Big Budgets Can’t Buy Trust: The New Rules of Influence


According to recent research, just four percent of Americans believe marketers and advertisers act with integrity. (Four percent!) Trust is a scarce resource, consumers are smart, and brands are always looking for a better understanding of what and who is really affecting their sales.

Answering the question of “what” works in advertising is easy—if your email marketing has higher click-through-rates than banner ads, or one social media platform has better engagement, you know where to invest. But the question of “who” is working for your brand is more difficult to answer.

Brands’ failed attempts at trustworthiness

Celebrity endorsements, for instance, have long been a part of traditional brand advertising and marketing. With the rise of YouTube stars, famous bloggers and social media personalities with huge followings, brands expanded their “celebrity” ambassadors to include these new online stars in an effort to provide seemingly more authentic recommendations and gain back some of that consumer trust.

But consumers quickly saw through these attempts to buy credibility with celebrity. The public eventually asked the FTC to step in, and in 2013, the FTC released new guidelines for .com disclosures to protect consumers from being misled by endorsements and influencer marketing. In fact, these rules recently put Kim Kardashian under scrutiny with the FTC because she failed to disclose that her social media posts about anti-nausea drug Diclegis were actually paid ads.

Take, for instance, another failed brand spokesperson, this time with more serious implications: Subway recently made national headlines when former spokesperson Jared Fogle was arrested and pleaded guilty to child pornography charges and to crossing state lines to pay for sex with minors. Subway wisely and publicly cut ties with Fogle, but the damage to its brand after such severe scrutiny was already done.

Tapping into credible influence

Instead of investing in a new “Subway Guy,” or disclosing ads on Instagram, brands may find more success in marketing strategies that move away from the singular untrustworthy spokesman or woman. The new rules of influence should prompt brands to empower every day people with the knowledge and resources they need to magnify their place as the brand influencers they naturally are.

Lululemon understood this with its ambassador program. Instead of using national celebrities to launch its brand, Lululemon recruits local athletes and inspirational leaders in communities all over the country to create a network of ambassadors who are trusted and respected in their communities to be the local face of the brand. This program provided the brand with more valuable influencers than they could ever buy with an expensive celebrity endorsement.

In 2013, Lululemon’s branding strategy was put to the test when the company waded through its sheer yoga pants crisis and some very misplaced comments made by founder Chip Watson. Though the company is still fighting for market share against Nike, Gap’s Athleta, and Under Armour, CEO Laurent Potdevin has attributed much of the company’s ability to rebuild its brand to the “deep relationship and feedback [they] have built with [their] brand ambassador community.”

This strategy utilizes what some brands are calling micro-influencers: individuals with relatively modest follower counts, but whose engagement and credibility within a community make their posts highly influential. When you take a close look, these micro-influencers personify the more impactful factors of influence that go beyond huge celebrity and high follower counts, like credibility, first-hand experience, category expertise and authenticity.

Similarly, Disney’s “Social Media Moms” program is a small movement with big influence. This grassroots social media outreach campaign uses carefully selected parents share information and photos, all while spreading the enthusiasm and power of Disney’s marketing message for families. Similarly, TOMS Shoes has taken influencers and put a twist on it with their TOMS Tribe program which is meant to get people passionate about the shoes but also encourages them to give back to their own community.

Today’s most successful brands understand that consumers want to believe in the sources they turn to for information—regardless of the celebrity or marketing trend du jour. As such, marketers need to re-evaluate their typical tactics and start getting in touch with what consumers really respond to. The natural next-step in the evolution of influencer marketing is to harness consumer confidence to build networks of trustworthy, knowledgeable, everyday people. This has the potential to resonate with consumers for as long as they turn to their friends for buying advice—which should be a pretty long time.



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