Cast your mind back to April 2017. Pepsi pull their “tone deaf” advert featuring Kendall Jenner. Seemingly alluding to the Black Lives Matter movement, the ad shows Jenner resolving a police stand-off with a group of protestors by presenting a stone-faced officer a 330ml can of the sweet stuff. The screen reads: “Live bolder. Live louder. Live for now”. The 21-year-old model then became the centre of a social media storm lasting days.
“If only Daddy would have known about the power of Pepsi,” tweeted Bernice King, daughter of civil rights leader Martin Luther King.  

So how does a global brand worth more than $150bn make a multi-million dollar mistake conceding that it had “clearly missed the mark”? 

But was it really Jenner’s fault? Was she in any way culpable for this awful marketing choice? After all, she was merely hired: a body and a face to sell a product. Or was she?  

The campaign that quickly went flat: Pepsi’s poor-tasting advert of last year has now been pulled

This is a classic case of influencer marketing gone wrong. The obvious assumption – made by millions of social media users who can broadcast their opinion at the mere click of a button – was that this wasn’t just Kendall Jenner the Model or Reality Star, but Kendall Jenner the Influencer. It was this very influence that Pepsi decided was so valuable for their brand, much to her detriment.  

Indeed, the value a brand sees in a social media influencer is reflected in how much they are willing to cough up. A ‘micro-influencer’ with 100,000 Instagram followers can charge a brand around £2,000 per picture promoting their product, while those with between 4 and 20 million charge £5,000 to £13,000. The Kardashian clan have been known to earn around £250,000 per upload, and singer and actress Selena Gomez’s posts to her 132 million followers can be worth up to £400,000 a pop. It can only be assumed that a company’s return on investment far supersedes that initial influencer invoice.   

how does a global brand worth more than $150bn make a multi-million dollar mistake? 

Demanding less time and money from ad agencies, the price of reaching consumers is far less when it comes to social media marketing. A 2017 cross-channel media costs comparative study in America threw up some interesting results: TV advertisements were found to cost an average of $28 for every one thousand people reached, while magazine and newspaper ads both weighed in at $16. Social media, however, was found to be the most cost-effective at a significantly cheaper $2.50 per thousand people reached.   

But what makes influencers so appealing to consumers? Whether it’s the millennial blogger they follow on Instagram promoting the newest detox tea, or their favourite footballer adorning the side of a bus wearing the trendiest watch, consumers – particularly those between 18 and 24 – respond to social media influencers because of their seeming authenticity, credibility and reach.  

Stripped of its regulatory hashtags and celebrity mystique, the use of social influencers in advertising campaigns is simply word-of-mouth (WOM) marketing in its most recent guise. WOM has always been the most potent mode of promotion, and this has never been more true in the Age of the App. One study found that 92% of people trust recommendations from individuals – even if they don’t know them – more than branded information. Similarly, a recent survey by Twitter showed that 49% of respondents relied on influencers for product recommendations, only slightly less than the 56% trusting friends. In another study, 40% of people admitted to having purchased an item after seeing it promoted by an influencer on Twitter, Instagram, or YouTube. Put in basic terms: people trust people, not ads.  

But with great influence comes great responsibility. With a whole brand’s credibility in their (often) vastly unregulated hands, there is plenty of room for error. Take, for example, Scott Disick – ex-boyfriend of Kourtney Kardashian – and his infamous Instagram mishap. The reality TV star shared a photo of himself posing with a huge container of “Boo Tea” (seemingly every Instagram influencer’s favourite weight loss shake), and captioned it (sic): “Here you go, at 4pm est, write the below. Caption: Keeping up with the summer workout routine with my morning @booteauk”. Disick quickly corrected the copy-and-paste error and edited the caption, but not before the mistake was memorialised by countless screenshots. The fact that Disick makes around $20,000 per Instagram post makes his laziness all the more embarrassing. Woops. 

Put in basic terms: people trust people, not ads.  

Sometimes, however, a blogger’s misfortune can inadvertently help a brand get some of the best and most priceless marketing. The luxury Dublin hotel, The White Moose Café, recently banned all social media influencers after 22-year-old YouTuber Elle Darby reached out to them asking for a “possible collaboration” – err, a freebie four-night Valentine’s stay for her and her partner – in return for some exposure to her 85,000 YouTube subscribers. The hotel owner’s reply, shared on their Facebook page, was scathing: “It takes a lot of balls to send an email like that, if not much self-respect and dignity. […] Maybe I should tell my staff they will be featured in your video in lieu of receiving payment for work carried out while you’re in residence?” 

Either way, Darby’s message and the owner’s reaction granted both parties a great deal of publicity – far more than either would have possibly hoped to have received. The hotel banned all bloggers from their business, stating that “the sense of entitlement is just too strong in the blogging community”, “in keeping with their general modus operandi of wanting everything for nothing.” The hotel’s owner, Paul Stenson, has since waded back into the row, sending Darby a €4.3million bill (plus VAT) for all the exposure the blogger received thanks to his Facebook post. The invoice states that she should be charged for “the provision of features in 114 articles across 20 countries with a potential reach of 450 million people.” (Sorry Paul, make that 115).   

There is no doubt that as influencer marketing rises, more transparency is needed. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) cracked down on influencers, warning them to disclose paid-for posts with a view to protecting consumers. Bloggers must now signify a promoted post, photo or video by tagging “#ad”, “#spon” or the rather evasive “#sp”. Instagram followed suit, introducing a “paid partnership” feature on the app in June 2017.  

All this begs the question: is this the future of marketing?   

While traditional methods of advertising are unlikely to become obsolete, one thing is for certain: social media marketing is here to stay. Pepsi may have got it wrong, but there a lot of people and businesses getting it right – just look at their bank balances.  

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