“If you have anything negative to say, please don’t use the hashtag” implored the organiser to her stable of ‘influencers’ ahead of a recent social media campaign.
Like everyone in the PR, marketing and advertising industries, that organiser was desperately keeping a shiny patina on their clients’ brands at a time where they are one tweet away from disaster in today’s world of message obsessed management.
With influencer programs those risks are magnified as marketers co-opt amateurs to promote their clients in return for access and freebies*. Those unpaid posters on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook may be happy to give a positive view to everything but their fans may not be so kind.
Given their clients’ aversion to risk, it’s not unusual to see marketers setting out terms to ‘influencers’ demanding the brand has the right to vet posts – as one telco requested to this site last year – or outright prohibiting anything negative being said about their client.
Happy Shiny People
Perversely, selecting happy shiny people to promote brands on social media while suppressing critical thinking could actually create distrust of brands argues communications consultant Joanne Jacobs who states “this distrust is caused by campaigns of undifferentiated positivity and uncritical thinking.”
A good example of this potential damage is a recent influencer campaign by Chinese telecommunications Huawei where a group of influencers were flown to the 2016 Mobile World Congress to post about their experiences with the brand.
The Facebook post below shows the influencers enjoying the vendor’s hospitality but it also illustrates the lack of diversity in the group, something that was quickly called out in the comments.
For the Huawei influencers who had spent the previous week gushing about the vendor’s products and events this was an opportunity to provide leadership on the lack of diversity in the tech and telco industries..
Instead the critics – some of whom had more influential online audiences than the ‘influencers’ – were dismissed with the passive aggressive accusation of being ‘negative’, the cardinal sin of social media marketing.
For Huawei, there was a real risk their happy shiny influencers clumsy attempts to protect the brand would damage for the company and it was unsurprising the company’s professional PR managers stepped in to defuse the situation which in the hands of amateur ‘brand ambassadors’ threatened to become a self inflicted disaster.
Brittle brands of happiness
Huawei’s experience illustrates a key problem with the happy shiny influencer campaigns in their brittleness when faced with genuine criticism. The happy consumerist gleefully liking Instagram photos of shoes or hamburgers will quickly abandon the product should the brand be perceived as acting dishonestly or unethically.
For those influencers who’ve tied themselves too closely to brands, such a scandal could find their own names tarnished and their hard won audiences and reputation deserting them.
In an age of conversation where critical voices can be heard, the nice shiny facades can easily collapse. The days when the tobacco industry or brands like Coca-Cola could drown out critical voices simply by the weight of their advertising campaigns are long gone.
Struggles with a fragmented media
The struggles for the PR and marketing industries in dealing with today’s fragmented world are not to be underestimated – the old models of broadcast advertising and engaging with journalists and celebrities have lost their effectiveness and the industry is grappling with what works with the new channels.
In a building a brand that will last in today’s media landscape, pandering to shallow thinking consumerists is at best going to be a short term fix. To succeed, building a believable trustworthy name that tolerates dissent, allows complaints and acknowledges informed criticism is much more important and exponentially more valuable.
Shallow thinking and shiny people might have worked for Coca-Cola selling to young baby boomers in 1965 but fifty years later things the critics and deeper thinkers have a voice to. Co-opting those voices will only strengthen the brand.
*Disclaimer: This writer has been on a number of influencer programs and received various degrees of corporate largess including a Huawei smartphone.