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One has to look no further than recent news about Kanye (Ye) West’s antisemitic tirades to recognize that influencer marketing can be risky. After Ye’s anti-black and antisemitic remarks, both Adidas and Gap dropped him as a sponsor, and Twitter and Instagram suspended him for antisemitic posts, including a post on Twitter threatening to go "death con 3 on Jewish People."

When a social media influencer that a brand has been working with makes the news for the wrong reasons, the brand may also find itself in the news. Let's take a look at the reasons that brands must be careful when working with influencers in 2023.

Influencers Gone Wrong

There are many other examples of influencers gone wrong over the past few years. The YouTuber Felix Arvid Ulf Kjellburg, also known as PewDiePie, initially created his account in 2010 and gathered a large following by producing video game commentaries. By 2012, he had 1 million subscribers, and by the end of 2013, he had amassed 19 million subscribers. His demise came after he posted a video in which he was seen laughingly reacting to a sign held by two people which said "Death To All Jews." He had staged the video on the side of a road and filmed the incident to see people's reactions. This act of antisemitism had crossed a line so far that no excuse was accepted by his followers and ultimately, he was fired by Disney-owned Maker Studios. Surprisingly, he still has 111 million subscribers.

Pepsi is well known for collaborating with powerful influencers and had partnered with Kendall Jenner. In 2017, during a period when brands were publicly taking a stand concerning the social movement bandwagon, Pepsi created a campaign in support of the Black Lives Matter protests. Many people, however, thought that Kendall, a white supermodel, was not a good fit for the campaign, which made Kendall look superficial, and Pepsi came out appearing insensitive by seemingly implying that a can of Pepsi would end the violence against black people.

Related Article: How Influencers Help Build a Better Customer Experience

Cancel Culture Can Damage the Brands Influencers Endorse 

Influencer marketing refers to a type of marketing in which social media influencers provide endorsements and product placements to their followers. Influencers typically fall into one of two categories: They either have expert knowledge about something that is related to a brand, or they have social influence that enables them to effectively reach customers and prospects. Additionally, influencers often produce an entertaining and informative way of raising consumer awareness of a brand’s products or services. Unfortunately, their actions, statements and even past posts can paint an ugly picture that brands do not wish to be associated with.

Christy Pyrz, chief marketing officer at Paradigm Peptides, told CMSWire that as effective as influencer marketing can be for brands, the downfall can lead to tragedy. "Cancel culture not only impacts the influencer, but everyone around them as well — including brands. It's so important that companies develop partnerships that can align with the same mission and values. An influencer has their own style or branding that may not line up with a company's beliefs,” said Pyrz. “Businesses need to find the right fit and keep their PR team on hold in case a crisis occurs. This type of marketing can drive companies forward in terms of revenue, or they may lose it all from one incident,” said Pyrz, who suggested that brands need to tread lightly if they're relying on this type of strategy.

Speed is of the essence when it comes to taking action when influencers do or say something offensive. Frank Sanchez, co-founder of Elk Marketing, told CMSWire that it’s widely recognized that the biggest mistake made — aside from Ye’s thoughtless comments — was how long it took these organizations to cut ties with him.

"This decision should’ve been immediate ... it should’ve been within minutes from his behavior, without hesitation,” said Sanchez. “What’s interesting, though, is that we’re all acting like this is something new because of Ye’s remarks but this is not a new phenomenon at all. For example, one of the most prominent instances of a spokesperson completely failing a brand is when Jared from Subway was convicted as a child predator. From that, and several other cases, we learned how dangerous it is to rely on a single individual as the face of your brand. This is a huge liability, and it’s rarely necessary.”

Sanchez explained that beyond Ye or Jared and the morally reprehensible things they did, by assigning a spokesperson to your brand, you’re not-so-subtly tying your brand’s values to this person’s values, character and behavior. “In my mind, there is nothing riskier than a decision like this.”

Only Partner With Appropriate Influencers

Influencers, as well as celebrities, are simply people with their own biases and prejudices, and brands have to be vigilant when it comes to influencers and celebrities being the public face of their brand. Kati Wrenn, social media specialist at Sole Strategies, told CMSWire that hiring influencers is something brands have always had to be careful doing. "I don’t think Kanye West’s actions should come as a surprise based on how he has carried himself in the past,” said Wrenn. “Brands need to truly ask themselves, ‘Is this someone I want representing my brand?’ If any doubt comes to mind, the answer is no. The long-term effects will far outweigh the short-term revenue.”

Wrenn suggested that there are several things brands can do to set themselves up for success. “First and foremost, commit to doing the research and really get to know the influencer. What are they like as a person? What is their day-to-day life like? Who do they interact with and what are their friends like? How do they treat members of your staff during meetings? Asking questions like this will help brands sort out any red flags,” said Wrenn, who reiterated that brands should only work with influencers who align with their brands. While Ye may be an entrepreneur, he isn’t an athlete. “Adidas and Gap don’t sell music-related products. Don’t hire an influencer simply because they’re famous or have a large following,” said Wrenn. “Influencers are a really powerful tool when used correctly, but aligning your brand with someone without doing the proper background research will set you up for failure.”

Related Article: Best Practices for a Productive Influencer/Brand Relationship

What About Branded Content?

According to Waseem Ballou, co-founder at Teez Agency, a Los Angeles-based digital marketing agency, influencer marketing is an effective strategy — when executed correctly. "Branded content on an influencer page is important to be done correctly because when working with brand partners, many times brands/advertisers look to see if they can find influencers that have an impact and relatability to their brand and goals,” said Ballou, who believes that when brands look for influencers, they want to ensure that they find one who carefully selects brand partners themselves and is not taking anyone and everyone.

It’s not enough to just gain eyeballs on social media through one’s relationship with an influencer — it often comes down to measurable results. “One key thing as an agency that we look for is how ROI can be measured when working with a certain partner outside of reach, impressions and engagement,” said Ballou. “Affiliate marketing and partnerships have been a growing task as we work with influencers more and more as our brand partners want to know when investing with influencers that they can see a direct return versus just getting standard social page numbers.”

Other brands are even more cautious when it comes to working with influencers, and some prefer not to use them at all. Brian David Crane, founder and CEO of Spread Great Ideas, told CMSWire that his business has steered clear of influencer marketing for several reasons, and cautioned that, in his opinion, the market for influencers is getting too expensive, and “every company may not have the funds to sign big influencers,” said Crane. In, fact, Crane believes that the influencer marketing domain is also reaching a saturation point as there is an overwhelming ubiquity among influencers. 

Because many influencers are trying to make a living directly through their relationships with brands, they often end up endorsing products they do not truly believe in, which diminishes their value as an influencer for the brand. “They recommend everything, everywhere, which takes away the originality of the experience.” Crane has concerns that in today's fast world, there is a growing inauthenticity among influencers as most are chasing moneybags. “They sign on as many sponsors as they can get but not truly understanding or having a connection with the product or service they are supporting," said Crane.

Final Thoughts on Treading Carefully With Influencers

Influencer marketing can be an effective way to bring awareness of a brand’s products and services to a large customer base. That said, there are inherent risks associated with allowing a popular social media figure or celebrity to represent your brand. We live in a culture that is unapologetically quick to cancel any behavior that is seen to be inappropriate, offensive, insensitive, racist, sexist, homophobic or hurtful.

Brands must be very careful to vet an influencer’s past history, ethics and characteristics before giving them the power to effectively ruin consumers’ trust in a brand.