Is there a role for influencers in luxury brand marketing?

The marketing sector can be a complicated place as new marketing tools and techniques are launched, almost on a weekly basis. Powered by The Drum Network, this regular column invites The Drum Network's members to demystify the marketing trade and offer expert insight and opinion on what is happening in the marketing industry today that can help your business tomorrow.

Are influencers a help or a hindrance to luxury brands?

As we know, exclusivity is everything in the luxury sector. Guest editor of The Drum Network's luxury issue, Emma Fisher, asked our experts whether influencers are a help or a hindrance to luxury brands.

Here's what they had to say:

Sammy Mansourpour, managing director, Agency UK

It is more than likely that influencers will end up becoming the sole source of product placement for luxury brands moving forward. It’s not a far cry from the celeb endorsement they already seek. All luxury brands serve a strategy based on exclusivity and offering VIP access to their luxury brand is how they shroud it in aspiration and showcase it to the world. If we look at luxury brands like Aston Martin, Rolex and Revlon, they are each growing their brands through influencer communities. And to do it they are manufacturing limited edition ‘halo’ products and offering them exclusively to key influencers. This is a promotional tactic car brands have long been versed in.

Guy Levine, chief executive officer, Return

I believe there is definitely a place for influencers in the luxury market. People who are aspirational will always look up to luxury brands, wanting the lifestyle they perceive to be associated with the product. People who are in the luxury bracket will always look for inspiration from others in their bracket and people who are above luxury will always look for one-upmanship. Therefore, the question isn’t if an influencer strategy is applicable in the luxury market, it is which influencer would you need to pique the interest of the target marketing you are looking for: aspirers, inspirers or one-uppers?

Scott Rumsey, marketing executive, Click Consult

The luxury end of the market is growing fast regardless of the type of products on offer and brands want to jump on the back of the customers’ need for quality. Influencers are great at giving a product exposure and reputability, but I feel they are not needed in the luxury end of the market. Here the products and brands speak for themselves. Look at a brand like M&S. Sure, it uses celebrities in its festive adverts, but for the majority it just uses the products. The imagery tells you all you need to know.

Louise Williams, planner, Connect

Influencer marketing isn’t a new thing, but what we class as ‘an influencer’ is. There are in fact lots of different types of influencer. Some have been used for decades (celebs, experts, media/publications) and some are newer (bloggers, vloggers, Instagrammers). It’s undeniable, consumers are now more than ever in control of how they interact with brands. It’s not that they are interacting less, but they are showing a preference for the opinion of trusted individuals and influencers over hearing from the brands themselves. This is no different for luxury shoppers. If your audience are turning to trusted individuals to inspire them, you need to make sure they are talking about your brand.

Lauren Pearson, PR and marketing manager, Yard Digital

Absolutely, you only have to look at the views a designer handbag video can garner on YouTube to see there’s an engaged audience for luxury brands who collaborate with creative influencers. The key is to ensure you’ve done your research, selecting influencers that fit your brand and come across as authentic ambassadors. It’s not all about numbers – there’s no point picking someone with 500,000 followers if most of their content is centred around vintage shopping or snapping up high street bargains. The content will seem false and it’s not going to be reaching your target audience.

