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From Celebrity Endorsement to Influencer Engagement

By Dr. Smitu Malhotra, Associate Professor of Marketing at XLRI and Mr. Harsh Pamnani is an alumnus of XLRI | Tuesday, 27 Jun 2017, 12:52 IST

You are planning a holiday and looking for a hotel. Would you decide on a hotel based on an advertisement with a celebrity endorsement or decide based on actual experience reviews of other tourists? Would it be better if one of your acquaintances recommends a hotel?

These days, if we get to know about a hospital, restaurant, institute, computer, baby product etc. from a newspaper advertisement or web site banner with a celebrity endorsement then there are high chances that we would ignore the message. But if we get to know about the same from our trusted friend, family member or a subject matter expert then there are high chances that we would try them.

Our responses in the above mentioned two scenarios are different. In case of the first scenario, we understand that celebrity has been paid for the promotion and he is communicating the message of a brand that he might not have used. In the second scenario, we are getting to know about things from people whom we trust, look up for information and understand that their suggestions are not biased due to monetary reasons. We consider that their recommendations are based on their actual experience with the product or service.

These people who shape our opinions are known as influencers. They can come in the form of friends, family members, office colleagues, subject matter expert in a particular niche such as lawyers, doctors, teachers etc. Sometimes they could be complete strangers who have actually experienced the service and actively post reviews in a specific area. We choose an influencer based on an area, their knowledge in that area, sphere of influence, trust factor and associated risk.

With the explosion in the usage of social media channels, these days many influencers have become micro-celebrities with large number of fans and followers. Though mass following of influencers create great opportunities for Marketers, they have to understand key points of differences between celebrity endorsement and influencer engagement. A few of them are as follows:

  • Fame vs Personal Branding: Celebrity endorsement is driven by fame and influencer engagement is driven by personal branding. Fame is the state of being known by many people whereas personal brand is the reputation achieved by specialization in a particular field. Influencers are careful about their reputation as their followers trust them for genuine and honest opinions. For example, book launch by a movie star with media coverage is a form of celebrity endorsement, but recommendation of a book by a well-known subject matter expert is a form of influencer engagement. In the first case, the book could get short-term awareness, but in the second case, the book could get both long-term awareness and readership.
  • Non Value Add vs Value Add: In case of celebrity endorsement, a celebrity might endorse a brand that might not add value to its users, but in case of influencer marketing, to maintain trustworthiness, influencer would pick something that they have used, liked and think there is value for their followers to know about it. For example, Amazon Kindle commercials featuring Indian best-selling authors Ashwin Sanghi and Amish Tripathi sharing their experiences of using the Amazon Kindle and describing various features which they find useful for their daily reading could be considered as influencer engagement where book lovers’ influencers are sharing value addition of an e-reader in their life.
  • Mass vs Niche Popularity: Celebrities could be more popular among masses, but influencers are more popular in their respective niches. For example, Sanjay Thumma, a popular YouTube influencer in the cookery domain was leveraged by Philips to cook food items with Philips Air fryer in the online show ‘Philips SuperChef’. This campaign managed to create a lot of awareness for Philips Airfryer.
  • Special vs Diverse: When a celebrity endorses a brand, we could think that because of being a celebrity, he would have got special treatment from the brand or he would be a brand endorser and hence do not get highly influenced by it. On the other hand, diverse and independent opinions about a brand from thousands of people like us (even if unknown), who are expressing their genuine opinion impacts our decision to choose the brand. The power of the Internet has made possible the expression and aggregation of opinions about a brand from hundreds and thousands of people. This aggregated word of mouth becomes a major force of influence. For example, as mentioned in the beginning, while planning our trip, before choosing a hotel, rather than searching for celebrity endorsements, we read diverse and independent feedback about a hotel on TripAdvisor from many unknown people.

Though influencer engagement is a useful strategy, it works only when products are really good and influencers’ messages are authentic. Sometimes influencers word of mouth about a brand are natural based on their experiences, but sometimes brands reach out to influencers for an engagement that could  be rewarded in monetary or non-monetary form.  If due to paid engagements, influencers start communicating sales messages rather than their genuine expert reviews, then they could lose their followers’ hard-earned trust. Similarly, brands have to understand that influencers are valued because of their authenticity and engaging them in just paid engagements rather than genuine relationship could backfire.

The shift from celebrity endorsement to influencer engagement is a big change for Marketers. Today, brands are not built just on the basis of what CMOs decide to talk about their brands in boardrooms. Brands are also built on the basis of influencers’ word of mouth that customers refer to validate their decisions on ground. Of course, every market is different and pace of this shift would be different in every market. But marketers have to prepare themselves for this change and have to understand how to engage influencers constructively.

(Views expressed are authors’ personal and don't necessarily represent any organization's opinions.)

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