The Taste with Vir Sanghvi: How bloggers and social media influencers are conning luxury brands

Hindustan Times | By, New Delhi
Feb 14, 2018 09:34 AM IST

In this week’s column, Vir Sanghvi breaks down the impact of social media influencers on online marketing, particularly that of luxury brands, which are the most vulnerable to this trends.

How do you promote luxury products? Well, let’s take an example of how things are done these days. Assume you run a luxury hotel or restaurant. Or that you want to launch a new whiskey or even a clothing brand.

Luxury brands are being taken for a ride by online marketing trends.
Luxury brands are being taken for a ride by online marketing trends.

The first thing you will probably do is hire a PR/marketing agency to advise you. The agency will caution you that in the luxury business, advertising alone is not enough. It is perception that matters.

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Naturally, you will ask how a perception that your product is desirable can be created. In the old days, the agency would have told you that more people pay attention to editorial than to advertising. The way to create the right kind of perception, the agency would have said, is to get written about.

And how could that be achieved? No problem, the agency would say. It knew many journalists who would write about your brand. All you had to do was to give these journos a chance to sample your product and favourable coverage would result.

And yes, the journos the agency invited did write about their experiences. And the articles were usually positive.

Usually, however, people who owned luxury brands did not know much about the media so PR agencies were able to run circles around them. The journos they invited came from unknown and insignificant publications that nobody ever read.

When these journos filed laudatory stories, the agency would submit the clippings to the client in triumph. The client would read the praises of his product and would be delighted. He would not work out that the PR agency and he were the only people who actually read the article because it had appeared in small-circulation or no-circulation publication.

I know of tourism boards from many, many countries who have been suckered in this way by PR agencies. And even some of the world’s great hotel chains have been made fools of by canny PR/marketing companies. (Which is why those chains still have a perception problem in the Indian market.)

But all this may soon become entirely a thing of the past. Now, when a client goes to a PR/marketing company, he is told that TV and print are passé (which perhaps they are) and that he should really be looking at digital solutions.

The client who has also heard about the digital revolution, will usually nod his head in agreement. Okay, he will ask, what digital publications should we approach?

Oh no, the agency will respond. The digital world does not work like that. There are no big websites that you need to deal with. The digital revolution is all about social media. You must reach out to influencers.

Ah, the client usually says at this stage, but what exactly do you mean by “influencers?”

That’s easy, the agency will explain. We are in touch with people who have huge followings on Twitter, Instagram, Youtube, Snapchat, Facebook, etc. These people are ‘influencers’. One tweet from them will get thousands of impressions (in this world, impressions, not likes or retweets, are the currency) because they have thousands of followers. If they post a photo on Instagram, all of their, say, 40000 followers will see it.

Wow, says the client, now enthralled by this picture of a world where individuals, not publications, call the shots. How do I reach out to these “influencers?”

Don’t worry, says the agency. We know them all.

We’ve often seen celebrities promoting brands on their social media accounts. (Shutterstock)
We’ve often seen celebrities promoting brands on their social media accounts. (Shutterstock)

And so, lots of luxury marketing today is no longer about editorial in mainstream media but about recommendations on social media from influencers.

At an intuitive level, the appeal of this approach is easy to understand. Suppose you see Instagram posts from say, Amitabh Bachchan, that suggest he is on holiday at a resort with his family. (I use Bachchan only as a random example not because I have seen any such post from him.) Wouldn’t you think that the resort is really desirable? Likewise, if car brand appears in say, one of Salman Khan’s tweets, wouldn’t you notice the car and think “if it is good enough for Salman, it must be great”? (Again I don’t think Salman has ever done such a tweet. I am using his name at random. But rest assured, there are other stars who have done such tweets/posts etc.)

Social media makes us notice what a celebrity is actually wearing, driving or enjoying. What’s more: people really do want to know these details.

For instance, when I shot with the actor Rani Mukerji for my TV show in December, her team tweeted a photo of her on the set of the show, giving details of every single brand she was wearing. That tweet received an enthusiastic response. And I am willing to bet that every one of those brands benefited from the association.

So nobody has a problem with that kind of social media impact. All brands gain from associations with people who are looked up to.

The problem is with the kind of people the agencies now pass off as influencers.