Oliver Bingham, consultant, The Clearing

It’s really easy for luxury products to just become props when influencers get their hands on them. I’m yet to come across a campaign or example that doesn’t cheapen the brand or product as a result. It doesn’t seem or feel natural. Of course, it depends on what we mean by luxury in the first place – it’s so subjective. But for real luxury, brands that deserve to be called luxury, it’s about privilege and being (or at least feeling) extraordinary. Putting your products in the hands of people that genuinely can’t afford them, even if they’re perfectly aligned to your target audience in every other thinkable way, is a dangerous game. I get why they do it – we know that the world is becoming more lifestyle orientated. Through our work with McLaren, we’ve learned that posting the most beautifully shot social content of sophisticated, elegant machines thundering around a steaming race track just doesn’t cut it anymore. It’s about the whole experience – the life the drivers lead, the things they see, wear, eat and do. They live a life of luxury and people want to understand and absorb as much of it as possible. They want access to it because they can’t live it themselves. And that’s the problem – they can’t have it and it’s unlikely they ever will. Bentley’s link-up with Natasha Oakley is a really odd one. She ‘borrowed’ a Bentley Continental GT for a three week driving tour of Italy, yet the majority of her following will be 20-somethings with little-to-no possibility of ever owning a Bentley. Does it help the brand to maintain its premium perceptions and create desire? Maybe. But it also defaces its most valuable and defendable brand asset – its aura of exclusivity.

Billy Leonard, outreach executive, Harvest Digital

There’s definitely a role for influencers in luxury brand marketing, but those brands have to be extremely careful who they choose. There have been quite a few examples of influencers revealing traits that brands don’t want to be associated with lately – with PewDiePie being a classic example. Luxury brands are all about their image, so it’s important for them to heavily vet their choices and ensure the influencers they’re working with properly reflect the attributes and values that the brand reflects. Decisions cannot be made based entirely on aesthetics and follower numbers.

Rob Wilson, director of creative and strategy, RPM

There is a role for influencers in luxury brand marketing, however it is vital that they are the right ones. Influencers can play an important role in building connections between brand and audience. Whether it’s a celebrity or a vlogger, the key is that they are truly relevant to your audience. Brands need to move beyond targeting just based on demographics and connect with people through their passions. Talking to a group of people based on their interests will create a much deeper affinity between them and your brand and influencers can play an important part in this, building brand love and credibility in that community.

Kieran Bass, managing director, Kitty

To get the best results from influencer marketing you have to play to its strengths, many of which are at odds with the needs and requirements of luxury brands – but that’s not to say that they can’t be useful. Targeting over volume of message is paramount, which means that choosing an audience that aligns to a campaign’s needs is incredibly important. Focusing on the influencer alone is not enough. Protecting the brand’s values over the duration of the campaign and beyond should be a priority – vigorous scrutiny of the influencer, their background and previous posts is mandatory.

Nick Lidell, managing director, The Clearing

Yes. As long as it’s not Will.i.am.

Bogdan Marinescu, digital PR specialist, Greenlight Digital

Despite an initial reluctance to engage in influencer marketing, luxury brands are now increasingly relying on social media heroes to connect with target audiences. We’re noticing a trend towards mid-tier or micro-influencer partnerships (a following in the six digits), partly to preserve the sense of exclusivity typical of luxury brands and partly due to a shift in focus on higher follower engagement rather than reach. Collaborations between high end brands and influencers should be partnerships rather than sponsorships, therefore the affinity with the brand, past brand partnerships, the type and quality of their content and level of engagement with their community are paramount.

Ryan McNamara, deputy managing director, Foxtrot Papa

Influencers can be one of the most powerful assets in a luxury brand’s toolkit, provided they match the brand’s values and have an honest approach that treats the audience with respect. As a rule, luxury customers don’t want to be marketed to – they want to see a brand or product as desirable and exclusive. The modern luxury audience is also moving away from the overt and showy into a world of elegant, educated luxury. They want to see for themselves why a product or brand is better crafted and therefore worth the investment and this is where influencers can really help. Craft matters, social responsibility matters, so influencers who communicate honestly about these topics are seen as reliable recommendations. Instagram, with its less commercial approach than Facebook and its focus on lifestyle and the fact it is image led, has driven a massive surge in this world, but it’s not the only platform that works.

