Influencers Introduction

Influencers and KOLs don’t just promote products, they alter the buying behaviors of their followers.

Key Takeaways

  1. Aspirational figures or “influencers” have driven sales since the early 20th century and are a necessary component for promoting your brand’s online reach.
  2. Understanding the difference between expert influencers (KOLs) and trendsetters is beneficial for determining how to best market your product.
  3. Working with influencers from various tier levels can elevate your brand’s success during different stages.

“Influencers” or people that wield influence over the consumer market are not a new phenomenon. Classic cinema era starlets and record-breaking athletes have helped bolster brand authenticity and drive sales since the early 20th century. By purchasing products touted by these celebrities, consumers felt they enforced a particular social cachet amongst their peers. While the psychological drive behind emulating aspirational figures has not changed, the mediums through which buyers are influenced have evolved. The explosion of social media in the early 2000s has provided a platform for people outside the usual realm of celebrity to become authorities in their respective niche markets. Understanding how consumers interact with these icons today is essential for brands seeking a competitive edge.


 Launching a successful line in today’s market is dependent on its social reach via the internet. Fans can now connect with their favorite celebrity or “real person,” through Instagram or Twitter and be inspired instantaneously. In the early ‘00s reality personas such as “Snooki” from MTV’s “Jersey Shore” cultivated their following by appearing in reality shows and subsequent spinoffs, before eventually amassing millions of followers. Reality television was a new medium in which real-life and scripted television intersected. The most notorious family of reality television is undoubtedly the Kardashians (on the air since 2007), who have garnered a loyal fanbase in the multi-millions. By not shying away from documenting oft-taboo topics on their series such as their breakups, sex lives, weddings, and even high profile robberies, the family has established a reputation for authenticity and drama. Audiences connected with the family’s lives and trend-setting fashion sense.


 The youngest Kardashian sister, Kylie Jenner has a reported 188 million followers on Instagram and helms a successful beauty line. Her older sisters have also gained dedicated fan bases which have led to lucrative endorsement deals with everything from beauty supplements, clothing brands, and detox teas. As reality stars began to grow huge followings on social media, it blurred the traditional definition of celebrity and ushered in a new era of influencers. Like reality stars, regular people were able to engage with an audience online and become trendsetters. Personalities such as Caroline Calloway were quickly becoming household names garnering huge followings by sharing their lives online. Sponsors pounced on the opportunity to connect with audiences in this new way. Like the Kardashians, the most successful Influencers began to collaborate with clothing brands on capsule collections and sponsored content promoting products they were often gifted.


Mirroring their Western counterparts, Chinese influencers known as Key Opinion Leaders disrupt the market overseas. While Chinese KOLs and the term Influencers are often used interchangeably by the press, according to a 2020 report from Influencer Marketing Hub, a distinct trait that sets KOLs apart is that they must have some sort of expertise in their relevant field (i.e. doctor or journalist). Although their careers began offline, many of these experts have gone on to amass large social media followings. South China Morning Post explains, “... they have multiple channels through which they can become famous, including social media platforms WeChat and Weibo, social networking service Douban and video platform Douyin-known as Tik Tok in the West.” In a market where social media and e-commerce are integrated within these platforms, it’s easy to see why the Chinese KOL reigns supreme and controls 20 to 50 percent of the market.


Influencers and KOLs don’t just promote products, they alter the buying behaviors of their followers. Many have speculated that 2020 would be the dusk of the Influencer era, as the COVID-19 pandemic has shifted popular perception. Yet by connecting the digital and physical world, influencers continue to play a crucial role in consumer spending. The public’s appetite for luxury has waned in light of more pressing social justice issues such as rampant racism and skyrocketing unemployment rates across the country, but they are still turning to authorities they believe in. Consumers may be more watchful about where they spend their money, but they still seek out the advice of influencers that align with their world view.


Influencers such as Always Judging’s Courtney Trop have been able to connect with people by promoting causes in addition to their usual fashion content. Social media platforms are making changes to their applications such as the addition of Instagram shopping within the app. Influencers are changing fashion as they’ve gone from promoting brands and working on capsule collections, to altering the fashion landscape by taking creative control over product design. Developing a partnership with an influencer (no matter what tier) can increase your brand’s awareness. Many fashion labels are turning to influencers with fewer followers (see the article on Micro-influencers) to build word of mouth appeal. Connecting with micro-influencers is best for young brands that are budget-minded and trying to develop brand loyalty. Reaching out to a large personality without first creating a loyal following could be detrimental to the longevity of your brand as it likely won’t get the individualized attention a smaller influencer can provide.


However, once a product has a dedicated fan base it’s a good idea to reach out to macro-influencers (those with at least 100,000 followers). These influencers are often represented by social media agencies and come with a hefty price tag, but if you’re aiming for more eyes on your products, they have a reach that far surpasses smaller trendsetters. An influencer with tremendous social clout can elevate an indie brand into mainstream success. (i.e. Beyonce’s recent photographs wearing Marine Serre’s iconic moon print to an NBA game catapulted the label into mainstream success). Solid knowledge of social media influencers (macro vs micro/experts vs trendsetters), as well as an understanding of how influencers have helped drive the market, will ultimately set your brand up for success during its lifetime.