For years, influencer culture has been about aspiration – highly stylised Instagram photos showcasing the gloss and glamour of travel, luxury and wealth. Followers to these types of accounts have skyrocketed. Retailers, often fast-fashion ones like Pretty Little Thing, have reaped the benefits of collaborating with the likes of Molly-Mae and other Love Island influencers to rapidly expand their customer base.
The pandemic has highlighted this disparity in wealth and privilege like never before. From snaps taken on Dubai beaches, to Kim Kardashian’s private island birthday party, many have been accused of tone-deaf responses during an extremely deadly second wave.
Hunger for content continues
This by no means spells the end of influencer culture. Rather, the pandemic has accelerated the amount of time we are sat scrolling on our phones looking through posts. In the US, users spent 3 hours 13 minutes every day on their smartphones last year. In the UK, engagement in social media platforms continues to grow, forecast to reach nearly 51 million users by 2025. Ultimately, there is still a huge appetite for content via social media, and users will no doubt continue to follow influencer accounts.
Shift in perspective
But is excessive consumerism beginning to peak, in turn shifting our perspective on what is aspirational, and what is not? The cracks are starting to show. Take last summer’s #filterdrop campaign which drew attention to the use of filters used by influencers when promoting beauty products. This has resulted in the Advertising Standards Authority recently banning two tanning brands from promoting their products with the use of filters on their Instagram stories, as well as tighter controls to prevent misleading content across social media. As well as this, there is a growing backlash against influencers who fail to accompany their paid for social posts with ‘Ad’ disclosures. All this begs the question: are people becoming slightly ‘done’ with these false pretences of perfection?
For younger generations in particular it is damaging to see perfection as something that, in reality, is just a bunch of filters. But research suggests things are changing. Dazed media’s report on youth culture last year found just 6% of their audience were persuaded to buy a product after an influencer with over 100,000 followers posted it. As Izzy Farmiloe, strategy director of Dazed Media told The Guardian:
“No one – but especially Gen Z – likes to be lied to, and influencer culture feels so vapid and meaningless, especially with the pandemic. Buying stuff is not what’s important right now. It’s all about people who stand for something, beyond just trying to promote and push a product.”
The cause-oriented consumer
Consumers are becoming increasingly cause-oriented. They want more value from a brand. Their interaction goes beyond the transaction. The pandemic has brought this into sharp focus, casting new light on societal issues which brands are expected to address as much as governments and citizens: greater recognition and support around mental health; greater focus on sustainability and transparency into the supply chain (the pandemic itself a consequence of mankind’s intrusion on nature); and a greater need to address diversity and inclusion, put into perspective by the Black Lives Matter protests last summer.
The pandemic has also taught us to be more patient than ever before, staying in to protect our communities and anxiously awaiting all-important vaccine timelines. It has also taught us to be more grateful for the things we have – seeing loved ones or meeting a friend for lunch – rather than striving for a false notion of perfection over social media.
Influencer culture will not end. But influencer culture as we know it – that which is aspirational at all costs and a clear underscoring of privilege – is weakening. Influencers need to become more interesting and reflect purpose-driven values. Consumers are increasingly looking to influencers as voices and role models – people that can educate us in this changing and uncertain world we find ourselves in. They want people that can relate to their concerns, that they can speak to, that they can learn from. It is no surprise social media accounts, such as fair fashion campaigner Venetia La Manna and anti-plastic pollution activist Lizzie Carr have soared in popularity over the past year. As have the likes of ex-Love Island contestant and newly appointed youth mental health ambassador, Dr Alex George, and fitness coach-turned-national-PE-teacher, Joe Wicks.
Brands must recognise this shift in consumer attitudes and expectations and translate this into action – progressing corporate social responsibility initiatives throughout their organisation and supply chain. But they must also reflect this in their marketing strategies and ensure that the influencers they choose to promote their products reflect their core values. Failure to do so risks alienating consumers altogether.