The Changing Role of Influencers Through the Centuries
In medieval England, the blacksmith who forged swords for the king and his court was able to charge more for his weapons because everybody wanted to wield the same steel as the king. Why? Because if the richest and most powerful man in the country bought from that blacksmith, he must be good.
Before there were influencers, there were brand ambassadors. And like branding (which started when farmers literally branded their cattle to identify them), the history of influencer marketing is rich and varied.
To understand modern influencer marketing, it helps to go back to the beginning. The classic era of brand ambassadors started in the late 1800s, at the same time that we first started to see the rise of huge national and international companies like Cadbury, Jack Daniels, Colgate, Remington and, of course, Coca-Cola.
Many of these companies started to experiment by sending product for free to the influential people of the day in the hope that these trendsetters would help to spread the word. And in many cases, it worked!
At the same time, in the United Kingdom, the Royal Warrant Holders Association was formed to grant Royal Warrants of Appointment to those who supplied goods or services to the royal family over a prolonged period of time. Suddenly, as well as buying the same sword as the king, you could buy the same butter, tea and chocolate bars. And it wasn't just one guy in front of a forge - now those products could be made on a factory line. The supply could rise virtually indefinitely as long as the demand was there.
Into the 20th Century
Arguably one of the most impressive uses of brand ambassadors came about during the First World War. You've probably seen the famous "Lord Kitchener Wants You" advertisement that used the British Secretary of State for War to call for soldiers to join the army. It was later ported for the U.S. Army using Uncle Sam, which raises the interesting question of whether a fictional character can also be a brand ambassador.
The simple answer to that is that yes, they can. In fact, as we head into the 1950s, we start to see more and more ambassadors that are literally created by the brands that they're serving. For example, the Marlboro Man was introduced in 1954 and Nestlé debuted the Milkybar Kid in 1961. At the same time, brands like Proctor and Gamble were experimenting with using real housewives to promote their products.
Then came the Mad Men era of the 1960s, which introduced characters as diverse as the Maytag repairman, the Pillsbury Doughboy, Ronald McDonald and Charlie the Tuna. The advertising industry was coming of age, and brands were realizing that some of the shadier practices of ambassador marketing could no longer go unnoticed.
For example, tobacco brands could no longer cast actors as fictional doctors to tell people that smoking cigarettes is good for them.
The Payola scandal also heated up, which essentially meant that record labels could no longer pay influential disc jockeys "listening fees" to play their records on the air.
And so as the sixties gave way to the seventies, brands switched their focus to more emotive aspects of their marketing. But they were also turning their attention toward movies and television, mainly because that's where people were turning their attention. Every time a new Bond movie came out, people wanted to see what car he had and what watch he wore - and brands were more than happy to get involved, even if they had to pay for the privilege.
At the same time, brands were paying famous actors and musicians to star in their advertisements. Michael Jackson was notably
injured while filming an advert for Pepsi in 1984. In many cases, these arrangements benefited both the brand and the influencer, but they didn't necessarily benefit the consumer.
The authenticity that brands used to rely on - such as when they were given a Royal Warrant of Appointment or when they got a "real" person to act as a spokesperson - had been eroded over time. People were sick of being sold to by people with a vested interest.
Then the Internet came along and changed it all. Today's consumers have access to infinite content on demand. They can skip advertisements, block banner ads and watch, listen to and read whatever they want to. And because of that, brands are starting to realize that they need to create something more than just an advertisement.
On top of that, the Internet allows for the diversification of content. Sure, Old Spice went viral and reached the world with their campaign starring Isaiah Mustafa, but smaller brands are increasingly able to work with influencers in their niches to reach a more tightly defined target audience. Stationery manufacturers can work with stationery blogs. Laundry detergent companies can work with mummy bloggers. Whisky brewers will find plenty of dedicated whisky YouTube channels who'll be more than happy to promote their product to an established - and relevant - viewership.
The future of brand ambassadors
The way that we consume content is changing forever, and that has a huge knock on effect for the future of brand ambassadors. The era of the super ambassador has come and gone and
while Nike might still be paying Kevin Durant $30 million a year, more and more companies are opting to work with a team of ambassadors instead of putting all of their eggs in one basket.
There'll still be a case for sponsoring superstars like David Beckham, of course. It's just that the next David Beckham might follow a slightly different path to fame and notoriety. Ultimately, brands that want to work with ambassadors will need to do what they've always done. They'll have to move with the times and follow the eyeballs and the attention. And they'll have to stay relevant.
About the Author Toby is co-founder and CMO of
Miappi.com. After completing a very useful degree in Zoology, Toby started his career in media with the production of documentary films. In 2001 he started to make content for creative agencies and their corporate clients. Toby founded his own creative consultancy, The Flavour Media, in 2007 and 5 years later, co-founded Miappi, a visual marketing platform that finds, curates and distributes high-converting earned content for clients including Hugo-Boss, Merlin Entertainments, Puma, British Airways, Cancer Research and more.