By Megan West-Hill

Influencers – well-known and well-connected social media personalities with things to say, a strong voice and large followings - have come a long way from their early role as a fringe promotional channel.

In a world swinging increasingly away from a reliance on traditional media for news and views to hook up to now-well-established social media platforms, many thousands – perhaps even millions - of influencers globally are regularly posting on events, products, trends and other topics that have caught their attention.

They are an acknowledged and accepted marketing tool and, in many cases, earn a substantial income for their advocacy. But usually, the push and posts are strongly product-related; the influencers embrace the product, speak of its benefits, attractions, “hipness” – and their followers are motivated to buy or otherwise engage.

But occasionally, influencers push things beyond pure product promotion – and take a broader, bolder approach to their outreach.  They go deeper into the brand behind a company or organisation, embracing a less directly commercial set of messages and baring their soul significantly more.

An exciting case in point is a campaign Wright Communications has kicked off this year for Unilever working to redefine what is seen as “normal” in terms of body image.

Unilever wished to take that campaign to a kiwi audience and we proposed the use of an influencer. The one we chose was Christian Newman with a large Instagram following on his #lovefromyourdads page. Domiciled north of Auckland, Christian and his partner have a baby boy Frankie and a daughter on the way and the page is a regular letter addressed to their son, expressing views on diversity, inclusion, love and acceptance.

We felt Christian’s family was the perfect fit for Unilever’s themes, and the campaign kicked off in August with an image of Christian sitting in the shower holding a bar of soap (with anything that shouldn’t be in public view carefully hidden). Christian’s letter to Frankie spoke of his tough journey as a young gay man – first line in his post reads “I can’t recall the number of times I wished away the gay.” He then picked up the messages from Unilever around redefining “normal” relating it to his experience – and referenced the company’s actions in removing the word from all advertising and packaging as part of its commitments to Positive Beauty.

The post was controversial, not the least by leading in with an image of a naked man, but drew a powerful response. The engagement was huge: more than 63,000 reactions.  Christian will continue the campaign with a series of posts through till the end of the year.

To embark on such a campaign is a big punt for a brand. It can be controversial to give relatively free rein to an influencer and this was brave and ground-breaking on Unilever’s part. But it reflects the times. It is increasingly hard for brands to get their messages across through the traditional media channels – or convey them intact, but more importantly perhaps, your audience as a brand may no longer be looking there. Recent research has shown how young people and even those now in their 30s and 40s are not reading papers or magazines, watching TV or tuning into mainstream radio.

Going the edgy route has its risks and there will always be detractors but involving an influencer like Christian in this kind of brand messaging is worth exploring. It needs to be authentic and honest – from both parties – and finding the influencer that’s the right “fit” with the brand may take time, but being bold in the current, message-cluttered marketplace might be that cut-through strategy a business sorely needs.

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