Influencer Marketing: When Brands Become Lost in Transaction

The next time you enjoy a meal at a sumptuous dining table, you may find an artifact linked to marketing history. More than 250 years ago, a luxury goods entrepreneur watched customer demand rise after winning a coveted endorsement, and wrote to a business colleague: “How much of this general use and estimation is owing to the mode of its introduction—and how much to its real utility and beauty?”

The centuries-old marketer’s dilemma of prioritizing media channels persists to this day. Collaborating with powerful influencers can heighten visibility, but understanding the nuances of relationship dynamics can prevent brands from becoming lost in transaction.

Brand Ethos

To say that businesses cherish public approval of their brands is an understatement. In assigning value, some endorsers carry more weight than others, depending on the halo their positive reputations can cast on the brand. In the current social media era, recommendations are valuable currency—with influencers as its power brokers on Instagram, Twitter, TikTok and other social apps.

In its earliest days, the social community had prolific content creators who simply mentioned products they genuinely liked. No money was exchanged. To be marketable to businesses now, influencers must come prepared with three things: an established audience, a distinct narrative voice, and a lifestyle or professional mindset already aligned with the sponsor’s brand ethos.

An observable phenomenon, brand ethos is the intangible asset that brands hope their customers aspire to experience. Brand ethos encapsulates the core character that gives a brand credibility, shaped by combining these attributes:

  • Purpose and Vision: The way a brand views its place in society and in the marketplace
  • Mission: The practical value derived from using its services or goods
  • Values: The code of behavior and standards its community pursues

Under paid partnerships, influencers agree to express how they personally experience the brand ethos in creative images and written posts—delivered with a voyeuristic appeal. With some celebrity influencers boasting more than 100 million followers, the promise of mass audience reach attracts sponsors, spurring an influencer marketplace that is expected to grow to $10 billion by 2020.

Breaking the Mold

But approval doesn’t always come with a price tag. And who would have guessed that influencer marketing started with a bunch of crock?

It was English potter Josiah Wedgwood, whose creation of a coffee and tea service for Queen Charlotte in 1765 secured her patronage and earned him the status of “Potter to her Majesty.” In one of the earliest examples of influencer marketing, advertisements for the newly named “Queen’s Ware” soon proclaimed the royal warrant bestowed on Wedgwood.

“Wedgwood created a brand, a reputation, ‘a relationship with the consumer,’ to use modern language, that was built around quality, elegance, and social stature or social place,” wrote Martha Lagace for Harvard Business School.

The entrepreneur’s 18th century marketing innovations were ahead of his time. When Empress Catherine the Great of Russia commissioned a set of dinnerware embellished with paintings of English scenery, Wedgwood cleverly chose properties owned by his elite customers. Of course, they clamored to have their own sets, which came with a bonus—bragging rights to their special connection with Russia’s grand patroness of the arts. For the emerging merchant class, he also mass-produced midmarket versions of luxury accessories. Today, Wedgwood products remain among the most sought-after gifts and collectibles.

Growing Pains

Although its origins stretch back centuries, influencer marketing is now turbo-charged by social media. Yet the field is still maturing with conspicuous episodes of growing pains.

Critics have accused influencers of inflating their audience numbers with fake followers. Some influencers, tasting fame for the first time, are testing the thresholds of acceptable behavior and content while dragging their brand partners into unexpected controversies. With the proliferation of both organic and sponsored posts, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has instituted rules for influencers to disclose the funding sources of their paid content. These “truth in advertising” guidelines broadly apply not only to newer media channels but also to broadcast and print.

B2B on the Cutting Edge

In influencer marketing, influencer missteps and unfettered expansion have inspired an outcry for a more disciplined approach. This thinking mirrors the well-defined but eminently adaptable B2B communications strategy, which emphasizes authentic relationships as a primary channel for business success.

B2B relationships are thoughtfully nurtured as the foundation of buying decisions, often made by committee and involving lucrative contracts spanning multiple years. Recent developments in influencer marketing strongly favor business audiences:

  1. LinkedIn and brand safety. For professionals, LinkedIn is a social media utopia for reaching those whose recommendations matter. Part of the appeal comes from LinkedIn’s clear-cut rules of engagement: Its participants are determined to keep things professional, with many on guard to admonish those who dare to reveal too much of their personal lives. LinkedIn publishes its own “Top Voices” list of business leaders whose content drives the greatest engagement on the platform. Among them is Dr. Nat’e Guyton, a chief nursing officer who has established a thriving community of nurse-policymakers. Such groups are a vital part of LinkedIn’s community of 500 million with 61 million senior-tier influencers and 40 million decision makers. Because individuals can self-identify using attributes including title, job function, seniority, industry, education and more, targeting B2B influencers can become more precise.
  1. Micro-influencers with immersive relationships. On social media, consumer-facing brands now emulate B2B engagement in their search for authenticity. Micro-influencers, a new variety of social-first media devotees with fan bases ranging from 10,000 to 500,000, are gaining attention for their immersive interactions with followers. For instance, Tanmay Bakshi is a Canadian teen with nearly 300,000 subscribers to his YouTube channel on artificial intelligence and machine learning. IBM engineers first reached out to Bakshi when he discovered a bug in their software and posted his findings on Twitter and a website for professionals. Since then, the IBM tech community has welcomed Bakshi as an uncompensated expert, in roles ranging from conference keynote speaker to Facebook Live session host. The relationship works because of the mutual exchange of value: IBM demonstrates its commitment to future generations of tech talent while Bakshi enriches his own knowledge with direct access to IBM’s leaders, including IBM Watson’s chief technology officer Rob High.


  1. Nano-influencers deliver authenticity. With an even smaller base of followers, often no more than several hundred to several thousand, nano-influencers relish their amateur status. According to The New York Times: “Their lack of fame is one of the qualities that make them approachable. When they recommend a shampoo or a lotion or a furniture brand on Instagram, their word seems as genuine as advice from a friend.” In the B2B world, nano-influencers are like the multiple decision makers involved in complex enterprise purchases, a concept first formed in the 1970s. The framework, called buying centers, names six distinct roles (initiator, influencer, decider, buyer, user and gatekeeper) to describe those who impact a B2B organization’s decision to purchase. Because their individual approvals are often shared discreetly, marketers must cultivate relationships with each one, in real life and online—or the sale might unravel.

It’s clear: Influencer marketing is a domain shared by consumer and business brands, one that spans all media without being limited to paid partnerships. As subject matter experts who are willing to share their opinions, influencers can serve as powerful brand advocates—but only if communicators invest in building meaningful relationships that prioritize brand ethos over blind endorsement.

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    In her role as Senior Vice President of Marketing, Mary curates the G&S brand experience to make an impact with audiences who influence the agency’s growth. Mary directs the agency’s marketing strategy that spans its digital and social media properties, branded research and live events, news coverage and special services. She is the co-author of the firm’s annual Sense & Sustainability® Study and executive producer of its portfolio of business and media conferences for senior communicators. Before joining G&S in 2008, Mary was SVP, corporate communications, and managing officer at Medialink Worldwide, a multimedia content and technology provider whose Nasdaq-listed IPO she helped to launch and grow to $180 million in market capitalization. She is a columnist and an Advisory Board member of PR News, and a member of the Public Relations Society of America and its Silver Anvil Awards judging panel. Mary received her B.S. in general studies with a specialization in visual design from Drexel University. Combining her art training and entrepreneurial skills, Mary grows businesses by applying purposeful creativity.


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