Lead Story

The Brand Factor

Influencer marketing has caught the fancy of brands in such a way that even the traditional ones are diving in. But are they getting the desired returns? Are the influencers bankable enough? Is it here to stay or is it a bubble ready to burst?

When Brooke Bond Red Label wanted to start a conversation to make India more inclusive, it chose the road less travelled. The #letsunstereotypeIndia campaign was launched with Neena Gupta, Dia Mirza, Sushant Divgikar and Teejay Sidhu speaking about personal stereotypes faced by them to get the message across.

Prajakta Koli, Dhanashree Verma, Gauhar Khan and others aced some killer ninja moves on a peppy rap song for HDFC Bank’s #MoohBandRakho campaign designed to spread awareness about financial frauds.

More recently, Aditya Birla Health Insurance launched the #LaughForAHealthyHeart campaign with stand-up comedians Gaurav Kapoor, Ramya Ramapriya and Anirban Dasgupta delivering funny punchlines to convey the importance of a healthy heart.

These are just a few examples of influencer marketing campaigns launched by brands to promote a product, a cause or a service, digitally. It has thrived in a year when established disciplines of marketing were shaken up, resulting in a wave of content creators from the smallest cities and towns of the country. Today, it has become a mainstay in a company’s marketing mix with even traditional sectors such as banking, insurance and FMCG meeting their marketing objectives through it. In fact, according to the INCA Influencer Marketing Survey, it was top priority for all surveyed marketing leaders for the current year.

Does it mean that brands have cracked the code to consumers’ choices? Are they getting the returns they expect from this new segment of marketing? Are they able to measure the outcomes?

While upGrad hosts The Office Canteen, a web series on YouTube with Nikunj Lotia or Be YouNick in the lead role

Brands stay positive

“Influencers help us tap their already engaged audience base and expand our reach. Social media is, by far, one of the most important channels for any brand these days,” says Shreya Sachdev, head of marketing, PUMA India. The brand associates a lot with influencers, either to amplify planned launches or to ensure it reaches all its diverse audience cohorts. Recently, as part of its 73rd anniversary celebrations, it teamed up with influencers and got them to post unique birthday wishes for PUMA. The company registered a 50% growth in sales during the three-day birthday bash over a regular weekend. “We witnessed the highest ever sale on puma.com, the contribution of our flagship online channel to the overall sales doubled over the previous sale season and the website saw 2X visitors on the bash weekend as compared to a regular weekend,” Sachdev adds.

Even upGrad, which hosts The Office Canteen, a popular web series on YouTube with YouTuber Nikunj Lotia or BeYouNick in the lead role, is positive about the brand’s association with content creators and influencers. “Honestly, the RoI that we have generated is great. When we ask our potential learners how they heard of upGrad or any of our programmes, branded content ranks right up there along with TV and WOM (word of mouth) from current learners and alumni. Such positive insights reinforces our overall goal of creating content and campaigns which shall further strengthen our brand visibility across the board,” says Arjun Mohan, CEO, upGrad. The edtech company also works with regional creators on YouTube such as Marathi channel Bharatiya Digital Party, Telugu channel Wirally and Tamil creator Madan Gowri, and wants to explore the regional space further.

But, it is vital for brands to understand the nature of the followers of the influencers they are looking to associate with and whether they are the right fit for them. With meaningful influencers having grown significantly, there is plenty to choose from. “To us, it’s important that the creator we’re working with fits the brand DNA and the conversations it’s leading,” says Gayatri Sriram, Manager, Digital Marketing (India & SEA), Bacardi. Despite the pandemic, the company continued with its flagship campaigns like Bacardi NH7 Weekender and BREEZER Vivid Shuffle through digital mediums and gained more traction than before. “With BREEZER Vivid Shuffle, we were able to associate with influencers across various Tier-I and II cities and engage with a whole new set of audiences,” says Sriram.

Bacardi does the Breezer Vivid Shuffle – a hip-hop league, teaming up with influencers and celebrities for amplification

Role of platforms

With brands warming up to influencer marketing, platforms such as Instagram and YouTube—the biggest digital stages for influencers—are constantly innovating to support the creators. YouTube, which takes pride in calling itself a creator-focused platform, started memberships for viewers about three-four years ago so that creators could monetise their fan base. In return, the creators would do members-only content and live streams, offline meet-and-greet, and so on. “Currently, there are about eight revenue streams, including advertising, subscription, memberships, super chat, super applause and merchandising on YouTube apart from branded content. But YouTube creators do branded content when they are really advocates of the product,” says Satya Raghavan, Director, YouTube India Partnerships.

Instagram, on its part, offers several tools and monetisation options for creators. One of the recent creative tools offered by the platform was Reels which unleashed the rise of a new cohort of short-form video creators from across the country—even from the deepest corners of Bharat. For monetisation, influencers have the option of brand partnerships. “We provide tools to ensure this brand-creator handshake is done in the most seamless way possible (for instance, the branded content tag). But there are more things we’re testing in the US, for example (1) a native affiliate tool that will allow creators to discover new products available on Checkout (2) badges on Instagram live to give creators ways to earn from their supporters,” says Sandeep Bhushan, Director and Head of India GMS, Facebook.