Samantha Gabriel, strategist, Underscore

Influencer marketing has changed the marketing landscape and luxury brands such as fashion designers have implemented a strategy of inviting potential brand ambassadors to their shows to enhance their ‘must have’ credentials. Notable celebrity endorsements include Lily-Rose Depp for Chanel, which has helped to attune the Generation Z audience. Social media and technology has undoubtedly helped new entrants such as luxury cars to this relatively closed shop, with Lamborghini using athlete-turned-YouTube-star Jon Olsson to disrupt the market and help Roger Dubuis join the elite group of brands that dominate this global market.

Laura Collins, head of paid social, Merkle | Periscopix

In my opinion there’s a role for influencers in marketing the majority of brands, including luxury. Getting to a certain level of income doesn’t mean you take yourself off social media and lose the ability to be influenced. And if using celebrity influencers, luxury brands could even be a better fit. It doesn’t ring true when you see a millionaire promoting a budget or mid-range product, but a celebrity in a five-star hotel? Makes sense.

Lyndsay Snoddon, account manager, Caliber

The way consumers perceive luxury brands is changing. There will always be a place for heritage luxury brands, where exclusivity and opulence are key, but with a new wave of consumer buying behaviour comes a shift in what defines a luxury brand. The ubiquitous millennial market appears to be valuing brand names less and experiences and personal connection more. To stay relevant, all brands need to tell a story to connect with consumers. Influencer marketing and micro-influencer marketing, when done correctly, simply provides another channel through which to access the right demographic. Just be sure to align influencer with target market for effective campaigns.

Henry Moffett, senior account director, London Advertising

Followers of luxury brands on social media grew by over 27% in the last year, including over 936m engagement actions. Influencers are the protagonists of this online narrative and to dismiss them would be imprudent, whether you’re selling Rolex or Rolodex. Bigger is not always better though, as influencers should be selected for their relevance rather than number of followers. Apposite partnerships offer the credibility that will eventually lead to higher customer purchase intent. Get it wrong and it is painfully transparent, just as can be the case with traditional celebrity endorsements. We judiciously select the ‘fans’ of Mandarin Oriental based on their genuine love for the brand and then don’t pay them a penny. It doesn’t get much more credible than that.

Simona Ternblom, group creative director, Critical Mass

Luxury brands already depend on influencers, and with good reason. Influencers can grasp a Celine clutch in their fingertips while gliding into a Brooklyn bodega and make us believe that, one day, we might tote that clutch, too. We comment on their Instagram and sometimes they comment back. We get closer. The influencer’s luxurious lifestyle is a story we’re temped to imagine for ourselves. But here’s a bigger question: what next? When will younger consumers stop believing the story? And will luxury brands find a way to stay true to their DNA and deliver a more authentic reason to believe?

Lucy Gillions, co-founder, Jackanory

​In short, yes. From our experience as an experiential and live events agency, influencers have a huge part to play in luxury brand marketing. They provide the engagement and can help bridge the gap between the product and customer. It’s their storytelling that allows endorsements in an honest, authentic way. It is this that will then drive desirability and ensure that story is retold (and indeed ‘re-desired’). It’s critical that influencers are allowed the creative freedom to tell their personal story about their relationship with the product and only the bravest luxury brands are realising that they can retain exclusivity and drive desirability by using influencers in this way.

Nico Sarti, head of digital strategy, TVC Group

Absolutely yes. The luxury sector is now more focused on authenticity and provenance, moving away from the old view of a brand’s value solely deriving from status. Influencers will have a stronger role in helping organisations, especially within the luxury category, connect with the DNA of their products – the true story behind the brand. To succeed, brands should do three things:

  1. Partner with micro-influencers first. Individuals who are really passionate about products and their history.
  2. Build long-term programmes. It can take a long time to establish trust and consumers are bored of brief PR stints.
  3. Treat influencers as partners, not just another paid- for placement. The luxury sector needs a true voice highlighting the real value of a product beyond the glossy visuals.

This article was originally published in The Drum Network luxury special. You can get your hands on a copy here. To be featured in the next special focused on the charity sector, please contact stephen.young@thedrum.com.

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