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

Though this wasn’t always the case

a vogue cover on the left, middle is a man in a pool, and the right in a silhouette in front of a rainbow
Consumers are craving brands that speak out on issues more. Vogue, Jennifer Baer, Tayo Jr./Nasdaq
Headshot of Stacy Minero

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.

This story first appeared in the Oct. 26, 2020, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.
@sminero Stacy Minero leads Twitter ArtHouse, a global team working with artists, influencers and producers to develop content for brands.