Why brands rely on influencer marketing

‘Despite the backlash against influencer marketing, we’ve seen an emerging reliance on influencers’
By Simon Cook, Managing director, LIONS

The current climate calls for brands to demonstrate transparency and authenticity in everything they do, so it is no wonder influencer marketing is coming in for increased scrutiny.

At Lions, we’ve had a ringside seat on creativity for 67 years. Our archive of data allows us to understand what works and why, giving us a helicopter view of the industry landscape. We’ve recently mined that data for insight about what’s happening in branded communications. 

And despite the backlash against influencer marketing over its lack of authenticity and questionable return on investment, we’ve actually seen an emerging reliance on influencers. The space seems to be maturing and is actively driving brand loyalty and engagement. 

Disrupting traditional influencer marketing

Influencers have long been a useful way for brands to better connect with audiences. In 2019, 45 per cent of work entered into the PR Lions awards used celebrities, influencers or key opinion leaders, up from 20 per cent in 2017. Quite the shift. We’ve identified two recent trends that are disrupting the traditional influencer model to deliver visible brand value: superfans and participatory storytelling. 

On the first trend, we are seeing creative companies cracking influencer brand engagement by unlocking access to a brand’s superfans. Last year, I caught up with Chipotle chief marketing officer Chris Brandt for our Progress Through Creativity podcast. He said Chipotle “took the shackles off their digital agency partners”, signalling the beginning of a much more engaging tone that embraced fandom and used influencers who were already huge Chipotle fans.

Their TikTok strategy has seen thousands of Chipotle fans organically advocate the brand and led to the birth of the #ChipotleSponsorMe campaign. The series, which received more than two billion views, successfully funnelled that superfan energy into further reach. 

Droga5’s Bagelgate campaign for Kraft Heinz, which won three Lions, is another great example. Its Twitter poll and Change.org petition asking Apple to change its #SadBagel emoji to include a smear of Philadelphia cream cheese actively engaged with consumers and resulted in more than seven million social impressions. 

The immersion of participatory storytelling

Participatory storytelling, meanwhile, draws on this move to immersion and is proving to be an effective way to engage. In a study of Creative Effectiveness Cannes Lions entries, carried out by WARC, 50 per cent of work cited active consumer participation as a key creative strategy.

Participatory elements can work well when they feed into natural human curiosity, as in the case of Budweiser’s Tagwords where the brand asked people to discover the ending of the story themselves, or in Westworld’s The Maze where fans were asked to “choose their own adventure” via an interaction with Amazon Alexa.

The United Nation’s People’s Seat campaign is another good example. Alongside seats representing individual nations, they created a physical seat – the people’s seat – to highlight the importance of everyday individuals in the fight against climate change. In addition, they shared the People’s Address, a speech written from raw testimonials crowdsourced from people around the world. 

Over the past six months, we’ve seen a body of best-in-class work emerge from Europe, Asia and the Middle East. The learnings and insights coming from the work make a very powerful statement about the changing shape of creativity in the current climate. If brands are smart, they’ll choose talent that naturally advocates for them while harmoniously telling the corporate responsibility story at the same time.

We look forward to seeing what else emerges from the work, at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity in June, and whether we’ll continue to see the rise and rise of the new influencer.