Why Brands Should Own Their Influencer Relationships

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By Brian Salzman, Founder and CEO, RQ

No brand can get by without a little help from their friends. Today, a brand might be “friends” with any number of people – big name celebrities, social media stars, athletes and entrepreneurs, or less “famous” individuals that also effect culture in big ways (think: Barry Diller or Ari Emanuel). The key word is relationships, and the major problem facing brands is who owns these relationships with those people of impact (or “influencers” as they’re known today).

A myriad of agencies now sit between the brand and relationships with Influencers. From social and PR to experiential and creative, agencies across many disciplines have their own need for people of influence to support whatever piece of the marketing mix they own. Although most of these are initiated through “pay-to-play” strategies (which is another story), this artificial barrier between the company and the personalities with whom they chose to align creates huge challenges for brands.

In an age where authenticity is everything, it’s imperative for brands to cut out the middlemen and start to own their relationships. That doesn’t mean agencies need to be fired, but it does mean they need to implement changes and new processes in order to build stronger, more consistent, and more effective partnerships. Why? The enormous risk comes when the personalities aren’t on a set, sharing a scripted social post, or when the campaign ends.

Just like you wouldn’t marry someone who hadn’t taken the time to date you, meet your friends and family, and share good (and bad) life experiences, brands should expect potential partners to really get to know them before taking the leap into a relationship. And, in order for that happen between brand and influencer, companies have to take this responsibility back from their agencies.

How should this work? Having involvement in identifying and building those relationships is critical. Ultimately an agency partner can manage a relationship (the last thing we need is another time heavy responsibility), but it’s time the brand get’s more involved so the result isn’t watered-down, inconsistent, or rooted in conflicting messaging. All of which we see daily being on the front lines.

Fortunately, it’s less awkward than actual dating. Instead of entering into relationships with new brand partners solely at the suggestion of an agency and getting right down to business, these individuals should be asked to check some boxes first. This process would naturally vary from brand to brand, but let’s say a car company is looking for a new spokesperson. Those they are considering working with should first, of course, own and drive the car. Not only that - they should love it. But that’s not enough. They should visit a dealership, and see what the service experience is like. They should meet executives and designers who can speak to the future of the company, and marketers who can ground them in the company’s history and heritage. They should attend a company sponsored event, to get a feel for how the brand expresses itself in person. This can be as formal or as informal as a brand feels is necessary, but it’s important that it is led by internal teams who will ultimately own the relationship - not a third party. And if that person is still around and both sides are feeling strong chemistry after it’s all said and done, then it’s time to put a ring on it.  

At the start of this process, brands can and should date around. They can hang out with and get to know as many potential partners as they want (no judgement here!), but as the process goes on, the field of potential suitors will almost certainly shrink. A list that starts with a dozen dates may end in only one or two really committed relationships, and that’s fine. Because those relationships will speak louder, hold more authenticity, and be more effective than a dozen casual ones.

This process brings the relationship back into the arms of the brand where it belongs, and just as importantly, makes sure a brand is only partnered with those who are truly committed and knowledgeable. It builds relationships that are informed, impactful and entirely believable - because they’re real. The value is also seen across the entire company, elevating marketing, sales and internal programs. It’s like a new member of the family.

And the right influencers will feel the same way.