The way that people talk about influencer marketing, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was a brand new concept that came along with the birth of social media sites and internet blogs. But, you’d be wrong.
For over 100 years, marketers have been cashing in on the power of influencers and brand advocates to promote everything from pancake mix to cigarettes to umbrellas. Of course, the world of influencer marketing looks a little different nowadays than it did in the late 19th century, but its principles are still pretty much unchanged.
How do we define Influencer Marketing?
So, all this talk about the 19th century has probably got you scratching your head in confusion. Instagram didn’t exist back then, so how could influencers even be a thing? Well, influencer marketing isn’t tied down to operating solely on social media - that’s just where it’s ended up in recent years.
Who are Influencers?
In simple terms, an influencer is someone whose opinions are trusted by those that follow them. They could be a celebrity, a blogger, a sport personality, heck - even the Queen of England is technically an influencer!
They are the people who, when they say how awesome something is, you want to listen, and you want to try it too. They can be trusted because how that product fares in terms of sales, makes no real difference to them or their lives. They are independent of it - even if they are being paid to talk about it.
If you’re still unsure of exactly what an influencer is, we have an awesome guide that describes it in the easiest way possible (even an 85-year-old Grandfather understood what we were talking about!), so go check that out and then come right back. Don’t worry, I’ll wait.
Influencer marketing is when brands utilise these savvy influencers to promote their product, instead of doing it themselves. I could quote some snazzy statistics for you here, but we all know that we’re more likely to trust the opinion of our friend, than that of a big corporation, right?
Well, that’s what influencer marketing capitalises on. Marketers know that we don’t really trust everything we see in TV commercials, billboards, or magazine ads. But, if someone we respect and admire says they’re into something? Sign us up!
The First Influencer
Now that we’re all down with the lingo, let’s travel back in time to when the first influencer (that we have on record at least) appeared in the media. Let me set the scene - it’s the 1890s, most advertising was slowly moving away from the word-of-mouth style of earlier years, and transforming into newspaper print ads, posters, and catchy slogans. For the first time, brands were actually telling the consumer what to buy.
One brand though, didn’t just want to rely on a few well-chosen words in the papers, they wanted a face for their brand and their product that people could trust and believe in. And so, Aunt Jemima was born.
The Davis Milling Company are the first company we know of to introduce an influencer into their marketing efforts. This influencer was called Aunt Jemima. A jovial woman with a big grin who appeared on all their packaging and advertisements, even to this day.
To further personify their brand, they brought in former slave, Nancy Green to act as a real-life Aunt Jemima for the company. And, she continued to play this role for over 30 years until her death in 1923. There have since been a string of different women hired to portray the now well-loved character, with the last making appearances as late as the 1960’s. Even today, Aunt Jemima remains a staple character in many food cupboards up and down the country. So not only is she one of the first examples of a brand influencer, she’s also the most long lasting.
A Royal endorsement
While Aunt Jemima may have been the first real influencer that we know of, even before she came along, one person was influencing the buying habits of their loyal followers - the King of England.
In the 1760’s, King George III endorsed the pottery of Josiah Wedgwood, giving it his royal stamp of approval. Mr Wedgwood was sure to capitalise on this, using this “celebrity” endorsement to advertise his products, and help give them a much higher reputation that those of other potters in the country. And, to this day, Wedgwood pottery is a popular and trusted brand - all thanks to influencer marketing.
Influencer marketing gathers speed
As we head into the early 20th century, we begin to see more and more brands starting to hop on the influencer marketing bandwagon, cashing in on its ability to appeal to the general public in a way that traditional advertising just couldn’t do.
Sports stars started to become linked to products and brands at this time, more so than any other type of celebrity. For the most part, household names like Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb were chucking in their lots with tobacco companies across the country - and cashing in some pretty hefty checks to go with it.
Coca Cola and Christmas
But, arguably the most famous influencer of them all was first utilised in the 1920s as Coca Cola got their hands on Santa Claus, and were determined not to let go. The brand began including him in their print ads, and cashing in on everyone’s favorite time of year. Now, while Santa was, of course, already a pretty big name before Coca Cola came along, they harnessed his popularity so well, that even today we associate him with their brand.
