Influencer marketing has become a booming industry in the past five years. What was once reserved for professional athletes and pop stars has now grown into a wildly popular way for big (and small) brands to converse with new audiences through the collaboration of social media influencers.
In fact, many of the world’s biggest brands are now looking to social media to find who should represent their next campaign—with the added benefit being that the influencer will provide access to their massively engaged fan base.
To give you a sense of just how popular influencer marketing has become, both for big brands and those aspiring to become influencers themselves, Google’s Keyword Tool captured the term “influencer marketing” as having been searched just 50 times per month back in 2013. Today? That number has reached over 4,400 times—and the truth is, it’s only going to continue to rise.
But as wonderful as it may seem to have a celebrity co-sign your brand, there are risks associated with this marketing tactic. Enlisting influencers to be part of your campaign means welcoming your brand to the criticism of their public persona. It also means that you are attaching your name to theirs, and vice versa. So anything they do that generates negative publicity may impact you by association.
In addition, each influencer has a story of their own—they are real people, after all. So as much as you are employing a wildly successful or well-known star, you are also inheriting their story and all that comes with it.
You see the risks of these partnerships unfold when a celebrity or big-time influencer does something in public light that reflects poorly upon the brand, and the brand does everything they can to distance themselves as a result—and truthfully, the same can be said vice versa.
Take Pepsi’s recent controversial ad as a perfect example. The ad features popular model and social media maven Kendall Jenner, inserting her into what appeared to be a commercial with the message for unification. However, the results accomplished no such goal—and was quickly pulled by the brand because of public backlash.
Masses claimed that the ad devalued real efforts at unification, by painting highly unrealistic (and borderline insensitive) scenes of a protest where a can of Pepsi (handed to an officer by Jenner herself) ends the conflict.
Watching the ad, you can clearly see Pepsi’s positive intentions. Somewhere in there is a message of unity; it just wasn’t thought through very clearly. Jenner, herself, according to sources, “feels awful,” and others confirm that “Kendall had zero involvement in the creative process.”
That, right there, is precisely the problem. Or at least, a glaring one.
For an influencer with a massive fan-base, the creative process is the entire point. They’ve built their fan base because of the content they share. Their own personal brand story is what makes them enticing to fans and followers.
So for an influencer to sign on to a massive campaign without any thought or input into their role in the brand’s story is a misstep on both ends—the influencer, for agreeing, and the brand for not considering the importance of their main character.
Pepsi is not the first, and will not be the last, to make this sort of misstep. The question is how can big brands and influencers work together more effectively to ensure that such negative responses do not happen?
1. Brands Have To Think Hard About How The Influencer’s Story Meshes With Their Own, And Vice Versa
Let’s keep using Pepsi as an example. While the advertisement seemed to be trying to steer clear of controversy and be “all-inclusive,” that ended up being its biggest downfall. Forced diversity never comes off as genuine. And featuring a supermodel, of all people, in the spotlight tends to do nothing but highlight the very gap the advertisement is trying to bridge.
A much better example of influencer marketing done right would be filmmaker Devin Supertramp’s collaborations with brands like Mountain Dew. Here, Mountain Dew gave the filmmaker creative freedom, and the results were spectacular because they meshed with Supertramp’s already established audience. To forget the importance of this step of the process is to make a fatal error.
2. You Can’t Be Everything To Everyone
Obviously a brand like Pepsi would want to create an all-inclusive advertisement. But instead of being everything to everyone, they ended up being nothing to no particular demographic.
Partnering with a celebrity like Kendall Jenner, Pepsi should have acknowledged that, by default, they were already segmenting their audience. You’re either a fan of Jenner, or you’re not. This is part of the game when you do influencer marketing.
Therefore, brands need to consider how they can best leverage the influencer they are working with to their audiences, based on what the influencer is bringing to the table. Instead of going for a unification, politically-charged advertisement, Pepsi would have been better off playing in Jenner’s wheelhouse: young, popular culture.
3. Consider Testing The Market Before Investing Heavily In A Campaign
Something brands should consider is how they can test their ideas, especially in collaborating with an influencer, before investing heavily in a full campaign.
With the social tools available, it would have been entirely possible to share much smaller pieces of content via Pepsi or Jenner’s social channels to see people’s reactions to this sort of angle.
At least that way, Pepsi and Jenner could have avoided the massive investment that no doubt went into shooting the advertisement. If they had gotten a positive response, they would know to move forward. And if the response was negative, they would be able to avoid this sort of disaster much earlier in the process.
So many avenues for expression are available now, that big plays—like a campaign with one of the world’s most popular influencers at the forefront—should be a calculated decision based on content already performing well.
This column was originally published on Forbes on April 6, 2017.