukoh's recent Calvin Klein project posting a number of his own 'My Calvin' experiences pictured with his friends and close circle [on Instagram]. It makes [Korean customers] realise that there's change and something new happening at Calvin Klein," she says, referring to the new direction of Raf Simons.

Reality TV takes on a very different tone in Asia. There, variety TV shows serve as an unusually effective platform for Asian celebrities to sport their designer gear. “Viewers are keen to connect with the artists’ real personality [during variety shows and] this should be kept in mind when activating a social media campaign,” Yeo adds.

Like in many other markets, most luxury brands in South Korea stick to the tried-and-tested influence formula of models-turned-entertainers with vast Instagram followings, like Lee Sung-Kyung or Jang Yoon-Ju. But there are lesser-known locals with big potential. “Products worn by a TV personality fashionista like Kim Na-young [who regularly attends Paris Fashion Week] would have a direct impact where specific items would sell out immediately,” Yeo predicts.

Tommy Hilfiger chief brand officer Avery Baker has been making tentative steps in this direction. "We've seen fantastic reactions from working with Gigi [Hadid] and Harajuku influencers in Tokyo, hosting [Korean rapper] Park Chanyeol at TommyxGigi in London, and bringing Lewis Hamilton and [Hong Kong actor] Shawn Yue together to collaborate in Shanghai," says Baker.

In China, a new breed of sarcastic, sceptical online influencers from the country’s “diaosi” (“loser”) subculture started infiltrating the country’s fashion market last year thanks to blogger Papi Jiang. Although it is challenging to find the right brand fit for commercial partnerships, their rise demonstrates the growing appeal of unscripted quirky influencers with integrity.

Non-conformists in Japan's famously homogeneous society, like the plus-size comedian Naomi Watanabe, are also gaining real influence. Having amassed a fanbase of 7.9 million on Instagram, she launched her own plus-size fashion label in a culture that is notoriously sizeist. American brand Gap tapped into her sensational popularity for its Logo Remix campaign, but other global brands have so far dithered.

Another example of newly influential style icons, who would have hitherto been considered fashion failures, is the Japanese band Chai. "The girls in this band have become very popular among young fashion people as their taste is very unique but in a Japanese way. They're good because they're totally ugly and charming," says Akiko Shinoda, director of international affairs for Tokyo's Amazon Fashion Week.

Shinoda explains that fashion outsiders are filling the void left by fashion insiders. “There are a few buyers who are influencers, like Poggy from United Arrows, Miss Yoshimi Nagao from Takashimaya or Mrs Yukari Negishi of Ron Herman. But, ironically, fashion journalists here are not good at their Instagram. Yu Masui might be the only good one, actually.”

The link between music and fashion influence in Japan is growing stronger with the emergence of ever more flamboyant, offbeat musicians, such as Rina Sawayama and Kom_I, whose influence seems to be based on perfecting imperfection. “So many small [consumer cohorts] exist in the Japanese market so we see these kinds of micro-influencers becoming very important,” Shinoda adds.

Size matters: Macro, meso, micro

Nevertheless, a lot in fashion influence still hinges on the brute force of herd instinct. “As slaughterhouse operators have long known, the mentality of a herd makes it easy to manage,” wrote Robert B Cialdini in his seminal work “Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion.”

“I know it’s easy to get tempted by the crazy number of followers that mainstream Asian stars have. But come on, ultimately, influence has got to be based on genuine alignment and that means more brands will have to use a combination of influencers with different audience sizes across most major markets,” Yeh says.

Graph by Jan-Nico Meyer for BoF

The trade-off between intimacy and scale differs across international markets, but what is clear is that finding the sweet spot between macro-, meso- and micro-influence for a sector like fashion is complicated everywhere. One person who seems to be getting the balance right is Omoyemi Akerele, the founder of Lagos Fashion & Design Week in Nigeria.

“Last year, we launched a collaboration between [Lagos-based brand] Orange Culture and Africa’s music superstar Davido to cross-pollinate music with fashion in Selfridges as part of their Music Matters campaign,” she says. Over the years, Akerele has tapped a wide range of mass and niche influencers, including big Nollywood actresses such as Genevieve Nnaji alongside highbrow cultural influencers like the filmmaker Aisha Augie-Kuta.

Micro-targeting early adopters and tastemakers while achieving a critical mass to hit revenue targets is no easy feat under the same brand umbrella. Especially when brands face starkly different — and equally relevant — market realities across large and varied countries such as the US and Russia, where culture wars are further dividing consumers into starkly different influence camps.

Take the advice from Sascha Amato, a Russian fashion editor who has worked for the local editions of Interview magazine and Buro 24/7, as one perspective. “Russians are still very intrigued by big presentations, big shows of wealth and big power moves. So Western brands shouldn’t be afraid of spending extra on making their influence strategies really pop here — that usually pays off,” he says.

Citing a “certain pride in isolationism” and “a popular Russian proverb ‘what’s normal to a Russian is deadly to a German,’” Amato believes that “consumers in CIS countries aren’t that interested in things that are at the top of the agenda for Western European and American brands right now, like sustainability, inclusion on the runways, ideas of model size and disavowing fur and so on,” he claims.

