Updated Friday, May 24th 2019
Influencers have a tendency to live and die in the spotlight - public attention is central to their brand, but it can be a double-edged sword. Two weeks ago, prominent beauty vlogger James Charles found himself embroiled in a multi-channel controversy, as his friendship with fellow influencer Tati Westbrook crumbled in the public eye.
Now that the dust has settled, let's take a look back at what happened, and what marketers can learn from the ordeal.
The lay of the land
Depending on who you ask, the details can vary, but the story in short surrounds Charles’ relationship with a rival vitamin brand to fellow influencer and friend Tati Westbrook’s HaloBeauty. Charles posted a sponsored post for Sugar Bear Hair, the aforementioned rival. Westbrook, once considered Charles’ friend and mentor, took the post as more than just a slight: Charles was taking potential customers away from her. For context, Charles had previously declined to promote Halo Beauty. Allegedly, he promoted Sugar Bear Hair in exchange for Artist Passes to Coachella.
Westbrook's 43-minute video entitled, “BYE SISTER..” was the first shot fired in the public feud, and the impact was immediate: Charles lost nearly four million followers since the beginning of the ordeal over two weeks ago, and #jamescharlesisoverparty was trending for several days. While Charles is no stranger to controversy, having fielded accusations of racism, transphobia, and more, it took the collective power of Westbrook and her fans to see a concrete loss in his following.
In between Westbrook’s volleys of videos and Charles’ responses, fans, bystanders, and onlookers took potshots of their own, further damaging Charles’ reputation. Westbrook in effect called for a ceasefire with a video entitled “Why I did it…” While she explained her reasoning for “calling [him] out” in the video, she said that the reactions had gone too far, and that Charles should have an opportunity to change.
But this was no rapprochement - last weekend, Charles released his counterattack. In a video entitled "No More Lies," James defended his character against Westbrook's accusation that he would flirt with unwilling or uninterested men. He posted a series of screenshots that elucidated his position, in an attempt to exonerate himself. And it's working.
As of this article's posting, his followers have begun to rebound:
James Charles' reach over time. Source: Julius
What this means for marketers:
Influencer marketing is contingent on trust and authenticity: without an audience’s trust, an influencer has no ability to influence them. That trust is cultivated by their perceived authenticity - if the trust is broken, so is the relationship. Charles broke the trust of his audience by working with Sugar Bear Hair. After getting exposed by Westbrook, Charles suffered the consequences, losing millions of followers and potential brand deals. Now, after a series of heartfelt apologies, he's begun to heal his image. Westbrook, on the contrary, is starting to feel the wrath of the internet.
The obvious lesson is that influencer marketing works if and only if an audience trusts the influencer. Beneath that, though, is a deeper truth: there’s more to an influencer partnership than reach and engagement.
Sugar Bear Hair has undoubtedly benefited from the controversy: their brand is surging in clicks and google searches, and while that doesn’t always translate to a long-term gains, social media users can have short memories. However, it’s not likely that controversies will work out so cleanly in the end - Charles had enough loyal followers to gird him through this situation, and Sugar Bear Hair had only a minor role in the story.
Influencers who share their personal lives with their followers inadvertently (and perhaps unwittingly) involve them, for better or worse. When an influencer has drama, their followers have drama, or at the very least gossip. This puts influencers whose livelihoods depend on their follower counts on the hook for when things go south. Not everyone gets off as cleanly as James Charles and Tati Westbrook.
Earlier in May, a popular YouTube gaming personality, ProJared, faced almost immediate backlash after allegedly cheating on his wife and soliciting sex from fans, including minors. He was fired from his production company, lost thousands of followers, and compromised both his marriage and career. His former colleagues, coworkers, and brand partners have had to make public apologies regarding his behavior, playing damage control with their former connection.
Brands should look beyond the vanity metrics of an influencer to identify whether they’re truly the right fit for a partnership. That entails doing homework on their past actions, opinions, and even partnerships, to plan ahead for potential conflicts. Not every scandal is predictable: you can’t look at someone’s social media profile and know they’ll betray an old friend or cheat on their wife. You can, however, mitigate the risk of conflict by digging deeper into their history before engaging in a partnership.
Whether you do the work yourself, or use a solution like Julius, doing your due diligence to get to know an influencer before working with them can spare you a lot of headaches down the line, and maybe even a few less-than-desirable headlines.