The Molly-Mae debacle: will the influencer bubble ever burst?

Some argue that influencers are now a critical part of a modern brand's marketing strategy.

Clockwise from top left: Rule, Osinnowo, Cossell, Banks, Bogliari, Titus, Coyne.
Clockwise from top left: Rule, Osinnowo, Cossell, Banks, Bogliari, Titus, Coyne.

A clip of Love Island influencer Molly-Mae Hague on The Diary of a CEO with former Social Chain chief executive Steven Bartlett got a lot of airtime last week. While her intention was to inspire other "girl bosses", in 45 seconds, Hague succinctly brought into focus the deep-seated problems at the heart of influencer culture.

Labelled "tone deaf", Hague's comments on wealth inequality made the Twitterati hot with anger and frustration, largely with the line: “We all have the same 24 hours in the day”. For Hague, there are no barriers to wealth. If you want something bad enough, you’ll make it happen.

Fluent in "influencer speak", Hague was most likely unaware of the impact her words would have. But they reaffirmed how the influencer economy banks on individualism championed by girl boss stock characters, that push a certain lifestyle that’s unattainable to the majority. All the while, selling products.

Encapsulating how many die-hard sceptics feel about influencers, one peeved Tweeter wrote: “All influencers are a detriment to society man. Sack off all of them. Even the term ‘influencer’ is so fucking narcissistic. The world would be a much better place without them.”

Sadly, the Molly-Mae debacle isn’t the first time influencers have provoked a heated backlash. During the pandemic, while the rest of the UK obeyed strict instructions to stay home, globe-trotting influencers claimed they were “working” abroad.

In the wake of the Hague backlash, do brands need to rethink the current “out of touch” influencer model, either by finding new value in different kinds of influencer relationships or turning away from them indefinitely? Will the influencer bubble ever burst?

Emily Rule

Head of planning, Wunderman Thompson UK

People trust people more than they trust brands. This is a timeless human truth and the bedrock of influencer marketing. However, no matter who or what you are, trust takes years to build and seconds to break.

Without trust, there can be no influence. And the pandemic really tiktoked influencer trust right out of the window. It exposed appalling hypocrisy, embarrassing insensitivity, and in some cases blind stupidity. So much so that 85% of young people in the UK began to unfollow the influencers they once worshipped.

And yet, far from dying out, influencer marketing is experiencing a post-pandemic boom. 90% of marketers still believe it to be an effective relationship-building and sales-driving tool.

Whether this is a short-lived resurgence or a mighty resurrection remains to be seen. Either way, the value of influencers will no longer be based on the size of their following, or the buzz of their tweets. Tone-deaf blunders will not be forgiven, and trust will need to be earned. A return to understated authenticity, community-building and pronounced values-alignment will be paramount for effective influencer marketing in a sceptical post-pandemic world.

AJ Coyne

Head of global brand and creative, Klarna

To be honest, the bubble has long gone and influencer marketing is now a critical part of a modern brand's marketing strategy. That said, it has varying degrees of success depending on how a marketer or business approaches it. Critical is long-term thinking and forging mutually beneficial relationships – that not only benefits you and your brand but also the influencer's community. Influencer marketing is critical at Klarna, evident by recent acquisitions of Hero and APPRL – who will play a significant part in the Klarna product experience ongoing. The biggest challenge to influencer marketing is security and safety – as for too long some brands and influencers have gotten away with misleading consumers by ignoring including relevant signage. And while I don't agree with naming and shaming influencers, I do think brands and businesses should be held more accountable, which is why we launched our influencer council last year tackling this exact topic.

Zoe Osinnowo

Head of influencer marketing, FCB Inferno

Many influencer marketing processes have been out of touch for some time, prioritising vanity metrics including followers and engagements when identifying talent, over arguably more important factors such as values. It is no secret that more meaningful, long-term influencer partnerships provide greater benefits. However, adequate due diligence must be conducted to ensure that collaborations do not pose risks.

As we see a growing call for brands and influencers to increase cultural awareness, it is vital for brands to collaborate with individuals who align on the same principles. We wouldn't expect a vegan brand to partner with a hunting influencer, so why shouldn't we hold additional ethical factors to the same standard? Although an expectation of perfection is futile as we all have room for progress, cultural awareness and the acknowledgement of the need for growth and accountability are key.

While the influencer bubble will not burst, it will continue to positively evolve as we challenge what once was the status quo.

Rahul Titus

Head of influence UK & EMEA,

Ogilvy

Social inequality means that there will never be an even playing field. There is no arguing that. Period.

Is it fair for the world to hold the 22-year-old influencer/creative director/reality star extraordinaire accountable for her tone-deaf comments about wealth inequality? Absolutely. With great power (six million IG followers in this case) comes great responsibility and you have an obligation to do better. Her audience deserves it.

The influencer marketing industry has a long way to go, and this incident reflects those growing pains. It's an unfortunate blip in the meteoritic rise of the creator economy but it doesn't take away from the fact that influence is here to stay.

Molly-Mae will live to see another day.

Emma Banks

Planning director, St Luke's

With only 4% of the British public trusting influencers (according to YouGov, 2019), we've seen a great migration of attention away from established influencer-led platforms towards the likes of TikTok, where authenticity is everything; even the content creators do away with filters to let us in on real life, warts and all.

It's not surprising, therefore, that one of the titans of the "old world" influencer model is coming under fire for lacking empathy with the everyman.

Molly-Mae has so far bucked the shift away from "girl boss" caricatures by balancing the aspirational fairy-tale with the "real" 'girl next door' persona, a relatable character that opens up about her health scares, relationships and even the daily struggles to keep her room tidy.

But like the politician who doesn't know the cost of a pint of milk, Molly-Mae made the cardinal sin of revealing that she doesn't in fact see herself as one of us, but above us. What distinguishes a celebrity from an influencer is that the latter has an ongoing dialogue with their community; it's not much of a conversation if one side looks down on the other.

Alessandro Bogliari

Chief executive and co-founder, The Influencer Marketing Factory

Most probably influencer marketing as we know it will never totally end, but it will definitely change and adapt constantly, and it has happened so far, moving from one social media platform to another and "talking" different "social media languages". More brands are shifting their marketing budgets from traditional media to influencers and content creators because they are bringing greater ROI compared to TV or display ads.

It is clear that influencer marketing needs more rules and better regulations: the FTC has started working on influencer marketing guidelines years ago but a lot of influencers are still not disclosing paid partnerships or not explaining properly the terms and conditions and privacy policy behind a social media giveaway.

I personally think it's time to have stricter rules for influencer marketing so that everyone can feel safe without potentially being scammed or losing money on influencers.

Harvey Cossell

Chief strategy officer, We Are Social

There are ultimately two forces at play here. Influence via the cult of celebrity versus influence built through authenticity and trust. Yes, Molly-Mae has great influence over millions of people, but much of that is garnered through her celebrity.

In our 2021 annual trend report, Think Forward, we identified a trend that we called 'Reliable Idols'. It talked about how people now hold influential figures accountable, with a growing emphasis on the tangible value they bring to their feeds. The recent backlash against Molly-Mae is just further evidence of this continuing trend.

All influencers will experience backlash at some point, but the issue here is that influence is built through a strong connection with an audience. A connection born out of authenticity; once you veer away from this and come across as inauthentic, the ire you face can be significant.

That said, I don't really feel that influencer marketing is going away any time soon. We've just been experiencing a shift in people's expectations of influencers and this ultimately affects how we deploy them as a marketing tool.

This article first appeared in Campaign

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