In today’s day and age, you can’t scroll past your social media pages without coming across an “influencer” trying to endorse something. They often have expertise within a specific niche like travel, beauty, wellness or gaming, which, coupled with a large community of dedicated followers, can be a million-dollar business. But have you ever wondered how the influencer game actually began?
The concept of influencer marketing is not as novel as we think it is. Before the advent of the internet and social media, the masses depended heavily on advertisements that were featured in newspapers, magazines, television and radio for their daily “influencer” fix. However, the job of influencing people was not as streamlined and democratised as it is today. This elusive responsibility was entrusted only to public figures such as kings, queens and the pope, as well as politicians, film stars and business leaders.
Now, anyone with an Instagram or Twitter profile can become an influencer if they manage to garner a considerable audience through their content. Social media influencers can have a powerful impact on users by building meaningful and trustworthy relationships with the audience.
This is majorly because of a general distrust of big brands and corporations, who may not be transparent about the viability of their products. Thus, people turn to an influencer who would tell them the pros and cons of the product.
Owing to the spurt in the number of influencers over the years, brands seem to have replaced celebrities with social media influencers to endorse their products to tap into the niche audience and boost sales. This makes influencer marketing a powerful sales strategy that can no longer be ignored in today’s dynamic social media landscape.
Let’s dive into the history of the modern influencer phenomenon
The 1760s: The beginning of influencer marketing
Although the term “influencers” was unknown back then, they have been swaying public perception since the 18th century through clever marketing techniques and capitalising on the influence of powerful and famous people.
A good case in point is the English pottery designer, manufacturer and entrepreneur named Josiah Wedgwood, who impressed Queen Charlotte with his stunning glazed, cream-coloured earthenware in the 1760s.
Wedgewood gave a contemporary spin to his classical artwork to produce famous “royal-approved” pottery. Earning the title of “Potter to Her Majesty”, he masterfully leveraged the influence of the then Queen and rebranded his business as Queensware, the world’s first luxury pottery work.
Boasting the royal seal of approval, Wedgewood successfully minted a trustworthy brand and business. With his pioneering customer acquisition technique in place, he was soon flooded with orders and requests to buy his artwork, making it the first known instance of influencer marketing.
The late 1800s: Ordinary people roped in as brand mascots
Registered in 1877 as the first trademark for a breakfast cereal by founders Henry Seymour and William Heston, the Quaker mascot named Larry created quite the buzz amongst the masses and media. In 1882, Quaker Oats published a print advertisement showcasing their loveable mascot with a goofy smile, white hair and the blue Quaker hat, encouraging buyers to eat breakfast like a king.
Larry the mascot was designed based on a real person, which made the brand relatable, and it successfully communicated their ‘honest value and pure goodness’.
Similarly, in 1890, the R.T. Davis Milling Company hired an African-American woman named Nancy Green as the mascot for their pancake mix. She represented an accessible, motherly figure and lured people with her radiant smile on their signature pancake mix boxes. Green was the face of a fictional character they created called ‘Aunt Jemima’, further aiding their reliable, domestic-favourite marketing angle.
Green is considered the first African-American mascot to have led a brand and made it famous. She was a marketing pioneer who inspired generations of not only pancake mix consumers but also people of African-American descent through her representation in the media worldwide.
From the 1920s to the 1960s: Rise of marketing and branding
In the 1920s, fashion aficionados began worshipping the legendary seamstress and fashion designer Coco Chanel. She was the creative genius behind the cult-favourite pop-culture staples such as the ‘little black dress’, the woman’s pant suit, quilted handbags and the Chanel No. 5 perfume. Coco Chanel is celebrated as a cultural phenomenon with timeless influence on generations of women and designers to come.
With a need for marketing and branding on the rise, the next wave of influencer marketing was ushered in by fictional characters and brand ambassadors, like Coca Cola’s Santa Claus in the 1930s. Bankable mascots like these urged their customers to associate Coca Cola’s brand with joy and positivity, which subsequently amplified the brand’s presence and sales.
An instant crowd-pleaser, many such imaginary mascots came to play in the consumer market in the following years, such as the iconic chubby-cheeked, mischievous girl of the dairy company, Amul India, born in the 1960s. Including this young ‘influencer’ and her fictional adventures in their print advertisements and TV commercials drove their sales through the roof.
The many variations of Amul’s mascot have stayed relevant to this day and can be spotted on massive advertisement boards and newspaper spreads throughout India, newsjacking its way to glory.
