Originally published in The Guardian
Recently, Rihanna tweeted a picture of herself listening to her new album, Anti, on what looked like a cross between headphones and a crown. The golden and crystal gadget in question, designed by Dolce & Gabbana and priced at $9,000 (£6,215), sold out within 24 hours.
For those working in the business of taste, this was no surprise. While it is unclear whether Rihanna was actually endorsing the headphones, it is an accepted marketing practice for companies to send their products to celebrities and bloggers, then sit back and watch the likes and, some claim, sales roll in.
This practice has become so massive that, according to some reports, celebrities and bloggers now command hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue from brands obsessed with reaching younger audiences.
The formula linking the complexity of social influence to sales doesn’t exist. But this doesn’t seem to worry marketers.
And there lies the problem. Brands are paying for reach, not influence. Rihanna has a huge reach with 55.6 million followers on Twitter and so does Kim Kardashian with 40 million, Kylie Jenner with 14 million and Gigi Hadid with 1.46 million. These celebrities guarantee mass awareness and in that they are not unlike media companies. The UK’s consumer protection from unfair trading regulations and Federal Trade Commission-mandated disclaimers in the US for influencer product endorsements affirm the media analogy, as do the frequent questions of authenticity of these personalities’ endorsements.
Reach and exposure are great, but they don’t build a marketplace. Social interactions, likes and comments are mere vanity metrics. The asserted impact of influencers on sales is anecdotal and tightly guarded and it shows us little more than consumers bought the endorsed product.
What these metrics mean for business is unclear. Dolce & Gabbana headphones sold out, but did they sell out because Rihanna wore them or would they sell out anyway? Would their sales be faster or slower if another celebrity wore them? Can it be that people were just into Dolce & Gabbana’s headbands, which have already been featured in this brand’s advertising and runway shows for multiple seasons, and that they liked the similar-looking headphones by association?
Unlike legacy marketers, global upstarts initially grew by focusing on their small core user group and making the experience exceptional. “Build your business one person at a time. Just focus on 100 people,” says Brian Chesky, co-founder of Airbnb. “If they love you, they will market the product for you and tell everyone else.”
This love is about product-market fit. No amount of celebrity is going to make a product that no one wants. At the same time, people will want a product that captures their imagination, conversations, cultural climate and taste. Airbnb, Uber, Net-a-Porter and Spring built a product that hundreds of people love, rather than one that a million people just like. Instead of awareness, they built love.
This sort of small, intimate and curated relationship might prove to be more viable for the fashion business than influencer marketing. The dynamics of the fashion market works in the opposite way to network effects. An item is more attractive if fewer people own it.
Instagram, Snapchat and Twitter enable consumers to cultivate their taste and hone their cultural sensibilities and cultural codes. Street style, fashion zeitgeist and tastemaking are both shared in, and formed by, these networks. Social objects like hashtags gather micro-communities of similar-minded people that are more easily influenced by each other than by an overexposed blogger.
Influencer marketing not only brings back the old fashion model where we are told what to like, it also increasingly looks like a mass-market advert. Exposure does not equal customer acquisition and retention, and they ultimately drive sustainable business success.
Knowing this, micro-targeting and capitalising on ordinary people may turn out to be the most cost-effective marketing strategy of all.