Is the fashion industry suffering from influencer fatigue?

Fashion has been a successful pioneer of influencer marketing, but some players in the industry are having second thoughts about whether the channel represents true value for money

You don’t have to be a Kardashian to earn big money as a fashion influencer. For US designer and blogger Danielle Bernstein, a single sponsored Instagram post shared with her 2.5 million style-obsessed followers can reputedly earn her up to $20,000 (£14,700). It’s been reported that Mexican fashion influencer Julie Sariñana, who regularly shares images of designer clothes and accessories with her 5.6 million followers, can command a six-figure sum for the sponsored content she posts.

But such eye-watering sums have caused scepticism among some fashion brands as to the true return on investment in social media influencers. Combined with the fact that it’s becoming increasingly tough to market products online – thanks to the increasing cost of customer acquisition and the growing list of web browsers ending their support for third-party cookies – it’s prompting questions about the effectiveness of influencer marketing. 

Has fashion finally had its fill of influencer culture, or is the way that brands are dealing with these online trendsetters simply evolving to ensure that they get their money’s worth? 

Along with cosmetics, fashion was one of the first industries to recognise the potential in influencer partnerships. In the early 2010s, the first stars of social media were securing front-row seats at fashion shows and hiring professional photographers for street-style shoots. In a few short years, brands were paying them big money to model their garments. Not long after that, advertising regulators began cracking down on influencers who were failing to label what they were posting as sponsored content. 

Despite that setback and the poor publicity it generated for influencer marketing as a whole, the channel is now worth about $10bn a year compared with $1.7bn in 2016, according to an estimate by the Influencer Marketing Hub. In short, influencers’ position as a cornerstone of marketing strategy for many companies, including fashion brands, is stronger than ever. 

Using influencer culture to generate growth

For Lounge Underwear, a five-year-old brand based in Solihull, “influencers have always been crucial in our marketing – even more so in our early days, where we could gain huge exposure for relatively little investment”, says its co-founder and CEO, Daniel Marsden. “The social landscape has changed massively over the past few years, but influencer marketing still plays a huge part in our growth.”

Another young business that’s been reliant on influencers is With Nothing Underneath. The women’s shirt brand, which has been operating in London since 2017, considers them “paramount to our success so far”, according to its co-founder and CEO, Pip Durell. 

“I can’t see that changing any time soon,” she says. “We don’t do any traditional advertising or marketing. We don’t have a PR rep. Using influencers is our marketing strategy.” 

That said, brands have been overhauling their approach to influencer marketing, given that the channel has become so crowded and costly – and that consumers are becoming increasingly wary of inauthentic endorsements. For one thing, they are moving away from the biggest names and adopting lower-key relationships with so-called micro-influencers – those with fewer than 10,000 followers. 

We don’t do any traditional advertising or marketing. We don’t have a PR rep. Using influencers is our marketing strategy

This is a trend that PR consultant Georgia Gadsby experienced at first hand while she was working as a fashion blogger up until 2018. 

“I noticed that bigger brands were starting to approach me for collaborations, despite my micro-influencer label,” she says. “With fewer than 10,000 followers, I still managed to work with names such as HMV, SheIn and Neal’s Yard Remedies. This was truly the start of their discovery that the connections between micro-influencers and their followers are stronger than any traditional advertising technique. We were telling our audience directly to buy the products we loved because we thought that they’d love them too.”

This is something that Marsden has learnt in his time developing Lounge Underwear. “Whereas it used to almost be a case of ‘the bigger, the better’, we’ve since found that micro-influencers hold a lot more weight with their followers, as they are more relatable,” he says. 

Marsden adds that his business prefers to enter long-term contracts with micro-influencers to lock in the value they offer. “We don’t want a meaningless and shallow working relationship. We try to partner with them so that they can truly buy into our brand. Their promotion of it is more genuine as a result.”

Building authentic partnerships 

Trust is golden in influencer marketing. According to a survey by Blue Fountain Media, 35% of social media users start doubting influencers’ authenticity when they spot the hashtags ‘#ad’ or ‘#sponsored’ on their posts. Efforts to overcome this problem mean that influencer partnerships have, as with Lounge Underwear, become far deeper than they used to be. In some cases, influencers are even getting involved in the development of collections. 

“The dynamic between brand and influencer has evolved,” says Mary Keane-Dawson, group CEO at Takumi, an influencer marketing agency. “Influencers started as an advertising channel for brands to showcase new collections. Now they’re providing creative direction and giving brands a real insight into what consumers want from them.” 

In 2019, for instance, Aimee Song became one of the first fashion influencers to partner a high-end online retailer, working with Revolve to start her own line. We’ve since seen a number of collaborations, ranging from the MissPap label’s collection with Love Island winner Amber Gill to Holland Cooper’s limited edition of blazers and dresses with Victoria Magrath, editor of the InTheFrow lifestyle blog.

Carefully curated, influencer partnerships can even help brands seeking to improve their reputation on matters such as diversity and inclusion. 

Julie Brander is a senior account director specialising in influencer marketing at PR firm Weber Shandwick. She says that influencers who are “willing to step out and talk about real-life issues that truly matter to them are those who really resonate with consumers. The more authentic and well-rounded the influencer and their content are, the better the results.” 

Gadsby recalls that “the more I shared my queerness on social media – by using hashtags such as “#LesbianVisibilityDay”, for instance – the more offers for brand collaborations I seemed to receive. I could see the true rise of companies wanting to diversify their advertising. I genuinely believe that the ease of finding influencers from different backgrounds on social media means that brands no longer have an excuse not to be inclusive.”

Turning social into sales

The growth in social media tools that aid the buying process has created a far clearer path between influencers and sales. 

“It’s definitely important that brands co-create content with influencers that maximises the technology’s potential,” Brander says. “You only have to look at the integration of swipe-ups, Instagram Shopping, Shopify and ShopStyle to see how the two can be paired to be economically valuable.”

Keane-Dawson agrees. “Shoppable features are changing social media and the buyer journey for fashion brands. These platforms are changing from a place where users post, reminisce and browse to a place where they’re always window shopping. You can now get items in your shopping basket directly from posts on most social channels. It’s a seamless retail experience.”

It’s clear that, although fashion brands and retailers are more circumspect than they were about forming relationships with influencers, this channel has become a highly sophisticated marketing tool for those ready to wield it to its full potential.

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