The first half of 2020 has brought on an era of massive social change and disruption that’s fundamentally altering culture and the role brands and advertising play in society. Brands are now being held accountable to act in alignment with their values at every turn. We’ve officially entered the people-powered Advocacy Era of marketing.
While COVID-19 has upended people's personal and professional lives in the US, we've also finally begun genuinely addressing the systemic racism at the foundation of so many of our institutions and belief systems. This shift is taking place amid increasing political polarization and what’s likely to be one of the most consequential presidential elections anyone can remember.
Meanwhile, the boundaries between the “real” world and the “virtual” online world have disintegrated as a result of social distancing and massive increases in social media use. Now more than ever, people of all ages and backgrounds are turning to influential figures across social media platforms to help them learn, evolve, and cope with so much significant change and uncertainty.
In many cases, these influential people hold institutions and brands accountable for making real progress and are also stepping in to advocate for brands that are doing the right thing.
WHAT MARKETERS CAN EXPECT IN THE ADVOCACY ERA
With every passing week, marketers working with influencers are getting a clearer understanding of the new forces that require a reckoning.
Here’s what we’re discussing most with our clients:
“Brand safety” is shifting.
With fundamental human rights and public health at the center of cultural dialogue, marketers have to evolve from avoiding political issues and recognize that influencers and brands with a point of view have the most power today.
Gen Z is buying based on values and purpose.
The next wave of consumers is different from their millennial predecessors and believe brands have the power to drive change. Their childhoods were marked by the 2008 recession and resulting growth in inequality. As they enter adulthood, they’re more focused on progressive values, purpose, and equity in their brand loyalty and purchase decisions.
Influencer marketing is becoming less transactional.
With values-alignment becoming more central, partnerships between brands and influencers benefit from longer-term contracts and deeper collaboration. Brands then have a chance to gain the trust of influencers’ followers and build loyalty over time, while also being able to pivot messaging quickly to navigate through volatile periods.
Niche communities are growing across platforms.
Whether driven by particular interests or a desire to escape the more “mass” platforms like Instagram and Facebook, people are increasingly spending time on other apps and networks. We’re seeing people debunking mainstream history on TikTok, tapping into everything from chess and sports streams to sewing tutorials on Twitch, and building new professional brands on LinkedIn. Influencers are busy building community on new and various platforms, and brands have an opportunity to expand their view of what brand advocacy can look like.
ACTIONS TO TAKE NOW
As brands begin ramping their influencer marketing back up for the last half of the year, these are the actions we recommend they take to embrace the Advocacy Era.
Have a plan for supporting racial equality, share it, and provide updates.
Many brands have made statements in response to increased public demand for visibility into corporate plans of action to address racial inequality. Still, fewer have shown real results or communicated progress in a meaningful way. Now, influencers and their agents demand more data and detail about brand commitments around workforce diversity, advertising representation, pay equity, and investments, so be prepared to show progress as you’re scoping influencer activations.
Avoid canceling influencer programs.
In our conversations with BIPOC influencers over the past month, it's clear there is a desire to continue marketing partnerships with brands. "Pushing pause" or canceling campaigns results in a negative economic impact on the very community needing support. Get creative about pivoting the campaign approach if the original brief no longer feels relevant. Be willing to adjust briefs and give creators more freedom.
Move away from prescriptive briefs or campaigns that rely too heavily on self-promotion.
Rather than asking others to take a stand with your brand, how can your brand stand with them? Consider how allyship can be action-led versus performative (or risk landing as performative) and apply that lens on all ideas coming to the table. Let creators guide briefs to ensure content will resonate as the loudest cultural conversations continue to shift week to week.
With a thoughtful, respectful, and flexible mindset, campaign investments, strategies, and programming can meet this new cultural moment.