Brands, Influencers and the Ad Industry’s Values Reckoning

September 22, 2020

“Values-driven engagement is a crucial pivot in the way consumers will evaluate brands today and, in the future, and those that don’t adapt risk substantial loss in customer loyalty.”

What seems like forever ago – before the global pandemic, the Black Lives Matter movement reigniting and other major social and societal challenges we have faced this year, this quote appeared in ForwardPMX’s 2020 Trend Report, a report that launched in December of 2019. While we’ve endured a rollercoaster of challenging events this year – many of which we could have never predicted – this statement and the importance of companies taking a stance on causes they care about, rings truer than ever.

In fact, a recent Harris Poll survey found that a large majority (79%) of people expect a company’s leadership to respond to crises like COVID-19 or racial inequality. What we’re seeing is how current events have propelled a “values reckoning” of sorts, and that it now applies to virtually all forms of marketing and brand positioning, where consumers are hyper critical about the messaging and even marketing tactics taken by brands.

In considering recent social, economic and environmental movements events and how marketers have been challenged with not only aligning themselves relevantly to causes, but leading these cause-driven conversations within society and with consumers, we wanted to explore how this all applies to influencer and creator engagements – a form of marketing that has grown substantially over recent years.  More specifically, we wanted to explore the strategic responses that influencers and brands should be considering as part of this “values reckoning”.

Here are two areas to focus on:

Be Purposeful With Partnerships

With the rise in social media and the expansion of the digital economy over the last decade or so, we know that influencers and creators have become the changemakers that brands and consumers look to for guidance on the newest trends and movements. While the relationship between a brand and an influencer is mutually-beneficial, current events, such as the Black Lives Matter protests and the #StopHateForProfit campaign, have, in some cases, led to a gray area for expectations and accountability for both parties.

This should lead brands to revisit their strategy and take a hard look at who they’re working with, and also, ask themselves some important questions. For instance, as a brand, are we speaking to sustainability concerns and actually changing the way we do business through meaningful initiatives? As an influencer, am I being authentic and working with brands that uphold my values, and that don’t only talk the talk, but walk the walk? Taking the time to make sure that those values match up will ensure harmony on both ends, and even more importantly, convey to today’s consumers that the brand is serious about social change.

From the influencer’s perspective, they can also feel empowered to hold brands accountable for the values they are projecting. For instance, they can draw attention to any disparities in working with people of color, and they can be transparent about compensation, as recent reports have surfaced on racial pay gaps in the industry.

Focusing on these factors can lead to a more purposeful engagement, and we expect these changes to be here to stay.

Industry-Wide Accountability

All of this is not to say that brands and influencers are doomed for eternal exile if they have a misstep. Most people would be happy to know that 82% of consumers would forgive a company for at least trying to help, even if they don’t get their response to an important social issue right on the first go. So, where can this accountability be exercised? We believe it’s a long-term game of sticking to promises and being authentic.

A great example of this is Blackout Tuesday and the black square that appeared on many influencers’ and companies’ social media pages. Many brands and influencers were swept up with the virality of the campaign. Currently on Instagram, there are over 23 million posts that have the hashtag #BlackoutTuesday. However, the real work is what comes later on, and consumers expect much more than words on a screen. Natasha Ndlovu, a fashion influencer based in London, recently told Vogues Business that, “Brands need to convince audiences that they are serious about [catering to] a diverse customer base. You can’t do that by using a Black influencer once a year and calling it a day.” Brands and influencers alike need to work together to ensure this change is perpetual, not just a temporary response.

One brand that consistently sticks to their values is Patagonia. With just a quick look at their Instagram page, viewers can see the brand’s commitment to sustainability organically woven into their content. And because of their authenticity, this content sees high engagement rates. The post on the Red Desert is a great example of this strategy in action.

Overall, this level of accountability is vital for brand health, and those brands that don’t get on board are almost certain to lose customers and engaged fans. A July 2020 survey found that 58% of consumers said they will boycott brands that don’t stand for racial equality. Moreover, another survey found that 40% of Americans support the brands who participated, and continue to participate in #StopHateForProfit. Numbers like these speak to the importance of going all in on your company values and by extension, underscores the necessity for brands to use their influence to take a stance.

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