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Lessons from River Island on making influencer marketing work – and making a difference

8th Jun 2018
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Influencer marketing is proving increasingly popular. But how do you choose what influencers to use? And how do you get them onboard? 

According to recent research, marketers are spending a small fortune on influencer marketing.

A study by Takumi suggests that 96% of marketers are committing some kind of spending on influencers, with around 10% of marketing leaders in the UK spending upwards of £100,000 of their budget on them.

But influencer marketing is still viewed as something of a dark art – and has been known to backfire from time to time. So what are the secrets to a successful influencer marketing campaign?

One organisation that has recently utilised influencer marketing as a key component of a global campaign is High Street fashion retailer River Island.

Thanks to influencers, the company’s ‘The Labels Are For Clothes’ campaign beat expectations, reaching millions of people and driving hundreds of thousands of engagements.

With River Island’s 30th anniversary on the horizon, the High Street fashion retailer decided it wanted to find a way to celebrate that would generate interest and excitement, but also have a positive, wider message.

It’s fair to say that the fashion industry has historically had something of chequered past when it comes to social responsibility, with various criticisms levelled against it, including the use of super-skinny models and cheap labour.

96% of marketers are committing some kind of spending on influencers.

But the sector has been facing up to its responsibilities in recent years, and fashion brands are now just as likely to be in the headlines for positive reasons – from sustainable materials to body positivity. In River Island’s case, it wanted to raise awareness of – and money for – anti-bullying.

Melissa Collins, PR manager at River Island, explains: “The Labels Are For Clothes campaign was designed to celebrate 30 years of River Island in an exciting, positive way with the core message that labels are for clothes not people. We created a whole range of empowerment t-shirts and sweats and teamed up with anti-bullying charity Ditch the Label to give them £3 from every sale, plus an extra £1 for every social share using the hashtag #labelsareforclothes.”

As a global advertising campaign, Labels Are For Clothes used outdoor ads, television and print. But in order to support the campaign and its message, it was decided that an influencer campaign would also form an important part of the integrated strategy.

How to choose influencers

River Island was well-acquainted with the power of influencers, having previous harnessed the influence of models it had worked with, such as Lindsey Wixon, as well as integrating social influencers into a lot of its campaigns over the years to amplify their message. For instance, the ‘Find Yourself’ campaign last year were recruited a range of influencers including radio DJ and presenter Roman Kemp, to blogger Hannah Louise F, and DJ and presenter Ashley James.

River Island turned to influencer marketing platform Whalar alongside a VIP talent manager and international PR agencies, to help manage influencer outreach for the Labels Are For Clothes campaign.

James Street, co-founder of Whalar, explains: “Gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity and religion are just some of the ways that people are labelled. The River Island Labels Are For Clothes campaign was about mocking these labels. They’re outdated, they’re irrelevant, and who better to show this than influencers themselves.

“The main requirement that River Island had for the influencer marketing aspect of the Labels Are For Clothes campaign was to challenge perceptions around labels, by letting key influencers start conversations utilising the label t-shirt, driving social engagement with the campaign globally. If there’s one thing that influencer marketing is great at, it’s changing and challenging perceptions.

"People engage with influencers because they have that genuine connection with what they create, it’s more authentic and therefore far more valuable. Customers now want to be involved in the conversation, they want to be co-creators, and through social media and influencers they are able to achieve that.”

80 Whalar creators with influence were asked to customise a t-shirt with the phrase ‘100% _’ with space for their own tongue in cheek ‘label’.

People engage with influencers because they have that genuine connection with what they create, it’s more authentic and therefore far more valuable.

From Whalar’s platform, River Island gathered a diverse cast as the faces and voices of River Island, and then handed full creative reign to each influencer. This led to valuable visual content as each influencer worked to interpret the concept of Labels Are For Clothes in their own unique, indomitable way.

Feminist, model and founder of Girls Will Be Boys Charnah Ellesse @ellessechar, who encourages discussion around modern-day feminism, created the label ‘100% Unapologetic’. Brooklyn-based artist @joekenneth added a personal narrative when creating his ‘100% Worth It’ label saying: “Throughout my walk in life, I am constantly reminded that our stories are more alike than different. In this age of comparison, we may at times feel like we’re not measuring up to the accomplishments of our peers. And that can take a toll on our self-esteem. I know that I’ve struggled with that from time to time…. Yes! I am 100% WORTH IT! And so are you.” Whilst NYC-based style, beauty and travel creator with influence Kellie Brown created the label ‘100% Free’.

Street explains how the most appropriate influencers were chosen for this campaign.

“First off, we look to the brand and what they stand for. For River Island, a fashion forward retailer, creators with strong links to fashion were the first choice. Then, we consider the campaign objectives, and in this case influencers who had a strong message about diversity and equality were identified. 

“Each creator has their own style, and voice, and we have to determine how that will fit within the campaign. Every campaign needs a different blend of influencers to make it work.”

How to get influencers involved

While securing the involvement of an influencer is very often a purely transactional arrangement, there are other issues to take into consideration.

“When we approach a particular creator with influence, we’ve done the background work and know that they will be a good fit for the campaign in terms of the influencer’s reach, their message and their creative approach,” explains Street. “We’ve balanced the needs of the campaign against the skills of the creator and come up with a match. So when we’re at the point of offering a campaign to an influencer, it’s because we believe it will work for both parties. Then it’s down to the influencer to see if the campaign objectives resonate with them.

The campaign is still ongoing, but as at the beginning of May 2018, it has reached around 7.4 million people, and generated over 763,000 engagements.

“Just as a strong brand wouldn’t enter into a partnership with a company that didn’t align with their brand values, successful influencers wouldn’t sacrifice their integrity and the trust their followers place in them for purely transactional gain. The best way to engage a successful creator with influence is with a campaign that chimes with their values.”

And thanks to the contribution of influencers, River Island’s campaign has been particularly successful. The campaign is still ongoing, but as at the beginning of May 2018, it has reached around 7.4 million people, and generated over 763,000 engagements. Furthermore, it has also generated a lot of coverage in the media, with the likes of Elle hailing it as “the latest win for a diverse 2018”.

But Collins notes that while influencer marketing was a success for River Island’s campaign, this was because it formed an important part of a wider strategy. While investment in influencers is sky-rocketing, brands need to ensure that there are sound strategic reasons underpinning it.

She concludes: “There’s little point in jumping into influencer marketing because you feel it’s something you should do. The Labels Are For Clothes campaign worked for us because we had a sound reason for doing it.

“We wanted to spin tired stereotypes on their head and reclaim labels to make them positive and real by using influencers who had a positive message to share about diversity. And as well as raising funds for Ditch The Label to plough into anti-bullying efforts, we think we went some way into proving that labels are for clothes, not people!”

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