It’s the regular progression of the celebrity. A personal brand is built as a result of success, loyal fans are accrued and then in come the commercial brands to exploit that loyalty and gain exposure. Encouraging a celebrity to publicly use your product - either by gifting it to them or paying for the endorsement - is a technique that’s worked for decades.
Famous actors, sports stars, musicians - no sect of celebrity has been untouched by brands looking to exploit their platform for valuable reach. Anne Hathaway, for example, was reportedly paid $750,000 to wear Tiffany & Co jewellery at the Oscars in 2011. Even such a renowned brand, with a product too expensive for most to afford, is willing to part with such a huge sum for one evening of red carpet exposure.
The actual effect of celebrity endorsement is unquantifiable, though. Having Hathaway don Tiffany jewellery or Rafa Nadal wear a $525,000 watch at the French open, for example, will achieve outreach, but exactly how many impressions were made by either is entirely debatable. Hathaway may spend far less time in the spotlight than expected and Nadal could crash out of the Open too early to have any real exposure.
Enter, then, the digital solution to the relative guesswork of celebrity endorsements: influencer marketing. Through interaction with well-followed bloggers and vloggers, brands can target specific, well-defined groups with the products that most suit them - not only is the demographic of an influencer’s following easy to break down, the reach achieved by a sponsored video is entirely quantifiable. Commissioning a Youtube vlogger to make a video in which your product is used or is the focus, for example, guarantees exposure to the (almost always consistent) number of subscribers and viewers that watch it.
With ad blocking technology becoming more and more popular - usage grew up 41% from 2014 to 2015 - it’s becoming increasingly valuable to feature your product in content consumers trust and will willingly seek out. Influencer marketing is most popular among cosmetics and fashion brands for this reason - video blogs dedicated to these industries are both numerous and well-followed. The connection between brands and bloggers is now so common that there are agencies dedicated to pairing the two, each claiming to offer exposure to millions of people worldwide by connecting products with social media influencers and bloggers.
The industry is facing a huge setback, though, as the FTC have turned their attention to what they define as deceptive advertising practices inherent in native advertising. The very nature of native advertising necessitates that it be seamless, that the audience be at least initially unaware that they’re being targeted with sponsored content. The International Consumer Protection and Enforcement Network (ICPEN) has published guidelines on online reviews which include specific reference to online influencers and their practices. Essentially, the guidelines call for influencers to ‘clearly and prominently’ label their sponsored content as such, given that reviews ‘not based on a genuine user experience’ can illegitimately impact competition and consumer preference, in a way that explicit advertisements don’t.
According to ICPEN, influencers should ‘ensure that it is clear whose opinion or experiences is being stated,’ a move that could have a huge effect on the influencer industry altogether. The popularity of fashion bloggers, for example, stems in part from the sense that the influencer has ‘discovered’ the product and is sharing it with their followers organically - make that process explicitly branded and paid for and the content begins to look far more like an ordinary advertisement, something consumers will avoid.
Influencer marketing is native advertising at its most refined. Fashion bloggers will ordinarily begin their career finding hidden gems, keeping their followers on trend and proving genuine insight into how they select clothes. It’s later that the branded content comes, and the hope is that the subscriber will not be turned off by the paid endorsements. If the guidelines are adhered to, these endorsements will become explicit, at which point they’ll lose some of the influence that brands are willing to part with serious cash to exploit.