Why Brands May Need to Start Rethinking Their Influencer Marketing Strategies

Months after Virgil Abloh’s debut Air Jordan 1 from Nike’s “The Ten” released, the coveted shoe is selling on the secondary market for more than $2,000. And while his designer credibility gave the collab its initial buzz, its mass appeal has been bolstered by influencers. Abloh didn’t pay a celebrity to star in a grandiose ad campaign to promote the sneakers. Instead, he presented them to a select group with custom personal details handwritten in marker across the midsoles in his near-perfect Helvetica font.

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Virgil Abloh personalizing his Air Jordan 1 in FN's New York studio.
CREDIT: Andrew Boyle

Bella Hadid, Roger Federer, Drake, A$AP Rocky, Travis Scott and Naomi Campbell have been on the receiving end, and they’ve posted the footwear on social media for millions of followers to see.

“The influencers legitimized it,” Chris Paradysz, founder and co-CEO of internet marketing firm PMX Agency, said of Nike’s collaboration with Abloh. “They made it something that people are magnetic toward.”

Now Abloh’s kicks are must-haves for a wide range of consumers.

“Influencers are able to connect to people in a direct way, and it’s through passion,” Paradysz said. “They bring a level of curiousness and different perspectives that a brand can’t do on their own.”

But the influencer landscape is constantly changing. Abloh’s famous fans successfully reached their own followers; however, shoppers aren’t always swayed by star power.

“Brands think it’s a simple transaction that you pay somebody a couple million bucks and it turns the fortunes of your business around,” explained Matt Powell, senior industry adviser for sports with The NPD Group Inc. “But I think the relationship with the consumer is much more complicated than that.”

While athletic giants such as Nike, Adidas, Puma and Reebok tap big names including LeBron James, Kanye West, The Weeknd and Ariana Grande, respectively, conversion to sales and brand alliance isn’t guaranteed. What is gaining steam is the use of the microinfluencer: a person with a smaller following but heavy engagement with his or her niche audience.

“The [people] that have the most impact are the authentic ones, and the microinfluencers tend to be much more authentic than the big celebrities,” Powell said. “The consumer today knows that the big names are being paid to wear particular brands, and when you add compensation, it calls into question the authenticity of the endorsement.”

For Barney Waters, president of K-Swiss, utilizing influencers with a highly engaged audience is the top priority.

“Fame on its own isn’t enough,” Waters said. “You’ve got big-name celebrities, but if they don’t have strong social engagement, it doesn’t really matter. It’s like a billboard in a forest.”

Waters is banking on a different approach to the influencer game, in which he aims to connect with audiences on a more personal level through entrepreneurship.

“There’s a real danger in sneaker culture where all of the brands are going after the same small group of people,” Waters said. “When I came on board [as president in 2016], I realized I’m not going to win if I’m the eighth brand knocking on the same door.”

Gary Vaynerchuk, author and CEO of VaynerMedia, is at the core of this new strategy for K-Swiss, and expansion is on the horizon. Waters is testing community growth through microinfluencers and smaller collaborations.

Gary Vaynerchuk K-Swiss
Gary Vaynerchuk for K-Swiss.
CREDIT: Courtesy of K-Swiss

“Young people don’t want to play for the [New York] Yankees anymore; they want to be a boss,” Waters explained. “Consumers have a higher expectation. They want to know who you are and what you stand for. Gary Vee is a real departure. It’s a bit of gamble being that he is nontraditional, but it’s been a success.”

K-Swiss tapped the entrepreneur when he had 600,000 followers on Instagram, which has since grown to 3.4 million. And with two signature sneakers that sold out in hours, the company is gearing up for its third drop, the GaryVee003, in July. (K-Swiss also recently released a limited-edition style of the 001 to celebrate his “Crushing It!” book launch this year.)

