The Dubai dilemma: has influencer marketing lost its sheen?

As several high-profile influencers face criticism for travelling to Dubai during a pandemic, FCB Inferno’s head of influencer marketing explains why a little more transparency could go a long way.

The Dubai dilemma: has influencer marketing lost its sheen?

Is there such a thing as bad publicity? Over the past few days, a media storm has hit several high-profile UK influencers for posting photos from Dubai in the midst of a worsening pandemic back home. 

It doesn’t take much to see why this story has touched a nerve. It’s been widely discussed in the UK that a rising number of followers of influencers are becoming disenfranchised and frustrated with the typical aspirational content they would usually enjoy. With lockdown restrictions set to continue, the sight of people enjoying sun rays on far-flung beaches feels a step too far, given the current guidelines.

But contrary to the kind of headlines we’ve seen over the past few days, it’s not all bad news. There have been plenty of lockdown influencer success stories over the past year, whether it be the workout videos we see from Joe Wicks, influencers sharing parenting advice throughout lockdown, or even Marcus Rashford using his own social-media platform to highlight profound injustice. Rashford, for his part, is the most abused (or “trolled”) footballer on Twitter. So it doesn’t matter if you’re flying to Dubai or attempting to feed the nation’s children – there’s always an element of backlash in the life of an influencer.  

However, there is more to this outcry around influencers in Dubai than what lies on the surface. It comes down to transparency, safeguarding and speed of reaction – from both influencers and the brands they work for.

Safety first

Let’s be frank – safety concerns should have been a number-one concern for the past nine months or more since the pandemic has swept the globe. Much of this controversy could have been avoided if brands and influencers took more time to prepare and invest in safeguarding as well as to be more transparent about their reasons for travel. Why, for instance, are brands looking to send influencers to Dubai right now in the first place? There has been talk of “contractual obligations”, but is there a reason these obligations could not be met with content shot from influencers’ homes?

Of course, it’s entirely possible that much of the work influencers have been doing in Dubai recently has been part of preparing for summer shoots. These campaigns might not be intended to go out until a lifting of travel restrictions, but if this is the case, there needs to be transparency between all parties. Otherwise, we’re left with a situation that damages trust between influencers and their followers – and as a result, the brands behind the campaigns. 

In the world of fashion, brands like Zara have been filming their models from home rather than in a studio and it works. We’ve seen stats for engagement jump since last March as more people tune in to social media and relate to someone who is stuck in a similar situation to them, but making the best of it. Home-made influencer content does resonate and audiences enjoy it. 

We must be more transparent

For those of us in the marketing world, it’s obvious that some of these influencers will have been paid by brands to fly out to Dubai and shoot more content. While the average follower is very savvy to paid-for sponsorship and ads, without in-depth knowledge of the demands that brands put on influencers, it's unclear to them who made the decision to skip the country and what makes it “work” for the influencers. While the nature of influencer content (and the way in which it is reported) makes it seem as though they are acting completely independently, the truth is that everyone along the chain has to share a level of responsibility. 

If brands and marketers are looking to send influencers out to Dubai given the current context, we have to ask whether they themselves are failing in a duty of care. Of course, all of these marketing decisions may well have been made in the autumn when travel was much less restricted than it is now, but there’s no reason why these plans couldn’t have changed. It’s especially important that any planned campaigns are able to adapt to a climate which, as we have seen many times, is subject to immediate and drastic changes. 

Perhaps part of the problem is that media coverage as we’ve seen over the past week has been focused on a very narrow definition of “influencer”. Someone who read these articles and nothing else would be forgiven for thinking that every influencer is a reality TV star who makes their money from glamorous trips to Dubai. In reality, influencers span enormously diverse demographics, and the content they help create can range from mental health, to financial management, to fitness, or any hobby you could think of. 

Sunny shores 

Despite the controversy, influencer marketing is still in a healthy place. Throughout lockdown, an estimated 65% of influencer marketing budgets have been increased – and it’s easy to see why. At a time when full-scale film production became a lot more difficult, a large number of marketers have been turning to the nimble and reliable alternative of influencers.

It’s also worth noting that an overwhelming majority of these influencers are where they are because they are incredibly talented at what they do. That means, perhaps contrary to the popular idea of a work-shy influencer, that they are no stranger to hard graft and – crucially – they know their way around a camera and the production process and they understand their audience. For marketers looking to connect with audiences during the pandemic, that is a valuable skill set. 

And it’s part of the reason why I don’t believe the current controversy is going to be damaging for influencer marketing in the long term. Another is that there are precedents in other industries. Look at footballers, for example. It’s easy to lose count of how many times prominent footballers have been caught out for breaching lockdown rules, attracting much understandable public ire. But it hasn’t put people off from tuning in on match day, and I don’t think people are going to start unfollowing influential figures en masse because a few have flown to Dubai.

It’s vital in terms of trust that both influencers and brands must be sensitive to how people are feeling. All of us, influencers included, will be feeling anxious about the future, and so we should consider that there is a value in offering joy and escapism to audiences – provided it’s done in the right way. Transparency and honesty will be the key difference between those campaigns which hit the mark and those judged insensitive.

If the balance is right, influencers and brands have the power to distract from anxieties, support and inspire. Despite the negative headlines about this group, we can’t forget that many influencers can help bring about change in the world that is desperately needed.

Zoe Crook is head of influencer marketing at FCB Inferno

This article first appeared on PRWeek sister title Campaign

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