Not everything is hunky-dory

Despite brands diving deep into influencer marketing and the platforms brimming with content creators, the segment has its set of glitches. “This is a grey zone; a highly unorganised segment with a lot of ifs and buts. Influencers have a certain life in the market and we, as brand custodians, have to keep a track of their followership and immediate reach. Every brand has a different way to look at this segment—some of them look at it from a cost of view perspective, some from the point of view of engagement,” says Shraddha Bhatia, Earned Media Head, Grapes Digital.

One of the key things that impact the success of these campaigns is the digital stability of an influencer because they often have their highs and lows. There are influencers like Pankaj Bhadouria, winner of MasterChef India Season 1, or Bharat Wadhwa from bharatzkitchen who started small but have made a name for themselves and have a strong digital presence today. Then there is someone like Yashraj Mukhate who became an overnight sensation when his musical mash-up of a dialogue from Hindi TV show Saath Nibhaana Saathiya went viral, but today, is low on visibility on social media platforms. His instant success had also landed him a deal with Cadbury, but neither Mukhate nor the ad has much recall value.

Nutrition and Fitness influencer Nidhi Mohan Kamal is also a PUMA Ambassador

If influencers are a volatile lot, are celebrities a better option for brands? “It all depends on a brand’s budget. There are several celebrities who are now active on social media and garner a good number of followers but they charge much more than the usual influencers. Also, they call themselves advocates or ambassadors of a certain brand, not influencers,” says Bhatia. Other than relatability, cost and social media activity, most big-ticket celebrities want multi-year engagement with brands—an aspect that goes against the grain of the ever-changing digital space.

Then there are some celebrity-turned-influencers who know that their shelf life as an actor/model/TV star is over and have now turned to social media to remain connected with the audience. For instance, Sameera Reddy, Kishwar Merchant, Neha Dhupia, Dia Mirza, among others. Their advantage is that they still have a recall value.

It’s all estimation

While influencers play a passive role in creating traction that may lead to a purchase, social commerce with the role of influencers is not a trick many marketers or platforms have been able to master yet. Despite the boom it is witnessing, influencer marketing is hard to gauge with regards to actual conversions and is often kept out of the board rooms because of its inability to score well on RoI as measurement in this field becomes difficult. “It’s an RoI-driven segment and we do our calculations about the kind of audience that a certain campaign will get or the reach that it will have but these are all estimations. We say that the outcomes can be 5-10% up or down, nothing certain,” says Bhatia.

But the shift in consumer behavior, coupled with a large number of them being on social media platforms, is forcing brands to venture into influencer marketing. After all, they have to be where the consumer is. According to the latest figures in the Global Web Index (GWI), the average Indian spent 2.29 hours per day on social media in 2020, a clear evidence of how influencer marketing can impact consumers.


Apaksh Gupta, founder & chief executive officer, One Impression, explains why influencer marketing works for brands: “Faith is built in the digital era through peer-created content and/or consumer-to-consumer marketing. This is why brands are increasingly focusing on influencer marketing. The average spends for monthly campaigns by most brands range from anywhere between Rs 10 lakh and Rs 50 lakh.”

Earnings of influencers, however, vary as per their follower base, popularity, engagement rate, brand partnerships, location, niche and so on. “On an average, an Indian influencer would earn anywhere between Rs 5,000 and Rs 50,000 per post on Instagram. Some macro-influencers & celebrities do earn about a lakh as well. The earnings would similarly vary for other platforms, too,” adds Gupta.

Creativity untouched

While brands make their pick of the influencers they find the most suitable for their campaigns, influencers, too, are choosy about what they endorse. Bhuvan Bam, for example, ensures that the campaign he does portrays an amalgamation of his content and personality. Anupriya Kapur prefers to endorse products she would use herself. “If my son eats something or I eat something, I don’t mind endorsing that. But how can I endorse something I don’t consume myself?” she asks. But some, like Swati Bathwal, completely stay away from brand endorsements. “I will not endorse any product until and unless I believe in it. As long as it’s natural and comes directly from the source, I’m happy. I’d rather promote a farmer than a multinational company and make the profits go to it,” she says.

The future

As audiences become more evolved, influencer marketing will also need to evolve—from achieving pure awareness to creating top-of-mind recall in order to translate the interest of fence sitters into revenue. “The idea is to achieve beyond in terms of advocacy—the acid test for influencer marketing,” says upGrad’s Mohan.

Given how cluttered the content creation and consumption cycle is, the key to success for brands lies in partnering with influencers whose audience is most relevant to the brand, and not just simply based on follower count. By collaborating with them in a way that is authentic to their existing style of content creation and in ways that are unique is how brands can differentiate themselves in this space.

As for influencers, sticking to their creativity and constantly innovating is the only way to stay relevant. As it is, India has seen a staggering amount of fraudulent influencers but AI-driven solutions are helping bring the numbers down.

With pandemic fears receding, the influencer marketing space may also see some flat growth. But with better RoI measurement techniques and higher-quality content, this stream of marketing may continue to keep the brands and audiences hooked.