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ASK ARIEL: Is paying influencers an effective marketing strategy for luxury watches?

Social Media Influencer

In this series of guest columns, Ariel Adams, owner and editor-in-chief for aBlogtoWatch, answers questions on behalf of WatchPro readers. Click here to Ask Ariel anything you like!

Ariel replies: The number one complaint I hear about marketing from watchmakers is that they feel it is too expensive to reach a global audience of their target market with their desired messages. In other words, the cost of sharing their messages with traditional forms of marketing and advertising has the perception (with varying levels of accuracy) of exceeding their available budgets.

The response over the last six or so years has been a veritable cornucopia of strategies employed by watch brands using new forms of media such as social media to capture a large audience with a perceived lower cost.

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And the results? My understanding is that the effects of new forms of marketing for many companies have been as varied as the techniques themselves. This is especially true in the context of what many refer to as “influencer marketing.”

Even though I am someone that many people refer to as an influencer, I reject the almost religious fervor with influencer marketing that some people in the luxury watch industry seem to hold.

Influencer marketing can be boiled down to the practice of paying a supposedly popular online personality to endorse or otherwise call attention to your products.

It is attractive to brands because in their mind they don’t need to convince anyone to say positive things about their products, all they need to do is pay someone to be positive who is followed by consumers they want to influence.

This is in contrast to traditional media where a journalist must themselves first be persuaded about the appeal of a product, and only after that might they endorse it with zeal.

This tends to require that products are generally marketable or effective for consumers. Influencer marketing doesn’t seem to require any of that. The result is that consumers increasingly see influencers are mere “hired guns” whose opinions are “for sale.”

How does this affect luxury marketing? “Authenticity, exclusivity, legitimacy, respect, and traditional” are words we hear from serious watch brands all the time.

Luxury brands know that their relationships with consumers must be built on trust. By working with influencers that sell their reach, luxury watch brands are associating themselves with personalities who may not have the same level of trust, and this could hurt their brand perceptions as much as they can help.

Consumers over the last several years have overwhelmingly shared sentiment that they want to hear authentic opinions and facts about products from media, not blind endorsements. Thus, the image that influencer marketing offers many brands is highly suspect for most forms of luxury. For that reason, it is mainly watches priced under $250 which have benefited from influencer marketing.

The second major problem with influencer and social media marketing is that it doesn’t really seem to be saving brands much money. Brands have a goal (probably not a wise one) that they will pay someone charismatic and intelligent to espouse the virtues of their products for that person’s audience to hear about. The problem is that many influencers have little or no particular expertise in what they are endorsing. Thus, the influence they have to properly explain or recommend authentic luxury products is limited.

I’ve spoken to a number of brands who agree with me, but also point to the fact that they have sold watches via Instagram as a result of social media marketing. “We have had people direct message up to buy a watch. It’s great.” Surely I am happy when sales happen, but are a trickle of luxury watch transactions over Instagram really a sign of success or simply a small but measurable outcome of a marketing exercise?

My point is that because brands can easily see sales interest coming in through social media (given how direct it is) they feel it is working. What I don’t see is how the expense that went into hiring and continually paying an influencer is justified by a few casual sales online. Brands need to set up a system where consumers are funneled to their e-commerce page or to authorized dealers in order to get watches. I’ve seen very little evidence to suggest that influencer marketing is any better at doing that than traditional marketing.

Social media and influencer marketing are part of the same category, but different as I discuss them. Influencer marketing is paying a person to push your message via social media, and social media marketing as I refer to it here is the practice of publishing content (paid or otherwise) by a brand to their audience.

This more direct (no influencer needed) type of marketing via social media can have much better effect since it is a brand working directly with the consumer – so there is no immediate “are you trying to sell me something?” bias. There is however a lack of editorial insight. Changing tack for a moment here, we are talking about watch brand producing their own marketing and advertising content to present directly to audiences.

Watch brands are notorious these days for producing subtle, and often too discreet forms of advertising. The messages they create are both often non-specific and not particularly loud. These are the exact opposite of the types of messages which consumers more immediately respond to online. Social media marketing advertising further requires brands to pay social media companies to further promote these messages to audiences – which increases the cost further. Some of the most successful brands at social media marketing spend into the millions of dollars per month to reach enough consumers. Such budgets vastly exceed the annual marketing budget of most brands.

While value and success can be found in social media marketing, I find it to be a realm of digital marketing rife with concerns and pitfalls. Brands believe they can get lucky, and through the right influencer personality convince a large percentage of the population to like and buy their products without doing much more leg work.

Unfortunately, this is false. Successful campaigns that were able to do things like this in the past are in many instances not repeatable after social media companies such as Facebook began to clamp down on certain types of targeting and messaging quality. In other words, there is no long-term strategy to be found in manipulating and stalking consumers online.

This riles me because I’ve had very respected professionals at major corporate brands tell me how embarrassed they are to have to implement influencer or social media advertising campaigns that they already know is a waste of money and ineffective.

That means top management and not the foot soldiers at brands are primarily interested in experimenting with these get rich quick schemes – even when their own departments often advise against it. To me that smells of desperation and a lack of executive accountability. Which yes is ironic for me to say since I’m the one typically advocating for watch brands’ managers to have more (not less) decision-making oversight and freedom.

With that said, my concern about poor marketing decisions is not incompatible with my suggestions for managers to have the freedom to market as they wish.

What I believe is happening is that watch brand managers are themselves being unfairly pressured by even higher-up corporate forces which demand performance and nothing else. I’ve noticed a very dangerous trend of “get it done no matter the cost” in top level management at many major luxury watch brands.

My feeling is that many in the watch industry have already come to the conclusions I have come to in this article about the dubious effect, and actual high-cost of social media and influencer marketing. They nevertheless are being forced to make decisions because of desperation to meet arbitrary targets.

Perhaps the real lesson from this discussion is that forces which manage the money in the watch industry also need some education on what actually sells watches these days.

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Ariel Adams

The author Ariel Adams

2 Comments

  1. Totally on point Ariel. You raise many interesting points. Above all, authenticity. Combined with relevance, this is what I think will resonate with customers and prospects. As an example, I think Bremont does a great job with this, as their brand ambassadors are real adventurers and sportsmen, who have actually relied on the timepieces in often hostile, demanding environments. It reinforces their core message of “tested beyond endurance” and so it rings true. And the way they diffuse news through social media is highly targeted and not a shotgun approach, a wide dragnet hoping to capture interest. With so much digital noise out there today, I think brands absolutely need to have a clear strategy, and I don’t think there is a one size fits all solution. As we teach at Watch Trade Academy, the concept of Distribution 4.0 or “blended retail” indicates that an effective strategy includes ability to adopt and adapt new technologies and find the right mix of brick-and-mortar and digital platform integration that is effective for the brand (or brand portfolio), target demographic, and geographic location. This is not static, and managing a business in this very dynamic milieu requires a willingness and agility from brands and retailers to collaborate to maximize their turnover.

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