And just as a little FYI for you guys - they didn’t actually give him the red suit like many people think. He actually came ready branded for them, already decked out in his signature red and white suit.
What Coca Cola did manage to do, was transform a typically strict character into a truly jolly fella, who both children and adults could fall in love with. People became so invested in him as a person that it wasn’t uncommon for arguments to arise over his lack of wedding ring, or the way he wore his belt - he was an influencer alright, and one of mega proportions at that.
Brand created characters
With the success of Aunt Jemima and Santa Claus, many brands were now creating their own characters to act as advocates and influencers for their business. Building your own character meant you had total control over their image and how they represented your brand.
While these characters were owned by the businesses themselves, they gave a friendly face to big corporations, making them more approachable and trustworthy in the eyes of the consumer. And, because of these advantages, brands continue to use this strategy today with characters like Kellogg's Tony the Tiger having been around since the 1950’s, and still doing grrreat!
As we enter the middle of the 20th century, celebrities begin to have larger followings, and a stronger image around the world thanks to TV, radio, and ease of travel. From the 1950s right up to the turn of the century - celebrities were key to great marketing campaigns.
The Marlboro Man
In the 1950’s, one of the biggest figures of the decade first appeared on billboards and in newspapers - the Marlboro Man. Played by a string of various actors right up until his demise in 1999, he was the tobacco company’s attempt to make smoking more “macho”.
They were showing customers that if they smoked a Marlboro cigarette, they could be just as cool and manly as the Marlboro Man himself. This is when we began to see advertisers leaning towards selling “lifestyles” rather than products, and celebrities were the perfect way to do just that.
Big Names, Big Brands
As the 20th century rolled on by, you would be hard pressed to find a big name brand that wasn’t linked to a celebrity influencer in some way. The age of celebrity was well and truly upon us. And it wasn’t just actors, singers and sport personalities that were getting in on the action. Even former president Ronald Reagan became a spokesperson for Chesterfield Cigarettes.
Fast forward a few years and you have the likes of Tiger Woods promoting Rolex, and Britney Spears, P!nk and Beyonce all sipping on Pepsi cans on the TV. The bigger the celebrity was, the better.
There was even a big surge in celebrity product collaborations, where the influencer was taking the partnership a step further by creating their own versions of products under existing brand names. The more unusual examples of this would be Rihanna creating her own umbrella with British company Totes after the success of her number one single “Umbrella”; and the British boy band JLS producing their own brand of condoms with Durex.
Why it worked
Celebrity endorsements were not all that new though. The first record we have of this kind of partnership is Fatty Arbuckle in 1905, a silent film actor, who worked to promote Murad Cigarettes. But what had changed was how prevalent these celebrities were, and how popular they had become.
Everyone wanted a slice of the glamorous and exciting life that these celebrities seemed to lead. And, since they couldn’t afford to splash out on private jets and penthouse apartments, any small part of that world they could get their hands on was like gold.
And so, whether it was cigarettes, umbrellas, or potato chips - if your favorite celebrity said they liked it, who were you to argue?
Bloggers and the rise of the internet
The 2000s gave us a brand new millenium, and a brand new world for marketers to explore - the internet. Now that even the average family had regular access to the internet, the world of celebrities, and therefore influencer marketing was about to change.
Over the last 18 years, things have moved at an immense speed, with the focus shifting from traditional celebrities, and onto what we now think of as “influencers” - bloggers, vloggers, and social media superstars.
The Old Spice Man, Man!
One of the biggest and most successful campaigns of the first decade of the 2000s was led by the marketing geniuses over at Old Spice. The campaign worked hard to capitalise on their recognizable brand character by creating personalised videos and sending them out on social media to celebrities and “regular” people alike.
All in all, they shot 180 videos, and combined with real-time responses to fans on social media the campaign was a roaring success, and one of the first examples of an advert going “viral”. Campaigns such as these help to pave the way for the world of influencer marketing as we know it today.
Bloggers and Brands
With the internet democratizing influence in a way that we had never been seen before, bloggers began to grow into more than just whispered voices on dark corners of the internet. In the early 2000’s, the first “mommy blogs” started to take shape, and by the end of the decade, they were securing big brand partnerships with readerships to rival traditional magazines and newspapers.
