Social currency – Why aged spirits must lean in to influencers
Influencers are frequently derided in industry circles. In aged spirits, category commentator Amy Hopkins argues, they are playing an increasingly important role in bridging the gap between brand and consumer.
‘Influencer’ is something of a woolly term. People with various roles in the industry - whether ambassadors, journalists, consultants or marketers - are, after all, influential figures. But today, the term is generally used to refer to Social Media content creators who are paid by brands to promote their products.
The line between celebrity and influencer is often faint, as celebrities veer into influencing and successful influencers gain celebrity status. In the main, influencers are valued by brands for their leagues of dedicated followers and the perceived authenticity of their posts.
Global influencer marketing value more than doubled between 2019 and 2021
As an industry, influencing has become big business. According to Statista, global influencer marketing value more than doubled between 2019 and 2021, growing from US$6.5bn to US$13.8bn in just three years.
Compared to fashion, food, wellness, cosmetics and travel, spirits – particularly aged spirits – has been behind the curve when it comes to forming influencer partnerships. Aas the pandemic drives up both brands’ focus on e-commerce and consumers’ desire for aspirational content, however, influencing looks set to be an increasingly prevalent area of marketing for the industry. This is particularly true as brands covet a younger audience - which has long been a blind spot for aged spirits brand owners in, say, Scotch whisky and Cognac.
For some, this is an uncomfortable development. In industry circles, the mere mention of ‘influencers’ is often accompanied by eye rolls and passive-aggressive comments. In a Forbes article from 2018, one whisky influencer testified: “There’s a movement of bloggers and enthusiasts doing everything in their power to take down ‘influencers’ one by one in a very intrusive manner. Publicly shaming and calling them out.” Previously it was bloggers receiving the wrath of the establishment; now it’s influencers.
Drinks influencers have been accused of shameless self-promotion and underhand tactics.
The growing prevalence of influencers in aged spirits marks a shift in long-standing power structures – which some commentators and stakeholders seem to find unsettling. When viewed this way, anti-influencer sentiment takes a more sinister turn.
Twitter is awash with disparaging comments about influencers in general, and a number of users have been vocal in their disapproval of whisky influencers (the same - perhaps more - is true of wine, which other commentators have noted has an alarmingly sexist undertone). A number of thought-pieces dedicated to denigrating drinks influencers have also been published in recent years, accusing them of shameless self-promotion and underhand tactics.
Some of this criticism is valid: the ethics of influencer marketing have rightly been called into question due to a lack of transparency from some Social Media users. Numerous influencers – some of whom are well-known celebrities – have been called out for failing to disclose when their posts have been paid for with hashtags such as #ad or #sponsored.
Brands often prefer their partners to post ‘natural’ content to enhance the perceived authenticity of the promotion, but failing to disclose commercial partnerships contravenes advertising regulations and misleads the consumer.
For some, there are privileged gatekeepers whose authority should not be challenged
Much of the other criticism levelled at drinks influencers takes a decidedly undemocratic view of spirits marketing and education. It seems that for some, there are privileged gatekeepers of knowledge and taste, whose authority should not be challenged – let alone by well-paid Social Media users. Influencers are mocked for their focus on aesthetics and lifestyle, but it’s undeniable that drinks are inherently tied to aspirational lifestyles.
A long-running complaint of the whisky and wine industries is that a prevalent sense of elitism makes their products inaccessible to a younger mass market. There are, of course, plenty of instances of poor practice, but when done well, influencer marketing can help repair this disconnect between the category and its desired audience.
Others believe the snappy content that influencers are famed for does a disservice to the complexity of the likes of whisky and Cognac – but simplification does not necessarily mean bastardisation. With the knotty jargon disposed of, the category becomes infinitely more accessible and inclusive for a wider audience.
Whatever your view of Instagram and Social Media at large, it’s undeniable that younger consumers value image-centred, personality-driven content. It makes sense for brands to covet these potential drinkers where they reside, in a medium they are intimately familiar with.
It would also be remiss not to acknowledge that there’s a lack of disclosure across the industry at large. In spirits – where close professional relationships are formed, favours asked, free bottles given and lavish press trips provided – there is often more to a simple Social Media post than meets the eye.
This goes to show that transparency and objectivity are often grey notions that can be difficult to police. It would therefore be hypocritical to solely blame influencers for inconspicuous promotions when they inevitably exist elsewhere in the industry.
Influencer marketing should of course be monitored to ensure it is responsible and transparent. If done well, it could prove to be an all-important tool in 21st Century spirits advertising. In the end, if ethical marketing practices are adhered to, the only party that needs to make a value judgement on influencers is the brands that use them.