Influencers and saving the high street

Brands and agencies are only scratching the surface when it comes to how to deploy influencers to help the ailing High Street.

By Alec Harden-Henry, Commercial Director, Influence Network.

It’s a photo of someone in a shop, wearing a mask, clutching a bright pink bag, surrounded by shoes.

You can take your pick of the tried and tested COVID-19 language to describe it. It is ‘the new normal’. Someone ‘supporting the local economy’. By wearing a mask they are ‘doing their civic duty’. In the caption there is talk of everyone in the shop ‘miss[ing] the human contact’ and, of course, ‘social distancing’.

What’s really remarkable about the photo though is that it is of Wendy Nguyen, a US influencer who has been paid by the retailer Nordstrom to physically go to one of their stores to ‘detail post-pandemic protocols and boost the allure of visiting’, according to a New York Times article.

In terms of how brands partner with influencers it is, to my  mind, unique. But, watch out, because partnerships like this are about to become ‘the new normal’ for agencies and brands that approach their influencer relationships with awareness and creativity.

Influencers v2.0

One of the many impacts of the pandemic has been to speed up change, in a whole range of areas.

The most obvious has been in how we all work. Remote and flexible working, with a high reliance on video conferencing, was theoretically available to all  prior to March 2020, but few workplaces adopted such ways of working extensively. It took a global pandemic for organisations to see the positives of such wholesale changes.

Change within influencer marketing is inevitable. It would have happened anyway, in time. But there are signs that the pandemic has started to speed that change up, to force agencies and brands who did not previously use influencers to include the channel, sometimes as the mainstay of campaigns and to change how those who were already there collaborate.

For one thing, influencers have, by and large, acquired a new level of respectability and heightened levels of trust during the pandemic.

Engagements on posts by influencers regarding public service and social good messaging, such as #stayhome, passed 1.5billion. Anecdotally, influencers – particularly micro influencers – were seen as a group who experienced the same challenges that we all did during lockdown and not only behaved in accordance with the local public health rules, but encouraged their highly engaged followers to do the same.

The status quo of influencer marketing will remain viable for quite some time yet. At its core, a collaboration more often than not involves brands sending a product to an influencer or an influencer to an experience and generating a positive post or posts. That’s not about to change and the returns will still show influencer marketing is an attractive route to market.

But influencers’ positive social messaging means that the photograph of Wendy Nguyen in a shop with a mask on, to essentially address consumer anxiety, will not be an isolated occurrence, at least… not if brands and agencies continue to consider their audience and address change.

Concerns and needs

To pull us all back to marketing 101 for a second: good marketing often shows consumers how a product or service addresses their needs. The driver behind what we’ll carry on calling ‘influencers v2.0’ for the time being is, yes, COVID-19, but at a more core level we could better express this by saying: ‘COVID-19 has changed what consumers need and how they wish to acquire those items’.

During the process of buying said items it’s inevitable that consumers will have concerns. These could be about price, quality or suitability. COVID-19 has also changed these concerns.

Consider the following new truisms for both brands and consumers;

  • Shops, restaurants and other businesses that previously operated primarily from the high street have been forced into the delivery marketplace. Consumers will have concerns about the viability of non-delivery brands to serve them in an acceptable manner.
  • A brand new market has opened up for COVID-19 safe products, such as sanitisers and face masks. Consumers will have concerns about the viability and reliability of these products.
  • Consumers have a new concern around COVID-safe environments. Brands risk irreparable reputational damage if they fall below the expected standards.

There will be more dramatic requirements from consumers, needs that brands can address and concerns that arise in part due to the pandemic, particularly, you would think, as we head for winter. Addressing those factors will need more attention and creativity than simply giving an influencer a product or an experience.

Yes, in Nordstrom’s case, ultimately the collaboration is relatively standard. It is an influencer surrounded by products. But it is not the products that the influencer is selling. Wendy Nguyen is ‘selling’ the very act of visiting a store again. It won’t be the last time that we see an influencer helping to promote something so simultaneously out of the ordinary (you would never have previously marketed the attraction of going to a shop) and part of ‘the new normal’.

Brands and their agencies who embrace the new consumer needs and concerns in creative ways will lead the returns from the influencer channel as we head towards 2021 and the rise of influencers v2.0.

Photo by frankie cordoba on Unsplash

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