Unveiling the Halo Effect: Social media influencers pose growing risk to brand reputation strategy

May 23, 2024 · READ

Forging partnerships with social media influencers is a lucrative strategy for brands seeking to leverage the popularity of social media platforms to reach new customers.

Collaborating with famous social media influencers such as Cristiano Ronaldo, Khaby Lame and Mr. Beast carries a plethora of advantages for brands including extending their reach among global and often younger demographic of potential customers, increasing visibility around their products and services and fostering an authentic relationship with their customers that can yield brand loyalty over the long term. However, a lack of direct control over the content produced by such brand ambassadors can introduce significant vulnerabilities to brand reputation, a risk that magnifies as the role played by such online influencers in shaping brand awareness will continue to grow over time.

Imagine you’re on the marketing team at Google and you just got Kylie Jenner— one of the most influential social media influencers of all time—to post something nice about your new Pixel series. And she uploads the post to her 400 million followers on Instagram…from her iPhone. 

The best laid plans of brands can often be waylaid by inadvertent mistakes from social media influencers with the casualty list including household names, beauty brands, retailers, and more. While executives may have a keen eye for emerging threats to brand reputation on the horizon, fewer are paying attention to the risks that can originate from social media influencers closely associated with their own brands. 

In spite of some high-profile mishaps—think social media stars Chiara Ferragni, Kanye West, and Logan Paul—brand spending on influencer marketing is projected to reach $24 billion annually by 2024.

According to influencer marketing hub, celebrities Cristiano Ronaldo, Leonardo Messi, Selina Gomez, and Kylie Jenner are in the top 1% of social media influencers who command a fee of between $2 -3 million dollars per post. Whether a brand chooses to partner with one of these mega-influencers or whether it goes with nano- or micro-influencers with smaller followings, collaborating on content with social media influencers has  become a common tactic in a modern  brand reputation strategy.

Working alongside social media influencers who resonate with your brand message, create quality content, and engage seamlessly with your ideal customer can help you reach an astonishing number of people online in a short amount of time.

Despite a decrease in the number of hours an average user spends online following the end of national lockdowns associated with the COVID19 pandemic, influencer-based marketing strategies continue to thrive in the post-lockdown world. Brands are scouring the globe on the lookout for the next Ariana Grande to reach their target audiences – even as they work out adequate ways to definitively measure and manage their influencer campaigns. All the while remaining a few posts away from a reputational crisis. 

As a reflection of the enduring popularity of the social media influencer as part of modern brand reputation strategy, according to the influencer marketing trends to watch for in 2024 compiled by Forbes, brands have increased the use of influencer-created content in other marketing channels including traditional television ads, emails, digital ads and much more. For example, Chipotle’s decision to lean into their audience’s love of video games and use gamer-generated content promotionally across other platforms provides an excellent case study on how a brand can utilize an influencer strategy to forge a deeper relationship with their customers. 

Before rushing online to find your ideal social media influencer, let’s look at why influencer marketing works and why it can take brand momentum from exhilaration to exasperation in a matter of hours. Turns out its two sides of the same coin called the Halo Effect.

The marketing halo effect cuts both ways for brands

The Halo Effect is the idea that if you like one aspect of someone (say a social media influencer), you unconsciously make assumptions about their other traits, even if they’re totally unrelated.

If someone is attractive, they’re also intelligent. If someone is popular, they’re also trustworthy. If they’re enthusiastic, they’re also authoritative. In that sense, the Halo Effect is actually an error in reasoning, and you can blame it on our lazy brains.

We have a lot on our minds so our cerebrums sometimes cut corners to save resources. We are drawn to information that confirms our preexisting beliefs (confirmation bias) because it’s easier than reconciling a bunch of conflicting data that comes with a truly objective decision.

The Halo Effect makes social media influencers the ultimate shortcut for consumers deciding where to spend their money. Successful influencers position themselves as insiders who are setting the trends and breaking pop culture news. They are very savvy on social media and engage frequently with their followers.

When an influencer uses a brand’s product or service, it comes with a halo of trust. The one-on-one social media interaction with someone they admire or aspire to, makes consumers feel seen and heard, deepening their relationship with the influencer.

The statistics back up this earnest connection. According to a report by Morning Consult published in September 2023, trust in influencers is growing with the shares of Gen Zers and millennials who said they trust social media influencers increasing from 51% in 2019 to 61% in 2023. Going further, 23% of Gen Z and 21% of millennials said they learn about products via influencers on social media. 

