Jean Naim

The Four levels of Authentic Relationships with Brands

The relationship between influencers and brands is rooted in the authentic connection between the brand, the influencer, the audience, and the portion of that audience that could become customers of the brand. There’s a lot of talk about “authenticity” in marketing because consumers have become wary of some traditional marketing techniques.

Although celebrity endorsements exist, there are more sophisticated and elegant solutions available to capture an audience’s attention. If you’re an influencer, you’ve worked hard to project your authentic self, and you want a brand to respect and uplift your efforts. In the end, what matters is that you forge a useful relationship based upon congruent goals. But first you need to fully understand your value to the brand, and the best ways to achieve your common goals.

There are essentially four tiers of engagement with brand that influencers can tap into. These will partially depend on your reach, your audience’s engagement level, and the brand’s goals. Ideally, you will work with a brand long-term to deliver consistent value over time. What does that mean? Instead of a one-off campaign using your endorsement for new customers, the brand sees value in your partnership, and leverages your unique skills and taste to develop new, exciting products for your audience and theirs.

Tier One: The Flexible Creator

Brands have to balance the creativity of any influencer with their own guidelines. This could mean not showing a product in a certain context, or it could be specific, like “don’t show this product around animals.” A list of do’s and don’ts is a baseline requirement from any brand, as it’s important not just to stay on message, but to avoid conflicting messages, or worse. However, if a brand is too hands on with messaging, the content can feel watered down, out of place, and inauthentic.

What brands really want to avoid is the old, “sponsored content” model, where an influencer is no more than a paid endorser. Consumers are savvy to this now-ancient method of influence, and have become wary of its implications. Primarily, that the person is being paid and has no true affinity to what they’re endorsing. That’s why authenticity matters, and that’s why influencers need flexibility.

At the least, providing guidelines and flexibility to be themselves will ensure the connection between the influencer and their audience remains intact. As an influencer, that is your brand, and that’s why it is imperative to work with a brand that will work with you on developing guidelines that allow you to be free to create as you normally would, but just avoiding any missteps along the way. It’s like bowling with guardrails to ensure you knock a few pins down.

Tier Two: Deeping Engagement

Here we’re not talking about engagement with your audience. We’re discussing a deepening relationship with the brand. Again, the current method of minimum effort would involve getting a PDF with vital info about a product, then a briefing by the agency before being let loose to create content. You might have the top-level information for a superficial understanding, but what about the context? What was the thinking behind the product and the decisions made while creating it? How can we more deeply understand it and how it will fit into our lives? By answering these questions, you’ll gain more insight that will inform your content. Delivering shallow content merely looks again like a paid endorsement, not a true connection to the product. The audience will know the difference, and you should too.

Propose to the brand that a deeper connection will help you both.

Propose to the brand that a deeper connection will help you both, and there are several ways to forge it. Perhaps a trip to the factory where the product is made would provide insight. Or, arrange a chat with people on the product team. Maybe you can get early access, if it’s a new product? Or give feedback on aspects of the product, especially if it hasn’t been released yet. At the least, ask that you have more frequent contact to keep the brand in the loop, and yourself learning more about what you’re using.

Get outside the marketing bubble for a moment and learn the stories behind the product. Key background elements will inform you in ways you can’t imagine from a spec sheet, and lead you in new, exciting directions with your content. You’ll feel like a part of the brand, not just another channel of communication for the marketing department. This involvement is most powerful through experiences, which leads us to the next tier.

Tier Three: Extending Engagement

Learning about anything takes time, and it’s the same with people. Learning you can rely on a product also takes time. Learning what someone is “all about” takes time. We reveal our authentic selves over time. Isn’t this also true of influencers and their audiences? Well, it’s also true of brands and influencers. Learning the core values, the nuanced messaging, the “voice” of a brand takes time, and likewise, a brand might need time to understand an influencer’s place in the world. It’s also important to note that normally brands will “try on” an influencer to make sure they’re right for each other. Think of this as a sort of dating period, where both sides are getting to know each other with the hope of a long-term commitment. If there’s no traction, it doesn’t benefit either party to keep at it.

Over time, with trust and frequent communication, brands may want you to become more than just an advocate. Leveling up involves becoming a tastemaker, with a collaborative bent to your input. This could manifest in a limited-edition product line you helped create, or a tweak to an existing line. It could mean products you design entirely from the ground up, or in partnership with the brand or parent brand. Extending the collaboration beyond a singular campaign extends the authenticity, and over time proves that you aren’t just in it for the money, because your goals and the brand’s goals are aligned. After all, that’s why you’re lending your passion and insight to help co-create new products!

Tier Four: Compensation Innovation

It’s easy enough to hop into a short-term campaign to launch a product, get paid, and walk away. In fact, that’s been a tradition in marketing for decades. Today’s markets are more sophisticated, which is why we’ve been discussing ways to deepen authenticity.If you’ve moved up from product placement, to collaboration, compensation should begin to look more like a partnership than a transaction.

This means not just getting paid in cash for creating content, but having a stake in the success of the product. The ideal is partial cash and partial revenue sharing. This incentivizes you to go above and beyond, as you have a vested interest in the success of the brand or product. This is the highest level of collaboration between a brand and influencer, and it means your worth and the brand’s value are linked.

So how do you determine your worth? Which tier are you? What is your Fair Audience Pricing? It’s the value of your audience, of course. It’s also the value of what you bring to the table, including your creativity and expertise. Technology can help you price this properly, by looking at the reach, the engagement, and the effectiveness of your personal brand. You’ll also have to understand the value exchange, and be rational when quantifying your value. Yes, it includes your reach, but it also involves your audience’s engagement. Part of that equation involves the value of your audience, and how they mesh with the brand.

The good news is, you may begin your journey with a brand at tier one, but level up over time. All it takes is knowing what you bring to the table, encouraging a deeper partnership, and working hard to ensure that both sides of the table create authentic, effective messaging. Once that happens, it’s like magic — a win-win scenario for brands and influencers alike.

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