The question is who are the people being identified as social media influencers. (Shutterstock)
The question is who are the people being identified as social media influencers. (Shutterstock)

Last month, Elinor Cohen wrote a widely-read article in in which she distinguished between what she called “Genuine Thought Leadership” and “Influencers”. Last week when I tweeted a link to the piece and asked for comments, a huge number of those who responded said that they broadly agreed with Cohen. You can Google the piece but here’s the crux of what she said.

Cohen said that thought leaders were people who had genuine expertise in a field. Influencers tended to be people who hardly anyone had heard of before but who were now “enjoying the gullibility of brands that think they can actually generate real business by working with them.”

Most influencers claim that they have a huge reach. But, asked Cohen “what do numbers of followers mean in an age where buying likes and follows and You Tube video watches is easier than ever?”

So, Cohen suggested, brands should never be taken in by somebody who claimed to have, say, 50,000 followers on Instagram. You don’t know how genuine these followers are.

Besides, even if these followers are genuine, how do you know that they have any interest in your brand? Do you even know if they can afford to buy your product? Does it make sense for an airline to fly an influencer so that he can do an Instagram post on its new First Class cabin? Do his followers travel First Class? And do people who travel First Class make these decisions on the basis of Instagram posts from people they don’t know?

Some five star hotels like to brag that they have entered an era of digital marketing by hosting Instagrammers and YouTube bloggers. But do these people carry any authority with potential customers at five star hotels? Is anyone going to stay at a hotel because some unknown person posts a short video on Instagram?

I was impressed by the quality of people who tweeted back to me about Cohen’s piece. Anirban Blah, who is a hugely significant figure in the celebrity-management and media-marketing space replied: “I have to agree with pretty much every single word on this article. Let’s not talk about influencer marketing without knowing what we are talking about.”

From the filmworld, the director Sudhir Mishra tweeted: “About time someone called out this con. People will not see a film because some influencer recommends it..”

JJ Assi, the Manager of the Four Seasons in Mumbai tweeted: “I did read this and felt it was so apt and precise. As an hotelier, my belief in “Blogger Influencers” keeps fading away. “

As I read the responses, a pattern emerged. Everyone agreed that digital marketing and social media engagement were essential for a brand. But many agencies ignored thought leaders or those with the influence to really affect the fortunes of a brand, because it was complicated and expensive to sign up such people.

Public relations firms have identified social media influencers as the future. (Shutterstock)
Public relations firms have identified social media influencers as the future. (Shutterstock)

Instead they went to so-called ‘influencers’ who were a) much cheaper to engage, b) easier to get access to, and c) much more willing to do exactly what the agency asked.

The agency pushed these influencers on to the client on the basis of numbers (followers or views) that could all (too easily) be rigged. Clients were so thrilled with the idea of social media marketing that they never bothered to see whether the people these influencers reached (even assuming they did reach the number of people they claimed to) were relevant to the marketing of their product.

PR companies got rich. ‘Influencers’ found great gigs. And because there was no way of measuring the commercial impact of a social media post, no one was ever called out.

I don’t really disagree with the thrust of the argument but I do have some reservations.

One: this is not a social media phenomenon. PR companies would do this even with print media, picking low-impact publications.

Two: there is an age-element to all this. Most of these new “influencers” are young. More and more young people today regard being an ‘influencer’ as a career option. (I kid you not.) So at least some of the disdain that more experienced marketing people have for influencers is the irritation of the old with the young.

On the other hand, the young influencers also flourish because many of the PR and marketing agencies that recommend them to customers are run by older people who don’t really understand the internet or social media and are easily taken in by the claims made by influencers.

Three: it hasn’t happened much in India, but abroad there are relatively young influencers who can change opinions about fashion and food. I suppose Cohen would call them ‘thought leaders’ but we must not dismiss people out of hand only because they are young and their names are unfamiliar to us. Youth is not an impediment to influence.

And four: social media has huge influence today. It would be a mistake to underestimate that influence only because some marketing people dupe their clients into wasting money on useless influencers. There is, as even Cohen concedes in her piece, a huge potential for brand building in this space.

So yes, I agree with the consensus that this whole influencer thing can be a bit of a con. But the problem is not with the massive influence of social media. It is with marketers who, either out of stupidity or unscrupulousness, don’t harness its great power.

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