To bring buzz and promote pre-sale orders of the new 003 “Clouds and Dirt” style, Vaynerchuk hosted a two-hour Facebook Live to connect with fans via a Q&A call-in conversation this month, offering advice on how to grow a brand. The up-close-and-personal session garnered 12,000 comments and 183,000 views.

“If you can connect to people emotionally, that’s a consumer for life,” Waters said.

And the relationship is evident. “As a former Nike designer, I love your concept of ‘Clouds and Dirt,’ I think the way you’re creating a movement around the shoe is amazing,” one user commented during the livestream, while many others posted in real time that they had purchased a pair.

As K-Swiss shows, influencer marketing remains at the forefront of digital strategies, but change is on the horizon. Companies will continue to miss opportunities if they bank solely on celebrity.

“There’s a confusion between fame and influence. We treat anyone who has a lot of followers on social media as an influencer automatically,” said Gil Eyal, CEO of marketing platform HYPR. “If you’re looking at Kim Kardashian West or Justin Bieber, they have an enormous audience that’s extremely diverse, where a large chunk of that audience isn’t strongly connected to them. But if you look at these smaller people, they tend to have much more influence over their audience.”

According to Mike Froggatt, intelligence team director at Gartner L2 Inc., which measures the digital competence of consumer brands, engagement tends to slide when an influencer is partnered with many brands, a standard practice for mega-names.

Based on a 2017 insight report, L2 also found that microinfluencers post about their partner brands almost eight times more than celeb- rity influencers do.

Regardless of an influencer’s notoriety level, what is crucial is the brand’s strategy of how to effectively use that person.

“It’s simple legwork. Identify an audience, find an influencer that’s a channel to said audience and test messaging,” Eyal said. “[But] most of the market is making [a] mistake. They have roster of [people] instead of seeing who is actually going to be effective.”

Vans has set itself apart through the years by teaming with ambassadors that have had a genuine connection with the brand before being paid to have one. Plus, follower count isn’t a No. 1 priority, explained April Vitkus, senior director of global brand marketing and strategy.

“We want to continue to ensure that we are keeping true to our consumers and shining a light on the diversity of Vans family members that have an authentic connection to the brand,” Vitkus said.

One successful influencer for the company is Natalie Westling, a fashion model and skateboarder with 149,000 Instagram followers, who has been a longtime fan of the brand. (She has its “Off the Wall” logo tattooed on her arm.)

As the relationship developed, Vitkus said, Vans featured Westling in a global campaign that celebrated the legacy of the Sk8-Hi sneaker, and later that year, she designed her own iteration of the model, which was exclusively released via retailer Opening Ceremony.

Pony has also formed its own strategy, specifically when it came to its relaunch last year, by incorporating various influencers in
its marketing mix. The company tapped rapper Joey Bada$$, DJ and music video director Vashtie Kola and WeWoreWhat blogger Danielle Bernstein to retell its story.

vashtie kola, pony, topstar sneaker
Vashtie Kola sports the patent leather Pony Topstar.
CREDIT: Courtesy of PONY

“We saw tremendous success by ramping up followers, but we were also launching the Pony.com website, and we were able to drive traffic there,” said Jamie Cygielman, CMO of the label’s parent company, Iconix Brand Group. “We look at social and digital to expand our reach, drive exposure and fan engagement. At the end of the day, it’s a way to build and introduce [ourselves] to a new audience. Ultimately, it can drive revenue.”

Influencer marketing doesn’t seem to be slowing down, especially in sneakers. In another report, L2 analyzed 1,152 brands and their relationships with more than 5,000 influencers, finding that an average of 70 percent of labels across benchmarked industries had such partnerships on Instagram. Eighty-four percent were in the activewear category.

No matter the size, the influencer with the most impact will always be one a consumer trusts.

“[Companies] should be scouring social media looking for people who are giving honest commentary on products and footwear,” Powell said. “Part of being authentic is not being owned by one brand; it’s by speaking honestly about the products that you see.”

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