This year's Asia Prize winners showed refreshing new ways to approach influencer marketing, writes Ida Siow. From the judge's point of view, she shares her strategic takeaways.

‘Influencer marketing’ is the catchphrase of 2018. For brands and businesses, it offers the promise of a shortcut to reach and affinity, at a lower budget. A promise that is particularly seductive in Asia, where youthful demographics and high smartphone penetration create a savvy, plugged-in generation of cross-referencing peers. 

The danger with new ‘quick-fix’ promises is that they can be over-used and under-appreciated. We see this with the use of influencers as an increasing number of brands and agencies jump on the bandwagon. From the black art of buying likes to the vapid portrayal of influencers in Singapore start-up FavesAsia’s recruitment film, as they are currently being deployed by many brands, influencers’ credibility and long-term value has been questioned.

At its most simplistic, influencer marketing is reduced to nothing more than renting human billboards, albeit with more artfully posed and photoshopped insta-humans. The inevitable backlash has already begun – from GQ scoffing “If you’re an influencer, you’re probably not influential”, to influencers rebranding themselves as “content creators”.

Beyond media placements to genuine influence

It is therefore refreshing and heartening to see the WARC Prize for Asian Strategy cases. These represent diverse cases of brands opening up the definition and deployment of influencers beyond transactional media multipliers. While they differ in category, audience and objectives, what they share in common is a deeper appreciation of the power of human influence. One that strips away the narrow stereotype of the hipster instagrammer and returns to the core of what it truly means to be influential – the ability to authentically represent an idea or belief so that it moves action.

Here are four lessons how.

Lesson 1: Put the idea before the influencer

At its most transactional, influencers are deployed purely for outreach to specific demographics. In evaluating and selecting influencers, agencies and clients alike can fixate on reach metrics (numbers of followers, fans etc.) at the expense of the message or the idea. A ‘cut and paste’ approach is then adopted, pasting the product or idea onto the influencer with the most followers within the target demographic. With little innate synergy to the brand idea, the result is a momentary spike in visibility, but little long term value-add or appreciation of the brand.

With influencers as with all communications, the idea is king, or indeed queen. A more meaningful and valuable model needs to reframe influencers from a ‘media channel’ to powerful ‘idea amplifiers’. First, crystallise the idea. Then, and only then, identify the right influencers that will breathe life into the idea.

McDonald’s Full-heart support for Gaokao campaign in China is a masterclass in the primacy of the idea. The objective was to build affinity with youths undergoing the stresses of the notorious university entrance exam (gaokao). A linear and literal strategy would have been to tap 18-year-old hip influencers to connect with 18-year-olds in their exam year.

McDonald’s did the reverse.

The idea was that McDonald’s was wholeheartedly behind students going into their painful exam preparations. The influencer strategy was to rally the emotional support of a nation behind these students. McDonald’s called on the 217 million Chinese citizens who had experienced their own gaokaos in the past to sympathise with and cheer on this generation of exam-sitters. Leveraging an older generation to connect with a younger target is a surprising influencer strategy, but it is the right strategy that amplified a creative idea rooted in ‘full support’.

Lesson 2. Authentic emotion vs. product placement

The cliché of influencer marketing is a sponsored product post. A cold, calculating tactic that is low on authenticity and credibility. The reality is that emotion is the most powerful form of persuasion. Les Binet and neuroscience have proven it. And Whisper’s Sit Improper campaign from India demonstrates the exponential impact that comes from matching a visceral, emotional idea with authentic, heartfelt influencers.

Rooted in the product benefit of comfortable sanitary napkins that liberated women to sit as they please, Whisper championed young women to Sit Improper. To break out against decades of decorum and admonitions to ‘sit properly’ and be completely themselves in posture and behaviour. The brand’s partnership with Girliyapa, India’s girls-only influencer network to create Sit Improper content gave the platform the cultural saliency and potency that could only come from the voices of young Indian women themselves vs. the voice of the brand.

Lesson 3: Give back vs. barge in

Influencer marketing can feel like high school – getting an ‘in’ with the cool crowd by winning over the coolest kid. Brands targeting certain communities use influencers as an access pass to inject their own agendas and messaging, which can sometimes be incongruous with the desired community.

Nippon Pylox from Malaysia recognised that true acceptance and affinity comes from a value exchange – when a brand actively contributes to the community in exchange for its presence. To reach users of spray paint, Nippon didn’t just work with cosplay and graffiti influencers to carry its message. The brand actively created events, utilities and open dialogues to better serve and integrate within these communities. Rather than piggybacking the cool kids, giving back is a more sustainable strategy to be part of the cool crowd.

Lesson 4: Influence for action

Influence is defined as the capacity to effect change or action. Beyond reach and awareness, a successful influencer strategy has the ability to drive deeper behavioural change. To educate Indonesian mothers on the health benefits of baby massage and get them massaging their children, Johnson’s Baby partnered the Indonesian Midwives and Pediatric Associations – getting medical experts and influencers to trigger mothers into action.

Exploring new potential for influence

Influencers and influencer marketing have received a bad rap. But influence can operate in wider, deeper and more effective terms when anchored in an idea, emotion and action. With the majority of brands in Asia planning to increase spend on influencers, the hope is that we see more of the above cases and less of the insta-human billboards.

This article appears originally in WARC's 2018 Asian Strategy Report.

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