How to Get it Right with a Creator-First Brand Strategy

User-generated content (UGC) is still a winner for meeting both e-commerce and brand strategy KPIs. How to use it is shifting.

These days, the most successful advertisements on social media — driving awareness, engagement and sales — are often made by influencers and creators. That means it’s important to secure the content rights of UGC and creator content so that brands can leverage that content across their marketing channels.

One innovative use of UGC being used by brands outside of social is within marketing emails and on-site. Dmitri Cherner, associate director of influencer partnerships at Ruggable, has observed a 32 per cent conversion uplift when creative assets come from influencers or creators rather than being developed in-house.

Influencer marketing is growing rapidly at over 30 per cent a year. Estimates suggest the global influencer marketing platform market will be worth $143.1 billion by 2030. “It’s time for brands to plan their brands around creators and not the other way around,” says Ali Fazal, VP of marketing at creator management platform GRIN.

Beauty and lifestyle brands that use GRIN include Olaplex, Tonal, Ruggable and Orangetheory. GRIN helps them manage their creator relationships. Here, they share how creators are helping them master audience-first storytelling and how they’re casting a wider net when it comes to measuring success.

Content is king

The value of an influencer partnership is evolving. “Brand and influencer partnerships will see enormous diversification going forward. Up until recently, partnerships were purely performance-based,” says Ruggable’s Cherner. “Now, there are lots of different types of success. One option is for them to evolve into content creation partnerships.”

Sidestepping the traditional success metrics of clicks, likes and reach of actual posts emphasises the importance of gaining usage rights for assets, says Charlotte Watson, global chief marketing officer of hair care brand Olaplex. “Content is king,” she adds.

“Brands are partnering with creators just for UGC and not for paid posting — purely because they want to gather fresh content,” says GRIN’s Fazal. “You may find someone whose aesthetic you love, but maybe their following doesn’t align with you or maybe they’re not doing paid posts. This way, they’re essentially an extension of your marketing team.”

Fazal sees big benefits. “The advantage of influencer and creator content is that it feels fresh and of-the-moment. You can’t shoot imagery or content six months ahead of time,” he says. On the GRIN Creator Management platform, a brand can manage its UGC at scale. “Agreements can also be filed here, so the usage rights agreed can easily be referred to. With GRIN, you can have all your UGC images right alongside your lookbooks, so you have all your assets in one place.”

Everyday moments power content engagement

Gina Hardy, chief marketing officer of at-home fitness brand Tonal, says brands should “allow a creator to tell a story in their own way”. At Tonal, influencers are given “loose guidance — rather than telling them what to say, we ask them to tell us what they love about the product. Brands must be willing to give up some control.”

Tonal has the likes of tennis superstar Serena Williams as a brand ambassador (and founding investor). Influencers without a celebrity following are also driving awareness, as well as engagement and sales for the brand. “UGC is many times more effective than our in-house content,” says Hardy.

Tonal surveyed its target consumer groups, registering 40 per cent brand awareness. To step up this figure, Tonal is currently putting paid ad spend behind UGC posts within non-celebrity influencer Instagram feeds. This approach is referred to in the business as creator licensing or whitelisting. The brand is undertaking just six to eight paid partnerships a month, choosing to hone deeper relationships with influencers who authentically connect to audiences. “The ROI benefits of UGC helps us build our awareness quicker, increasing the frequency of our ads,” says Hardy. “It beats doing TV ads, which burn through costs quickly.”

Hardy believes non-celebrity influencer content is trusted because of the intimate relationships these kinds of influencers have with their audiences. “I mean, their followers know what an influencer eats for breakfast.” This honest, behind-the-scenes authenticity also impresses Orangetheory’s senior director of global marketing Tammie DeGrasse-Cabrera. “In the case of our influencers, audiences love to see them crush their workouts and achieve their personal bests. They also love to hear about their struggles. They know these are real people sharing real experiences.”

Audiences respond well to content that presents a lifehack or process that saves time or delivers wellbeing. For Olaplex customers, an example might be going to a yoga class with damp towel-dried hair in an #Olaplexbun while waiting for its No3 bond builder to do its work (the organic hashtag has 21.4 million views on TikTok). For Tonal audiences, it’s first-time mums fitting in their at-home workout (“all mums have the same 30 minutes,” says Hardy). Meanwhile, Ruggable’s lifestyle relevance sees its washable rugs as part of the #selfcaresunday movement on TikTok by way of the #cleantok hashtag (one post went viral with 2.8 million views).

Influencer archetypes need to be more diverse

In the “click for part two” era, audiences appreciate storytelling and reveals that show transformational results. However, viewer fatigue kicks in fast, particularly if the influencers and creators doing the telling are the same old industry stereotypes.

Who do consumers trust? Brand experts and advocates — such as hairstylists, fitness coaches, and interior designers — are hugely influential. The challenge is to ensure these experts become more diverse and inclusive so that their brand storytelling feels peer-to-peer and represents consumer cohorts more accurately. Some of Olaplex’s most highly engaged content on Instagram comes from Black hair care and curl specialists such as Christian Brown. Meanwhile, Olaplex’s purple shampoo has pivoted away from being marketed at only twenty-somethings to encompass older influencers by demonstrating how it can be used to freshen up grey hair. “Relatability and authenticity are key components of a great storyteller right now,” says Olaplex’s Watson.

Content should seek to navigate a particular set of needs. Disability, for example, is one minority intersection still underrepresented by brands. Tonal’s Hardy points out that brands can “easily fall into the trap of focusing on a specific type of person, especially in the fitness space”. The brand’s Strength Made Me campaign focuses on an inclusive female voice. Its social assets include Jillian Mercado, a disabled model and actor, using Tonal at home. “Tonal is accessible for a wider range of abilities and body types, with 200 moves available for both sitting or standing options,” says Hardy.

Be in it for the long haul

Relationships between influencers and brands are evolving, with many becoming more long term. “It’s about being always on. If you’re a good influencer fit after onboarding, we’re building those relationships rather than a campaign approach,” says Tonal’s Hardy.

That doesn’t suit every partnership, of course. Ruggable’s Cherner suggests that for influencers in competitive marketplaces, three months might be the time limit. “Influencers and creators often need the flexibility to see if the partnership is working for them.”

Deeper and more collaborative relationships can ultimately prove their worth. In an ideal partnership, GRIN’s Fazal advises long-term thinking. “This way you can integrate the brand into the longer-term lifestyle of the creator.”

Source: Vogue Business