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How influencer marketing helps brands build authenticity

Insights from businesses with influencers at the core of their strategy

by Fiona Soltes - NRF

In a tumultuous season, stability, consistency and guidance matter. In the topsy turvy world of 2020, then, consumers continued to turn to influencers for direction — and savvy brands made the most of those marketing connections.

“In order to build a community, you need endorsements from experts that people trust,” said Lauren Sherman, chief correspondent with Business of Fashion, at NRF 2021: Retail’s Big Show – Chapter 1. “Whatever you want to call them: celebrities, influencers, friends, what have you. It really is … valuable.”

Sherman helmed the session “Brands Leading Influencer Marketing in 2021” during NRF 2021 – Chapter 1, exploring past lessons and future opportunities with Jennifer Powell, CEO and founder of talent agency Jennifer Powell Inc., and Jarno Vanhatapio, CEO of Swedish online direct-to-consumer retailer NA-KD.

“In order to build a community, you need endorsements from experts that people trust.”Lauren Sherman, chief correspondent with Business of Fashion

NA-KD, one of Europe’s top 20 fastest growing companies, was founded in 2015; it now ships to more than 180 countries and was on track to do revenue of $222 million last year. Vanhatapio, a serial entrepreneur, has worked with influencers since 2003 — back to when they were simply “bloggers,” he said.

“It was basically content marketing at that time for us,” he said. Bloggers were invited to come along to fashion fairs and cover the selections made. He saw, even then, that “curated raw content” resonated better with consumers than the “glossy,” especially when the bloggers were free to put their own spin on what they experienced.

Empowering the storytellers

In 2020, Vanhatapio said, NA-KD worked with influencers much the same as it always had, not only for marketing but also for fashion collaborations. Pandemic year or not, it has been evident how important it is to empower those creatives through continued spending in that channel, he said. This year, the company is set to invest more than $30 million.

One the biggest benefits, Vanhatapio said, is that the channel provides “two-way communication,” with influencers helping improve strategy. “We need to listen,” he said. In the beginning, 100 percent of NA-KD’s marketing budget was spent on influencers, but now there’s a more diverse plan. In advising others, he said, he admits there’s nothing easy about influencer marketing, and it can be a quick way to lose money without expertise.

Powell, who works in brand management and strategy for influencers, came to the industry as a model agent. She stepped into the space at first “not really realizing that this was going to be a thing.” The industry, however, progressed. Powell left Next models four years ago to start her own agency to brand build with talent.

“This year, really, it’s been interesting to help provide a service for the brands, to really become partners in this, and be like, ‘We can tell you what works for us. Let us tell stories to help you sell product,’” Powell said.

“We can tell you what works for us. Let us tell stories to help you sell product.”Jennifer Powell, CEO and founder of Jennifer Powell Inc.

“It’s been constant conversations, constant Zoom calls, to try to figure out how we can service best our partners and how we can help get product moving.” The season has allowed influencers to show their true value to brands in content creation, as well as to deepen relationships.

Powell also has been working with 3D design, CGI models and avatars. “It’s been really interesting to try to figure out how else we can tell stories, and what’s possible in that space, as well,” she said.

Finding unique voices

Sherman asked about how much brands should be willing to let go of control. Powell said that starts with a conversation, but also that brands are starting to get to know influencers and understand their unique voices.

“I think they’re getting less scared, and willing to look at people that aren’t traditional ‘influencers,’” Powell said. It’s an amazing opportunity, even for people who work within a business, to be elevated as influencers, such as a brand’s creative director or editor. “These people have very powerful, very interesting stories and voices and ways of telling the stories,” she said. “So why not support people that are already working for you internally, and see what you can do together, in telling a great marketing story?”

Sherman agreed. “Expanding your idea of what an influencer is, is so important,” Sherman said. “Because it’s everyone. It sounds very philosophical, but it’s just so true.”

Powell added a quick list of actionable takeaways: Invest in influencer marketing; diversify your brand’s use of social platforms; remember that it’s about creating community; and invest in digital workflow. She believes 2021 will be about relationships: “Healing, mending, moving into the future together,” she said. “See your influencer partners as that.”