These “real” voices gave people a fresh take on brand recommendations, and started to take over from celebrity endorsements as more and more people began to use social media in their daily lives.
Influencer nowadays are influential because of their online followings rather than their celebrity status. They are content creators themselves, and owners of their own personal brands. We’ve gone a step beyond what the bloggers of the early 2000s did for influencer marketing, and switched the focus even further away from traditional celebrities.
The power of social media
Thanks to the growing popularity of social media platforms, influencers have been able to carve out a market for themselves to act as brand ambassadors for their favourite products, and help businesses get their message out to the people who matter.
With everyone and their dog on social media nowadays, businesses have long been trying to crack the mysteries of social media marketing. But, with all the constant algorithm changes, oversaturation of the market, and new platforms popping up left, right, and centre - it’s not all plain sailing.
Influencers have found a way to really harness the power these social networks can provide, and have built engaged communities who listen to their opinions, and follow where they lead. When brands began to notice this, partnerships began to blossom, and bottom lines began to soar.
A new breed of celebrity
But, celebrities aren’t giving up their influencer status without a fight. In fact, this golden age of influencer marketing has seen new breeds of celebrity start to appear and infiltrate our online world.
It’s no longer enough to be a great singer, model, or actor - you also need be great at social media. Some celebrities really can do both, with people like Selena Gomez being the most followed account on Instagram, as well as an accomplished singer and actress, who works as a brand ambassador for a number of businesses.
We have also seen the emergence of a type of celebrity who has built their career on the back of social media, rather than by traditional means. Kylie Jenner, for example, may be a successful makeup mogul now, but her ever-increasing social media status is what has enabled her to build her business from the ground up.
With this new wave of influencers, a new phrase has been created - “internet famous”. If someone is internet famous, then they have built up their notoriety, their following, and their business, solely through the power of the internet and social media.
These are people like Lilly Singh - a YouTuber with over 11.9 million subscribers who works with Coca Cola, or Kiersten Rich - a travel blogger who consistently works with high-end hotels and resorts around the world, and everyone’s favorite feline Grumpy Cat whose adorably angry appearance landed them (and their owner) brand partnerships with cat foods, clothing lines, and soft toys.
These influencers are more approachable, and more relatable than your average celebrity, as people have seen them grow their accounts from nothing, to where they are today. Just like the talent shows we see on TV, they give people the sense that they too could do that if they really wanted to. They give people a lifestyle to strive towards that isn’t too far out of reach.
The future of influencer marketing
Since the first occurance of what we consider to be influencer marketing in the 1890’s to today - the face of the sector has changed dramatically. We’ve gone from Kings and slaves endorsing our products, to celebrities and YouTubers leading the way. So, where will the future take the world of influencer marketing in the years to come?
Why influencers are becoming so essential
We briefly touched on this before, but many social networks are trying to weed out all the noise, and help us focus on the people we know, rather than what businesses are trying to sell us. Algorithm changes like this make social media marketing much more difficult for brands, with their reach being cut down year after year.
Influencers on the other hand, seem to be reaching more and more people as these changes take place, and users are looking for real voices to cut through all the advertisements they are bombarded with everyday.
And, with 30% of internet users predicted to be using ad-blockers before the end of this year, marketing teams need to find more organic and engaging ways to share their brand message with the public.
One concern that many have though, is whether the world of influencer marketing will soon become oversaturated with more and more people trying to make a living from their social media profiles.
But, what we need to remember, is that even small micro-influencers have some serious clout when it comes to marketing. Using a well-connected network of influencers, rather than putting all your eggs in one basket, is fast becoming a preferred strategy. This way you are able to target a more niche market that is more likely to be interested in your product, by working with a group of smaller, more streamlined influencers.
And so, while we may see more and more people trying to break into this market, if they continue to bring brands the results they want - there’s no need to worry just yet.
Well, there you have it! Influencer marketing is not a new concept by a long shot. As consumers, we’ve been influenced to buy and invest in products by other people for well over 100 years. And, while we may have advanced from the days of Aunt Jemima, to the days of Kylie Jenner - the concept remains the same. Using people the public trust to promote your brand.