The top question I receive from brands today is, “How can I choose the right influencer in China?”
Today, entire categories are often defined by a “sea of sameness,” resulting in a category’s brands becoming less defined, less distinct, lacking personality, and, ultimately, underperforming.
Just paying a “pretty face” to represent a brand is not enough anymore because everyone is doing it, so it is not a competitive advantage.
There is almost no day where I am not discussing influencers with brands. In a world of massive digital acceleration where social networks have become the new real estate in terms of investment, all brands face the challenge of reaching their audience. It’s not just a “noisy world,” as the late Steve Jobs famously said when he presented his Think different campaign; it’s a world that is noisier than ever, with an ever-growing number of brands competing for the attention of target audiences.
Therefore, to break through the exponentially growing clutter, many brands turn to influencers, key opinion leaders, and stars to gain from those associations and — importantly — to reach audiences of ten to fifty million followers or more. In the past, the allure of a superstar was their sheer fame through Hollywood blockbusters. But today, the real power comes from a devoted following and the star’s ability to convince followers that their brand is the brand they should try, too. As a result, influencers seem to be the key to connecting most brands with consumers. And as a result, choosing an influencer becomes mission-critical. The question is: how?
I was recently invited to speak at an event about how Asian influencers and stars — especially K-Pop artists like Blackpink’s Lisa (ambassador for Celine) and Exo’s Kai (the “Human Gucci”) — are changing the face of brands in front of a massive worldwide audience. Unsurprisingly, the top question I received during my presentation Q&A was: “How can brands choose the right influencer?”
When facing this challenge, many brands make one huge mistake, in my opinion: They follow trends and do what everyone else does. Let’s say brand A signs up with a K-Pop star and has seemingly found success. So brand B follows, as does brand C, followed by brand D, E, F, and so forth. As a result, everyone makes the same move, and the followers rarely achieve the same impact as the original brand. In fact, in many cases, follower brands can significantly weaken their brand equity this way.
Choosing an influencer is a strategic task. It cannot be a tactical decision made by simply following trends. And the strategy must start with the brand identity. That means before a brand can even consider a collaboration, it must know its brand equity aspiration, what it stands for, and what rational & emotional aspects it wants customers to understand.
That requires a dedicated process that, in my experience, can take two to three months to finish. When I audit brands, I find that these fundamental tasks are rarely done. Instead, brands tend to define themselves through vague value propositions, exchangeable buzzwords like “performance, authenticity, confidence, and pride,” which sound great but mean nothing if they are not followed up with measures that make them felt by the customers.
As a result, in many brand audits, I find entire categories are often defined by a “sea of sameness” where brands have very similar brand stories and benefit promises. The result? Brands within a category become less defined, less distinct, lack personalities, and stagnate or underperform.
Then, if an undefined brand now relies on a random influencer to give it a boost, the attributes of the influencer will overpower the brand. The consequence is a brand identity that is shaped more by an influencer than a brand. Over time, this will weaken brand equity and will only compound a brand’s glaring issues.
Instead, brands should get clarity about their brand positioning and competitive advantage (both rational and emotional) before even considering an influencer collaboration. A brand audit is a great starting point, but it must be followed by a brand equity aspiration exercise. Only when the brand personality is defined in every detail should a brand then go search for an influencer who matches the brand personality.
This route, ideally, leads to stronger influencer integration. Just being a “pretty face” that represents a brand is not enough anymore because, as I said earlier, everyone is doing it, so it gives no competitive advantage.
Gucci understood this when the brand made Kai its ambassador. The personalities of the brand and influencer match perfectly, and Gucci integrated Kai in a way that led to the co-development of a capsule collection, which quickly sold out across Asia.
This example is where brands can learn from best in class. Don’t just go for an influencer or a celebrity to represent your brand because everyone else is doing. Be strategic. Do your homework first to make sure you know who you are as a brand. Be clear about your goals and how a potential collaboration could strengthen your brand equity and create a competitive advantage. If there is no competitive advantage, then you can do more harm than good with an influencer.
Daniel Langer is CEO of the luxury, lifestyle and consumer brand strategy firm Équité, and the professor of luxury strategy and extreme value creation at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California. He consults some of the leading luxury brands in the world, is the author of several luxury management books, a global keynote speaker, and holds luxury masterclasses in Europe, the USA, and Asia. Follow @drlanger