The so-called de-influencing trend is making corporate marketing teams around the world sit up and listen. It happens when people take to social media and urge their followers not to buy certain goods. They may be doing so to promote cheaper, more sustainable alternatives to the products in question, highlight unethical practices by the brand making them or call out misleading advertising by another influencer. The practice, occurring mostly on Instagram, TikTok and YouTube, is gaining significant traction.
Mentions of de-influencing on these networks increased by more than 3,000% between 1 January and 10 March, according to social analytics platform Brandwatch. Common associated hashtags include #antihaul, #overconsumption and #whatnottobuy. Reactions to de-influencing posts tended to be from users sharing their disappointment about products that didn’t live up to the marketing hype, despite their heavy promotion by other influencers.
The internet has democratised access to information (and misinformation) about brands and products. Its spread on social media is beyond the control of companies, so it can be a problem for them.
Traditionally, the big beasts of the creator economy have wielded their influence on their millions of followers to help companies market their wares. The growing popularity of channels with algorithms that favour short video content has proved useful for the success of in-app shopping features. More than a quarter of social media users have bought a product based on an influencer’s recommendation online, according to research by Kantar.
But you don’t need to have millions of followers to be influential. Micro-influencers – defined as those with between 1,000 and 100,000 followers – have become increasingly valuable to brands. Research by YPulse has found that 58% of millennial and gen-Z consumers don’t consider the size of an influencer’s following as a factor in their trustworthiness. (The level of engagement that micro-influencers can command does seem to be platform-dependent – last year, Influencer Marketing Hub reported that their engagement rates on TikTok stood at 17.9%, versus only 3.9% on Instagram and 1.6% on YouTube.)
Online content published by ‘ordinary’ shoppers can also be hugely influential. Research by consumer experience platform Nosto indicates that 79% of viewers find that such material has a strong effect on their purchasing decisions, whereas only 9% cite content generated by influencers as impactful.
How retailers should adapt to the trend
Faced with the de-influencing trend, how should brands and retailers change their approach to influencer marketing and social media engagement generally?
Melanie Kentish is managing partner of Dentsu Creative UK’s talent and influencer division, Gleam Futures. She believes that “the most successful partnerships come when there are shared values between the influencer and the brand. Integrity is vital – they should authentically love your offerings.”
Kentish points out that brands’ campaigns tend to be most successful when they give influencers total freedom to talk honestly, even if that means they aren’t totally positive about a given product.
As the cost-of-living crisis continues, such authenticity has become even more important to consumers, especially in the fashion and beauty sectors. Last year, YouGov found that 40% of UK adults had reduced or even stopped spending on clothes as inflation hit a 40-year high.
In putting the fast-fashion segment’s huge environmental cost under the microscope, de-influencing has harmed the sales of key players such as Shein and Boohoo. But the other end of the market has not been immune to its effects, with luxury brands such as Olaplex, Dior Beauty and Kim Kardashian’s Skims coming in for criticism questioning their value.
“As a brand, you can’t control the narrative – nor should you want to,” stresses a spokesperson for cosmetics retailer Lush. “For us, it’s all about listening to what our community is saying.”
Kentish agrees that companies should treat critical reviews as valuable information. “Take on board any feedback about your branding, price or product,” she says, advising firms to open direct lines of communication with consumers offering constructive criticism.
In extreme cases such as the ‘cancellation’ of a product online, a company’s sales, product and social media teams must work together quickly to formulate a response. That’s the advice of Imogen Coles, UK influence lead at advertising giant Ogilvy.
“Reactions to de-influencing at any level should always be an integrated effort. It’s the reason that our corporate teams sit alongside our consumer and influence departments,” she says.
Why de-influencing can be good for business
As a trend, de-influencing may actually be beneficial for many brands, especially when it’s promoting responsible consumption. A sentiment analysis by Brandwatch has found that 22% of online conversations about de-influencing indicated consumers’ happiness at being given the chance to become more informed and sustainable with their purchasing decisions.
Using the clout of influencers to encourage people to adopt more sustainable lifestyles is important, says Besma Whayeb, director of Ethical Influencers, a community of more than 1,200 influencers in 65 countries. She also keeps a blog called Curiously Conscious, which covers “sustainable fashion, clean beauty, low-impact lifestyle and more”.
Whayeb has gained 26,000 social media followers since 2014 and her blog receives 20,000 visitors each month. She argues that an influencer has “a huge responsibility to their audience and, wider than that, to people and the planet”. On fashion specifically, Besma believes it’s vital to scrutinise brands’ employment practices and the ecological effects of their production processes.
“To constantly push buying new clothes, especially during the cost-of-living crisis, is inauthentic,” she says. “I like to focus on circularity, interspersing content with reviews focusing on a brand’s supply chain.”
A partial digital detox
In 2021, Lush made the bold decision to step away from Instagram, TikTok and Facebook (it remains active on Twitter and YouTube). A spokesperson explains: “We don’t want customers to have to come to meet us in an unsafe place, but we still work with influencers and have gotten creative in how we approach that.”
Today, the company prioritises in-person events and online communication formats such as podcasts over traditional influencer marketing on social media. It has also established a presence in the virtual world of Decentraland.
Lush’s research into digital engagement with The Future Laboratory has found that 70% of adults in the UK, the US and Japan think that a brand should leave a social network if it considers that platform to be unethical. Moreover, 62% respect brands that care more about a social network’s ethics than the number of people they can reach on it. Such findings should be instructive to corporate marketing teams.
Brands and retailers must focus on authenticity and value alignment if they’re to remain attuned to their customers’ needs and stay flexible in their approach to influencer partnerships and social media marketing in general.
Developing a customer-centric feedback process that engages their audiences will prove valuable. Messaging focused on the responsible production and consumption of products can also help instil trust and attract eco-conscious consumers. Most crucially, companies can navigate the complexities of influencing – and, indeed, de-influencing – by remembering that social networks offer a space for communities, constructive conversations and powerful calls for collective change.