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The role of influencers in Sustainable Branding

In the modern age of social media dominance, influencers are now powerful drivers of consumer trends and brand endorsements. With sustainability being a hot topic at hand, brands are finding ways to narrate their environmental and social efforts, in a bid to increase brand engagement and loyalty. But what is it like for influencers who may face both scrutiny and praise for their involvement in promoting sustainable brands and products?

Brand Marketing: The evolution of influencers

This marketing approach has roots that stretch back further than many might realise. Before the advent of social media, people relied on what they saw in print ads, radio, and television for product recommendations. But even the earliest marketers figured out that featuring influential people in their ads could sway the purchasing decisions of consumers.

Influencers in Sustainable Branding: Coca-Cola's Popularisation of Santa Claus

Coca-Cola’s Popularisation of Santa Claus
Source: Coca-Cola via Campaign

In the early 19th century, there was Coca-Cola’s popularisation of Santa Claus, spreading cheer and driving beverage sales at the height of The Great Depression.

Next came celebrity endorsements, with Marilyn Monroe being the latest deceased celebrity to be resurrected for an ad campaign, Chanel No 5. Utilising only archive footage and a recording of Monroe’s voice, explaining what she wore in bed.

With a $5.2 ROI for every dollar spent, creator and influencer marketing are now considered to be vital for branding. It is a strategy that connects brands with credible individuals within niche communities or those with an engaged and substantial following.

Sustainability voices

It probably began in the mid-2000s when the documentary “An Inconvenient Truth” was released, presenting compelling evidence of climate change and earning an Academy Award. Al Gore, an influential figure and climate change advocate, played a notable role in bringing climate change into mainstream conversations.

Greta Thunberg started skipping school to protest outside the Swedish Parliament, demanding stronger action on climate change and inspiring students to join the movement in the quest for climate justice. Most recently, Leonardo DiCaprio has been named the most trustworthy climate authority. DiCaprio’s environmental activism dates back to 1998 when he launched a foundation that awards at least $100 million in grants to global projects with the aim of combating climate change and biodiversity loss.

Influencers in Sustainable Branding: Leonardo DiCaprio named the most trustworthy climate authority

Leonardo DiCaprio as the most trustworthy climate authority
Source: The Scotsman

Sustainability sellouts or catalysts for change?

There is a fine line between being an advocate and potentially compromising one’s principles as a celebrity.

“There are pros and cons associated with celebrities playing an influential role in the climate discourse. If Hollywood stars get people talking about the crisis, that can be a good thing. But celebrities often consider how advocacy will affect their personal brand, so they may shy away from taking a stand on climate policies that are controversial so they don't risk alienating fans. Endorsement deals can also raise conflicts of interest.”

Case in point: Shein

Navigating the complexities of sustainability, Shein’s influencers found themselves in a precarious position last month.

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Google search results of Shein’s influencer trip

Having ingested a massive load of data, ChatGPT eloquently summarises Shein’s success formula.

“Shein is primarily known as an online fashion retailer that offers trendy and affordable clothing, accessories, and footwear. The brand has gained popularity for its vast selection of fashion items, quick turnover of inventory, and competitive pricing. Shein is recognised for catering to young women and teenagers, providing a wide range of styles inspired by current fashion trends. Additionally, Shein is known for its active social media presence and influencer collaborations, which have contributed to its growing customer base and online visibility.”

And there you have it. Shein used the same strategy that propelled them to international success to talk about the most sensitive and ever-evolving topic.

Influencers in Sustainable Branding: Shein influencers during the factory trip

Shein’s Influencer Trip
Source: Shein via Bored Panda

Coming under fire for labour law violations and environmental impact, the China-based global e-retailer invited six influencers to one of its factories, innovation centre and warehouse. Dani Cabonari (@itsdanidmc) uploaded a now-deleted IG reel describing her role during the visit as an “investigative journalist” and that she also “interviewed” a staff member who worked in the fabric-cutting department. It did not sit well with the public and her followers who felt she was misrepresenting and taking the company’s PR at face value.

As the trip went by, many have also come to question the influencers’ decisions to represent and accept the free trip despite the brand being reported for labour abuses, poor working conditions and the environmental impact on fast fashion.

Who’s responsible? Brand or the Influencer

From our standpoint, it is an 80/20 split in responsibility.

There are brands like Patagonia that have done so much and continue to be humble, staying focused on their efforts while effectively marketing themselves. On the other hand, Shein has a notably weak sustainability narrative, attempting to present itself as sustainable through the launch of Shein Exchange – a peer-to-peer marketplace where users can buy and sell previously worn items.

Brands also have to be sharp on narrative. These narratives have to be crafted with finesse and care, grounded in honesty, integrity and authenticity. These are values that customers hold dear, and they are quick to disapprove when brands become shifty in such conversations. The chosen influencers need to continue to uphold the brand promise by exercising a “duty of care” to their followers and the public. Transparency and sincerity are essential for both brands and influencers when collaborating to promote sustainability effectively.

As sustainability continues to shape consumer preferences, the role of influencers in sustainable branding becomes increasingly crucial. By aligning themselves with environmentally and socially responsible brands, influencers can inspire positive action and create a ripple effect among their followers. When influencers and brands collaborate transparently and sincerely, sustainable branding can be a force for positive change in our society and the environment.

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