The Influencer Phenomenon

Will brands be forced to abdicate control in order to obtain and retain consumer loyalty?
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Posted June 1, 2017

I attended a panel discussion hosted by mass media company Hearst a few weeks ago at their headquarters. It was a fascinating group of individuals that deal with influencers regularly in a marketing capacity. What really struck me about the lively conversation was how much control brands must be willing to give up in order for influencers to be effective on their behalf. After 29 years of working with retail clients, and advocating the importance of consistency in tone of voice and point of view, the idea of a brand relinquishing control of their creative expression to a random individual with a social media following of 5000 or more persons seems not only counterintuitive, but dangerous to brand integrity.

We’ve all observed the pattern: When a new creative director is hired at a brand, they forge their vision for that brand, inclusive of the store environment. At its most extreme, we watched Hedi Slimane when he took the creative reigns at Yves Saint Laurent in 2012. Not only did he redesign the store interior, but changed the name for the ready-to-wear collection to “Saint Laurent.” A more recent example is Maria Grazia Chiuri’s exploration of pop-ups as she flexes her design muscles as the newly appointed creative director at Christian Dior. To quote a February 28, 2017,  article about the same from Women’s Wear Daily: “I think it’s fundamental to maintain strong heritage codes. You have to do it in a contemporary way, but they have to be powerful, because that’s what makes the difference,” Chiuri said. “You want to give, in a simple way, the same atmosphere that you enjoy if you’re a couture client and you come to the Avenue Montaigne location.”

So while she exhibits an openness about the reinterpretation of the brand experience, her quote belies the reliance of maintaining a consistency of brand presentation. And here in lies the conundrum. What I found most fascinating in the aforementioned panel were the suggested road rules of influencer engagement:

  • The less you pay, the less you can force them to do.
  • Don't approach anyone who's isn't already invested in the brand.
  • Know their demographics, growth trajectory, geographic location, etc.
  • Build relationships with the influencers, not just find them and hire them.

But the number one road rule is: Brands must give up control. If they want a commercial, then they should go create one. Brands should state the message, but then allow the influencer the freedom to express their enthusiasm for the brand in their own unique way, using their own style. Lack of authenticity will jeopardize an influencer’s standing with their followers and negate the power of the influencer’s support.

Examples like Gucci’s relationship with Trouble Anthony (creator of GucciGhost), or Dior’s unwitting alliance with Jeffree Star, are proof that when it comes to highly prominent influencers that are also rabid fans, brands do lose control over product representation. So when I extrapolate the idea of influencers impacting the design of collections, as in the case of GucciGhost, at what point will this start to impact the design of the store environments? Yup, I went there.

Crowdsourcing has been used for product design and inventory management with some gains in frequency over the last few years, as retailers try to develop looks that will sell and stock stores relative to demand. As retailers grapple with creating stores that will attract, engage and motivate consumers to buy, why wouldn’t influencers begin to play a part in this extension of the brand, as well? It certainly seems to follow the progression of what we’ve seen to date. I believe retailers, as well as store designers (gulp), are going to have to keep an open mind to sharing the design process with the brand’s consumer base.

The question of exclusivity versus inclusiveness enters the conversation, as dedicated fans of the brand and their followers may not be (and most likely, are not) the brand’s typical demographic – and very possibly not their target demographic, either. Perhaps they could be if the environment shifted to embrace them. (Hmmm.)

We all thought bloggers getting front row seats at fashion shows brought on the democratization of fashion. That was just the tip of the iceberg; that was merely about access. Now there’s thousands of influencers, some with way-out-there personalities, but many just “regular folk” with a high degree of “she’s just like me” and a great eye for putting content together in a compelling way. Many have enormous power through their huge number of followers on social media and other channels – and remember, they’re called “followers” for a reason. If retailers and store designers embrace this and channel it, these influencers may lead their followers right into the store. From there, it’s up to the retailer to do the rest.

Kathleen Jordan, AIA, CID, LEED AP, is a principal in Gensler’s New York office, and a leader of its retail practice with over 24 years of experience across the United States and internationally. Jordan has led a broad range of retail design projects as both an outside consultant and as an in-house designer. She has led projects from merchandising and design development all the way through construction documentation and administration, and many of her projects have earned national and international design awards. Contact her at kathleen_jordan@gensler.com.