Understandably, the influence of advertising is waning, and even celebrities are losing their clout. The perceived closeness and authenticity of brand-associated influencers have 70 percent of teen YouTube subscribers saying they trust influencers over celebrities and advertising.

The Halo Effect can confer adoration upon your brand or it can bring condemnation. Scandalous behavior or an ill-advised post from an influencer can spread worldwide in hours, damaging their brand and sullying an organization’s brand in the process.

The best-laid plans of brand and social media influencer relationships

For Baylor University, a marketing relationship with social media stars Brooklyn and Bailey McKnight was a match made in heaven. The self-proclaimed “big sisters of the internet” are twin influencers with a family-friendly YouTube channel devoted to “all things fun” including vlogs, DIY, fashion, and beauty.” They made a Forbes list as Top Influencers: Kids Edition.

The university and the McKnights agreed on a deal in 2017 before they became freshmen that would pay them to post once or twice per semester to promote the school. Jason Cook, the university’s vice president of marketing and communications, told the Dallas Observer that Brooklyn and Bailey were recruited the same as student-athletes.

The payoff was immediate. When the twins announced they would attend Baylor, the school’s Instagram account added 3,000 followers, more than 100 times its daily average. The YouTube video of their college choice garnered more than three million views. Two Instagram posts about Brooklyn and Bailey became the university’s most-liked and most-engaged Instagram posts ever.

In the ensuing years, the McKnights have posted several videos about college experiences at Baylor. They also became macro-influencers with millions of followers on YouTube and millions more on Instagram. Striking out as entrepreneurs, they have created the Brooklyn & Bailey merchandise line, partnered with JCPenney on a clothing brand, and released music.

“Brooklyn and Bailey are really in a league of their own when it comes to college influencers,” said Steve App, business development manager at Campus Sonar, a higher education marketing company. “They have 6.9 million YouTube subscribers. Most college influencers have maybe a couple of hundred thousand.”

The McKnight brand, App said, is built on positivity—promoting happiness, healthy habits, and smart choices.

That positivity took an unexpected twist in late August when Brooklyn and Bailey both tested positive for COVID-19, less than a week after in-person classes started at Baylor.

“We are aware this is going to raise a lot of questions,” the McKnights announced in an Instagram post that got more than 350,000 likes. “As you guys know, Baylor chose to do some in-person classes as well as some online classes. They have taken every precaution, including mandating masks, requiring students to test negative before coming back to school, and many, many more precautions. It is NOT due to in-person classes that this happened.”

Still, the post was a high-profile black eye for a private school with an undergraduate enrollment of 14,000. The twin sisters’ post came just a day before Baylor announced that 56 students would be quarantined and that the Phi Gamma Delta fraternity was suspended for an off-campus party. Baylor’s online COVID-19 dashboard reported 1,205 total cases on October 23.

Amid online speculation that Baylor had played a role in shaping the twins’ Instagram post, journalist Anne Helen Peterson wrote, “Are Brooklyn and Bailey compelled, by [the] administration, to publish this? I’m guessing not. But if they want to continue their brand partnership, what else would you post? The financial relationship between the two compels them to behave as high-profile boosters for the college’s COVID plan, even though these cases would not be proliferating if the university hadn’t brought students back to campus.”

Get the halo effect to work for your brand reputation strategy, not against it

If your brand chooses to adopt influencer-based marketing as part of your social media strategy, you can’t choose to ignore the Halo Effect. It simply exists, like any of the cognitive biases that influence consumers.

Keep in mind that the C-suite is not immune from the Halo Effect. Given the chance to meet or work with a famous entertainer or athlete, who among us might let our guard down and okay a partnership without setting clear parameters and expectations?

Working with social media influencers can be hit or miss, but if you carefully vet influencers and pay attention to the red flags, your brand can maintain a better batting average and avoid reputational damage. If your brand is in a technical, medical, or scientific space, make sure the influencer is well-versed in the brand and the sector.

Before you team with an influencer, partner with an early-warning risk detection and mitigation expert to equip your brand with with actionable risk intelligence using our Reputation Monitoring for Brands solution purpose-built for the proactive safety and well-being of your VIPs and social media influencers. 

The internet never forgets. You can use this intelligence to track the public social footprint of any prospective social media influencer or brand ambassador.

As legendary investor Warren Buffet said, “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you’ll do things differently.”

The blog was originally published on 28 October 2020 and updated on 23 May 2024.

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