The 1980s: Collaborations with sportspersons and celebrities
The next phase of influencer marketing was celebrity-backed endorsements and crafty product placements. Although crowd-favourites like Coca Cola’s Santa Claus and the Amul Girl were still going strong, brands started collaborating with celebrities and sportspersons with a massive fan-following to advocate for their products.
Brands like Nike and Pepsi signed lucrative deals with the who’s who of sports and entertainment such as Michael Jordan and Michael Jackson, which the devoted audiences lapped up.
However, this part of the influencer journey began to fade out a little, as people noticed a void between the celebrities’ extravagant lifestyles and their own not-so-glamorous ones. In short, fans couldn’t relate to the life of famous people.
The 1990s: The rise of the ‘it’ girls
Stars like Jennifer Aniston from Friends and Alicia Silverstone from Clueless dominated TV sets throughout the ’90s. Rachel Green’s (Jennifer Aniston) classic style and engaging character development influenced an entire era of television and remains a cult-favourite show for an ’80s kid and the younger generation.
Similarly, Cher (Alicia Silverstone) in the movie Clueless, is seen nonchalantly putting together her outfits for school every day on a futuristic computer programme, accurately predicting the future we’d say. Her iconic matching yellow plaid suit and red slip dress exhibited peak ’90s fashion, establishing the film’s place as a certifiable classic. If we were to reimagine Rachel and Cher in the year 2022, they would surely be fashion influencers and social media stars on Instagram, Twitter and the likes.
The late ’90s was also a time when famous supermodels like Kate Moss, Cindy Crawford and Naomi Campbell ruled the runways and fashion shows. Whatever clothing they sported, both on and off-duty, instantly became trendy at the time.
The ’90s have influenced contemporary fashion in a major way and trademark styles are still recreated by influencers on TikTok and Instagram to date.
The 2000s: Keeping up with new trends
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Paving the way for the modern influencer era as we know it, this decade gave us reality TV shows like The Bachelor and Keeping Up With The Kardashians, a fusion of the real and reel lives of celebrities starring in them.
The audiences began bingeing on these TV shows as a guilty pleasure when they were first aired. Little did they know that the show would end up being a cultural phenomenon along with giving us the most famous and successful social media influencers of the decade — the Kardashians and Jenners.
Since these shows indulge us in an “unfiltered reality” of the stars, they trump traditional celebrities in terms of relatability and rawness, keeping the viewers truly invested in their lives. Thanks to their instantaneous popularity and elevated engagement with the audience, reality TV personalities dictated the trajectory of social media influencers and Instagram marketing of today.
Along with reality TV stars, we saw the advent of the quirky ‘bloggers’ in the mid- and late 2000s. Lifestyle, beauty and fitness blogging became a rage during this time. This provided a platform for commoners to start ‘influencing’ a community of people by transparently documenting and sharing their real-life experiences on the internet for the world to see.
The 2010s: Influencer game changers
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As soon as open-to-all social media platforms like Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and YouTube started gaining traction, no one wanted to be left behind in the quest for becoming internet-famous. Everyone, including ordinary people, seized this golden opportunity and began recording and sharing their daily lives online.
Once they started garnering formidable online followings, owing to their appealing content and transparent engagement with their followers, the age of influencer marketing truly began. Unsurprisingly, even celebrities jumped on the social media influencer bandwagon to gain a dedicated following and cash in on their existing fame and influence.
The trust and authority bestowed upon the social media influencers by their viewers and followers led to the rise of a new trading system between brands and influencers. Brands, big and small, capitalised on the influence and soft power of internet stars by bartering free products for publicity or paying them for a direct endorsement. This marketing strategy gave birth to the industry we know and love today — influencer marketing.
The 2020s: Influencers become ‘retailers’
The COVID-19 pandemic certainly boosted the importance of influencer marketing and creator economies and compelled brands to redesign their marketing strategies through clever use of social media platforms.
According to a report cited by the Financial Express, the social media influencer industry was expected to be worth Rs 900 crore by the end of 2021 and projected a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 25 percent till 2025. Its valuation is expected to reach Rs 2,200 crore in three years.
Thus, brands know that influencer marketing is the need of the hour if they want to reach a wider and more authentic community of loyal consumers, who will eventually turn into brand advocates.
The brand identity ecosystem now consists of influencers, customers, creatives like artists and videographers, ambassadors or long-term partners, experts to build faith and ensure credibility, affiliates to convert sales, and employees to grow the business.
These community members prove to be vital for expanding a business and building brand reputation by delivering valuable critique, co-producing social media content, recommending the brand to their peers and amplifying positive reviews.
It really takes a village to raise a (business) child, doesn’t it?
Hero and featured image credit: Courtesy of Mateus Campos Felipe/Unsplash