Now listen to Anastasiia Fedorova, a Russian-born writer for Dazed and i-D, who paints a very different picture. “In the past few years, urban Russian youth [have been] developing their own emerging style tribes, largely influenced by nightlife and new music scenes,” she says, highlighting edgy young influencers bubbling up from the witch house rave scene and home-grown hip-hop and grime artists, like Pharaoh, Oxxxymiron and Dead Dynasty.

Fedorova points to “the Adicolor campaign that was all over [her] Insta with a range of popular Moscow kids wearing tracksuits in various colours,” and believes that brands such as Adidas and Nike are succeeding in Russia because they are using micro-influencers like “party promoters, niche influencers [and] working with youth-oriented indie media like Wonderzine” in order to micro-target audiences like progressive Russian feminists.

Activewear, sportswear and streetwear brands do seem to be one step ahead when it comes to balancing intimacy with scale. As part of its wider integration of “Off the Wall” cultural influencers, Vans dispatched Curren Caples and its crew of other skateboarders on a whistle stop tour for its #VansPropeller campaign, to explore the Latin American skating scenes in Mar del Plata, Argentina, Santiago, Chile and Bogotá, Colombia.

The luxury sector sometimes finds it harder to tap into valuable influencers beyond Western markets but often it is due to a lackadaisical approach. Luxury marketers tend to overuse big showcases and milestone events to scout for influencers. Take last year's Louis Vuitton cruise show, when the outside world caught a glimpse of Thai influencer Urassaya Sperbund aka "Yaya" at the brand's cruise show in Kyoto, Japan.

"She's young and very intelligent with her own voice in fashion and she definitely moves products [in Thailand]. She received a lot of attention from international press there. In fact, she was such a phenomenon at the show that LV seated her next to [Vuitton CEO] Michael Burke at dinner," recalls Vogue Thailand editor-in-chief Kullawit "Ford" Loasukri, who accompanied her there.

With 6.4 million Instagram followers and the implicit stamp of approval that comes with attending a Vuitton cruise show, Yaya then skyrocketed up the rankings of luxury brand PRs everywhere as one after another jumped on the bandwagon. However, without an obvious stage like that to show off your influence, luxury marketers sometimes fall at the first hurdle and miss other exciting opportunities. Take Jennifer Obayuwana in Nigeria, for example.

In Africa, it's more about quality than quantity. An influencer may have 60,000-600,000 followers, but [they have] strong buying power.

Obayuwana’s father is a fine jewellery and timepiece mogul in West Africa, distributing Rolex, Cartier, Chopard, Piaget and many more brands through his Polo boutiques in Lagos, Abuja, Accra and other cities around the region. With 157,000 followers, Obayuwana’s influence is more focused and discreet than Yaya’s (she is her father’s deputy in the business rather than an actress), but a quick scan of her feed would provide any marketing team with an easy window into her fabulous lifestyle and her place at the top of the pyramid among millionaires and billionaires on the continent.

“In Africa, it’s more about quality than quantity. An influencer may have 60,000-600,000 followers, but [they have] strong buying power,” suggests Udochi Igbokwe, chief executive of Chime Group, a US-based marketing firm with offices in Nigeria and Angola serving luxury clients like Polo.

“Jennifer is the very definition of the corporate millennial — shuffling between a high-octane corporate career between Europe and Africa and still remains grounded with the understanding that relatability is important,” she adds.

According to Akerele, one rare case of a global brand understanding of the granularity of the markets they are micro-targeting is the Dutch luxury wax print fabric brand Vlisco.

“Nigeria is multi-ethnic and culturally diverse, so this can sometimes contribute to some interesting nuances that shape influencer culture here,” she says, referring to the country’s various ethnic consumer demographics, such as the Hausa, Fulani, Yoruba, Igbo and others. “Vlisco have over the years, filtered the influencers they work with and their campaigns to reflect Nigeria’s multi-ethnicity.”

Overlaying Western tropes of class behaviour can also lead to missed opportunities, suggests Igbokwe. “Brands must sharpen their adaptive strategies for these markets. Psychographic segmentation is extremely important.”

“High net worth individual (HNWI) millennials in Africa are multi-dimensional. They remain hip while running multi-billion-dollar corporations. They own the world’s most exclusive timepieces and luxury vehicles, yet they still find the time to visit their local street-food vendors,” Igbokwe explains. “It’s like this, the luxury consumer in sub-Saharan Africa travels by private aircraft but they still patronise local tuk-tuk tricycles to get from point A to B.”

It is a similar story in markets like Indonesia, where the most potent influence can be found behind the scenes at the juncture of high society, politics and corporate life. "My gang of five — we call ourselves 'Maggie's Girls' because if Maggie Thatcher were still alive, she'd be proud," says Svida Alisjahbana, chief executive of the Femina Group publishing empire in Jakarta.

They are a tight group of multi-millionaires who pool their influence at power lunches and on “girls’ nights out,” mixing business with pleasure. The founder of a cosmetics empire, a palm-oil plantation heiress, an investor and a tech giant, these women talk deals while getting snapped by the Indonesian and Singaporean editions of Tatler, where high-society mavens across Southeast Asia are persuaded to dress a bit more like female power brokers.

It’s what psychologists like Cialdini might call a heady convergence of three of his six principles of influence: authority, reciprocation and social proof.

Tune in tomorrow for Part 2 of the story from BoF's latest special print edition.

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 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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