Social media has been where many consumers have turned during the coronavirus pandemic – whether for escapism or practical assistance. And with usage of these platforms on the up, brands have an obvious opportunity to link with influencers to keep telling their story during the crisis.
That was the message of a recent webinar (see video above) hosted by influencer marketing agency The Fifth, part of News UK. Business director Rebecca Reeve-Kendall said influencers can be valuable and authentic intermediaries for brands at this time because they see themselves as part of a community and know what their followers enjoy. They provide brands with a way to remain visible during the crisis and still add value to the lives of consumers who are not exposed to them in the usual way.
Reeve-Kendall added that if brands “go dark” and disappear during the crisis, they could struggle to recover after the lockdown or fail to acknowledge how consumer behaviour has changed. Instead, they need to remember what they stand for but adapt their tone to the ‘new normal’, to reach audiences staying at home and engaging more with online content.
“Brands are being forced to transform their strategy, but this needs to be done sensitively,” she said. “Audiences are at home and desperate for the right content, and brands can use influencers to be more confident in their approach.”
According to Kantar, consumers spent 70% more time online in March and this figure was likely to be even higher for April. The lockdown has also meant more older people have mastered technology, offering further digital and creative opportunities.
“So much has happened in such a short time,” says Reeve-Kendall. “We have seen influencers like Joe Wicks become global superstars and the emergence of Zoom and House Party, as people adapt to a fully digital way of life and form different habits in the new normal.”
It is not what you do now but why you do it that will build relationships with consumers.
Candice Green, The Fifth
Consumers are certainly watching brands’ actions closely. Some 65% say that how brands react to the pandemic will have an impact on how they interact with them when things start to return to their prior state, Edelman research shows. Meanwhile, 33% have stopped using a brand they felt was not acting appropriately.
Kantar’s research also reveals that 70% of people want a reassuring tone from brands and 77% want to see brands helping and remaining relevant without being self-serving.
There is also an opportunity to work creatively with influencers to ensure everyone abides by government guidance around Covid-19. Many influencers have already created content from their own homes to support the World Health Organization’s ‘Safe Hands Challenge’ to promote correct hand washing. They have also backed the Public Health England message encouraging people to stay at home.
So how do brands decide which influencers to work with in this climate? Authenticity and audience are crucial and influencers tend to fall into two camps.
There are those who entertain, such as London blogger Victoria Emes, who went viral singing her lockdown version of ‘I Will Survive’; while others help their followers solve new lifestyle problems, for example around cooking or home schooling.
There are certainly openings to use entertaining influencers, such as Emes, in a creative way to cheer up audiences during these difficult times and provide an escape from reality using comedy or theatre.
Influencers are also helping people to overcome the disappointment of seeing events and festivals being cancelled by creating online alternatives. For example, US rapper Travis Scott’s gig inside the game Fortnite was watched by more than 12 million players.
Replacement for agencies
The Fifth points out that using influencers can be a cost-effective alternative to using production agencies, because they are their own production and creative houses and have a portfolio of content ready for brands to use. Many content creators also own professional equipment and have the skills to create TV-worthy content.
As an example, Asma Elbadawi – a spoken-word poet, basketball player, activist and playwright – recently collaborated with director of photography Johno Verity on an Instagram video called ‘Lockdown’, produced for just £250. Influencer strategist Scott Guthrie points out in his blog that the video “offers a prime example of the speed of turnaround, the power and relatability of content, and the low cost of production possible through skilled influencer-generated content”.
During The Fifth’s webinar, creative lead Candice Green said the options with influencers are endless for brands because the social space is full of content from all walks of life. “We can find the talent whose tone aligns with the brand and build an audience around authentic content,” she said. “An influencer has their own unique tone plus the skills and equipment at home. This can cut production costs by 50%.”
She added that brands should also consider using influencer-produced content in their above-the-line or digital campaigns. She pointed to Tesco’s Food Love Stories campaign, featuring influencers as well as other people across the generations staying in touch with loved ones and sharing food ideas.
Of course, any partnership only works if the influencer really does share a brand’s values and beliefs. If not, there is a lack of authenticity, and digitally native audiences will call out brands for jumping on a particular social bandwagon and hold them accountable as we emerge from the crisis.
Apple demonstrated how to do things well with its ‘Creativity Goes On’ campaign, showing people including celebrity influencer Oprah Winfrey using Apple products at home during the lockdown to stay creative.
“You must not forget who you are and what you stand for. It is not what you do now but why you do it that will build relationships with consumers,” said Green.
Another example of a brand adjusting its tone and remaining contextually relevant – by acknowledging new audience behaviours and not coming across as self-serving – is Birds Eye. It was one of the first brands to adjust its strategy with its ‘What’s For Tea’ communication campaign, which ran in place of its original through-the-line activity. As a trusted family brand, it felt it needed to stay on screen and reassure customers during the lockdown while offering advice and activities on its website.
Elsewhere, many food chains, including Burger King, Pret a Manger and Wagamama, have been giving away their secret recipes to stay connected to customers who are missing out. “This is another example of brands remaining relevant and front-of-mind until they can interact with customers in the usual way again.”
There have even been examples of influencers trying to recreate classic fast food. YouTuber Oli White has 2.8 million followers, and his film showing him attempting to make McDonald’s Big Mac and fries had more than 315,000 views by the end of April.
Green said brands can move forward in the new normal if they are prepared to be reactive and use influencers to help them. “Existing strategies have to change because it is hard to plan too far ahead,” she said. “You have to be forward-thinking but ready to react week to week.”
Case study: Brett Cobley, vegan chef and influencer
Vegan chef, author and influencer Brett Cobley set up the EpiVegan Instagram page in 2016 and has become an expert at producing engaging content from his home.
He now has more than 71,000 Instagram followers and 11,500 YouTube subscribers, who love his inspiring vegan dishes. They also ask him questions about his cooking and the vegan lifestyle.
“From my experience as a creator, I am being asked questions about a recipe or how to get a particular ingredient that people could easily search on Google,” he said. “The reason they ask me is that they want an opinion or review from someone they trust and follow.”
One of his most popular pieces of content is his ‘Creative Cupboard Challenge’, where he asks his audience to tell him three items in their food cupboards that they aren’t sure what to do with, and then invents a recipe or recommends a use for them.
“The best people to know the morals and values of a brand are those behind the brand itself. Influencers can help them create great content that sets the right tone and keeps people engaged and entertained.”
Cobley added: “Try to build lasting relationships with influencers who share your approach and ethics. Ideally, an influencer should be seen as part of the brand family. I tend to work with brands that are already part of my lifestyle.”
But how do you measure the impact an influencer has on a brand?
“Work with the influencer, offer discounts or see from the direct messages, shares and other interactions from people who have found the content useful.”