Brands Can Benefit From Partnering With Influencers Who Are Outspoken on Cultural Issues

Though this wasn’t always the case

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A post, like or retweet from a famous face can not only move products, it can also move markets. 

Since an 18th-century British potter leveraged an endorsement from Queen Charlotte to sell his pottery, influencer marketing has relied heavily on the powerful currency of celebrity. 

The world has shifted. Against the backdrop of a global pandemic and rising conversations about social justice, a younger generation is craving authenticity and action, challenging what we want to hear from influencers and when. 

The influencer ecosystem is being forced to evolve. What does influence mean? How should influencers use it? Here’s what we are seeing:

The rise of influencer activism 

Influencers who take a social stand should be seen as a strategic asset, not a liability.

Today, influencer activism is more essential than controversial, with fans expecting influencers to speak out on societal issues. Gone are the days where influence was only directed at consumers; now influencers are using their voices to push causes to the forefront of conversation, challenge companies to be more accountable and drive meaningful change. 

Jackie Aina exemplifies this shift. As one of the industry’s biggest beauty creators, Aina’s videos blend beauty advice with social activism. In June, Aina called out several brands for appropriation of Black culture without investing in the community, using her influence to get “in the room” with Fashion Nova and develop a plan of action. 

Similarly, creative director Aurora James launched the 15 Percent Pledge challenging retailers to stock 15% of their shelves with Black-owned brands. James has almost 150,000 Instagram followers, but her voice was amplified to millions, compelling Sephora and West Elm to sign on. If adopted by billion-dollar companies, the pledge has the potential to drive economic opportunity at scale. 

In September, James graced the cover of Vogue, proving that activism is now a driving force in culture. 

What does this mean for brands? Influencers who take a social stand should be seen as a strategic asset, not a liability. For years, brands have grappled with how to communicate their purpose and enlisted talent to spread their message. Today, influencers are flipping the model by choosing brands that align with their values. 

Expect more influencers to say no to brands that are not demonstrating a commitment to tangible change.  

Art to drive action 

Art can be a powerful way to express fear, frustration or hope, and this year provided an endless supply of emotional fuel. 

As the pandemic surged, illustrator Jennifer Baer created a playful collection of posters admonishing people to “Stay the F* Home.” Some of the most iconic work came from designers who created Black Lives Matter banners that anyone could upload to their social profiles. 

While brands have always leveraged artists for campaigns, artists are moving from production partner to marquee talent, especially for purpose-driven marketing. The past year has given visibility to an impressive slate of visual artists. 

HP launched Windows of Hope, uniting 35 artists to create downloadable posters to be displayed on Windows devices around the world. Increasingly, brands are using their commercial power to elevate underrepresented creators. For its Amplifying Black Voices effort, Nasdaq beamed artwork onto billboards, featuring talent like photographer Tayo Jr. 

Brands take note: Partnering with artists can create an emotional connection that goes far beyond a traditional ad. Additionally, brands that support underrepresented artists can help make the creator economy thrive.

Influencers as entrepreneurs 

When looking at the influencer ecosystem, there is a shift in how money is made. Brands continue to hire influencers for sponsored campaigns and enlist a select few to develop new products. Recently, Charli D’Amelio co-created hit products with both makeup brand Morphe and coffee brand Dunkin’. 

For most influencers, launching a product line with brand backing is a massive milestone. But for some, the goal of fully controlling their own brand intellectual property is even more ambitious. When we look at the evolution of influence, we see a wave of influencers-turned-CEOs launching brands that rival established companies. 

This year, Aina launched a brand that didn’t rely on a big company to back her or a retail partner to move products. Influencers come equipped with their own audience, content and distribution and can cash in on the social capital they earn with fans. 

Emma Chamberlain represents a gold standard in brand intellectual property. At 19 years old, she has multiple revenue streams, including a new coffee brand, custom merch that sells out in minutes and the Ideal Planner to help fans get organized. 

As ecommerce continues to grow, the influencer CEO trend will only accelerate and take share from legacy brands.

Brands can navigate this shift by seeing influencers as strategic partners, investing in co-creation of products and creating business models that put consumers in the center of the experience. And brands should ask if they are looking to influencers for short-term reach or long-term relevance.

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This story first appeared in the Oct. 26, 2020, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.