THE CREDIBILITY GAME
In recent years, the line between influencer and celebrity has significantly blurred with many names hopping between the two sides. Even the ASA has come into the business of labels, classifying anyone with more than 30,000 followers as a celebrity in a recent ruling. This distinction (despite the arbitrary choice of number) reflects the need for separation, and the growing confusion over the categories of influencer and celebrity.
In order to distinguish the two, there are some essential questions to be asked:
Why are they followed?
What is their impact?
Where did their following come from?
What are their audiences taking away from the content?
It’s not a cut-and-dry distinction, but to our minds it comes down to credibility – how it’s given, received and used.
Credible to the Core
Traditional celebrities have credibility and expertise handed to them – casting directors, producers and investors have already made the call to deem them talented and worthy of sharing with the masses on our TV screens, billboards and airwaves. Influencers are the people’s heroes – the figures we ourselves choose to align with. Celebrities command the kind of fame that transcends their niche, whereas influencers are valued for their specific hyper-engaged micro communities.
For Nina Eadie, UK Lifestyle & Influencer Partnerships for Bentley Motors, this also brings into question how you judge accounts when planning brand collaborations. To her, it’s not necessarily about the numbers. A large following doesn’t guarantee the ability to sell products, create buzz or hype up a brand after all. Without credibility and authority, consumers aren’t guaranteed to bite. Seeking out the right voice to represent a campaign can be arduous, but more than worth it. It’s this phenomenon that places influencer marketing as a vital tool in the strategy arsenal of so many retailers.
Nina notes another crucial difference between celebrity and influencer – what would their careers look like if social media were to disappear? Actress Sienna Miller boasts a modest following on Instagram, numbering 235,000. This figure is modest considering her fame, both as actress and style icon. The remarkable thing is, she has only posted one photo, dated from June 2017. For an influencer, a social media following is usually – for the mere mortals amongst us at least – carefully cultivated with a feed full of curated content. If Instagram disappeared tomorrow, Miller’s fan base wouldn’t take a hit. On one hand, celebrity; on the other, influencer.
It is worth pointing out that when distinguishing between the two, personal opinions don’t come into it – neither influencers nor celebrities are more elevated than the other. Love Island contestants, while touted (and often ridiculed) as influencers, are still celebrities – they gained a following because of their antics on the show, and earned their Missguided and boohoo partnerships because audiences want to follow their lives after the villa.
In contrast, influencers have created themselves, their platforms and their communities. Top influencers, particularly in beauty, often stem from a slowly built following that is based upon the audience’s need for information and the influencer providing insights into their specialist subjects. Figures like Caroline Hirons – the doyenne of skincare – have cultivated an audience that seek her opinion on brands, their personal routines and new product acquisitions. When new ventures and opportunities present themselves to influencers, if the proposal fits the personal brand they can naturally pivot. Influencers, while certainly not beyond criticism, have fans that follow (and buy) their every word not because of what they’ve sold before, but because of their true MVP: themselves.
Take the Fat Jewish’s foray into wine with White Girl rosé and BABE canned wines. Despite starting out his content journey with memes, it was a match made in Basic Bitch heaven, and one his audience delighted in. Whereas when Gwyneth Paltrow founded Goop, pivoting her career into its latter phase of wellness expertise, it jarred. When traditional celebrities seek to escape their niche (in Paltrow’s case, movies, being a mother and conscious-uncoupling acolyte), they’re often derided, and certainly for Paltrow, elicited criticism and controversy. She has undoubtedly built an empire that extends to fashion, publishing and homewares, but being sold aspiration by someone you could never aspire to actually be does stick in the throat of some consumers.
It is for the same reason why perfume has always been a natural product collaboration for the rich and famous, because scent is a literal symbol of a certain lifestyle – available at an accessible price point. But in 2019 it feels outdated. When we buy something created by someone we admire or want to emulate, it can’t just have their name on the bottle, we need to feel like they would actually wear it. So perhaps it isn’t just that influencers are trying to mimic the fame and adulation accrued by celebrities, but the traditionally famous, the Hollywood actors, athletes and artists that envy the adaptability of an internet star.
The feeling seems to be mutual – in the mid-2010s when digital content creators began releasing (print!) books with major publishing houses, Penguin Random House snapped up titles from Zoella and Tanya Burr (amongst others), and they followed in the footsteps of almost any celebrity you care to name – autobiographies, cookbooks, and self-help guides, polished by ghost-writers. The irony of a digital-first creator being delighted to have made a printed and bound book is less laughable than it is sweet. Influencers and celebrities began to walk the same career path, with the same stops along the way.
Influencer vs Celebrity in 2019
In recent years the similarities have continued to be prevalent. Burr is undoubtedly an influencer-success story – having begun her career as a beauty enthusiast-turned-YouTuber, her credibility was established and audience grew with her own expertise. By the time she could boast 1.7 million-strong platform on YouTube, the opportunities came knocking. Her subsequent make-up range, Tanya Burr Cosmetics, proved her audience’s motivation and spending power. The skill or association-led popularity that grew from her social media was the catalyst for this success.
The contrast is Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, the luminous model-turned-actress who has found a new outlet in her venture Rose Inc., following a successful career onscreen. Her fame-led popularity meant she could use her popularity and esteem as a springboard to launch her lifestyle site, after beauty and lingerie collaborations with M&S cultivated an audience for her curated taste.
The outcome is similar – it is the route that differs. We’ve even come full circle as Tanya pursues her own acting career.
The question is, as Nina points out, whether the mega influencers of today will become the celebrities of tomorrow, further clouding the spectrum. There is also absolutely a middle ground. Many household names have built their followings in their chosen industries, but they still have a flair for social media – comedians draw massive followings on Twitter, models and chefs on Instagram – when the game is played based on wits or aesthetics, is it any wonder that the professionally trained or the pre-naturally gifted excel? The question is how influencers and celebrities will continue to use their creative credibility. There’s one thing we can say for sure: we haven’t had enough of the experts just yet.