Today, you would be hard-pressed to find a beauty brand that has not invested in a far-flung influencer trip. Regularly whisking off beauty tastemakers to exotic locales typically tied to product launches has become table stakes. Since larger influencer marketing tactics have gained a foothold, Nars has betted on such trips with key launches, such as its re-entrance into the mascara category in August 2018, as has Benefit Cosmetics.

Shiseido is no different. In the last year-and-a-half, the Japanese beauty company has orchestrated six influencer trips — in 2019, it increased its influencer marketing budget by 50% to help facilitate these outings. All of the aforementioned excursions except its most recent in August, which corresponded to the launch of its Synchro Skin Self-Refreshing Foundation, have been to Japan, to shine a light on the company’s heritage for the millennial consumer. Its latest was a bit more unusual, leading influencers like Jackie Aina, Alissa Ashley and Alexys Gabrielle Johns to Chile’s Atacama Desert.

“As we completed the relaunch of our color category that started last year, we thought about the how-to-get-the-look makeup authorities within YouTube and Instagram; we wanted to talk about the credibility of our foundation with people who have credibility,” said Tiffani Carter-Thompson, Shiseido vice president of integrated communications.

Shiseido is committing to increasing its influencer spend again in 2020, but the impact of the influencer trip is being called into question across the industry. According to Tribe Dynamics, Benefit saw its trips’ earned media value (measured by the social media exposure gained) between 2018 and 2019 decrease from over $15 million last year to $4.2 million this year. Still, Benefit was able to increase overall brand EMV from $294 million to $306 million over the same time period.

Conor Begley, Tribe Dynamics cofounder, explained that influencer trips within the U.S. have had diminishing value over the last year. Utilizing international influencers in global markets have fared better, largely due to the maturation of influencer marketing in the Americas.

“Initially, trips worked so well because brands could do them and not have to pay influencers, and they got huge amounts of bonus content that had great quality in amazing locations,” said James Nord, founder and CEO of Fohr, an influencer marketing platform. “Now influencers are less likely to go without payment. You are paying hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars to put the trip on, and then you have to pay them, fly them in business class and pay for their plus-one.”

Nord said that Fohr stopped suggesting influencer trips as a strategy to beauty, fashion and lifestyle clients about 18 months ago — the company works with beauty companies like Sephora. Nord estimated that when Fohr was still involved in these kind of activations in 2017, brands would pay about $50,000 to take six influencers on a three- to four-day trip. Kim Kardashian West, a beauty influencer in her own right, commands between $300,000 and $500,000 a single post.

That thirst for content, especially for beauty brands, is still real, said Alison Bringé, Launchmetrics chief marketing officer. “A brand can’t post product images every day, but at the same time, most of these brands have a desired level of control and can’t make branded images at a second’s notice,” she said. “Creating beautiful, digital images that aren’t shot on an advertising budget is hard to come by.”

Which brings beauty companies back to the notion of a trip. In a highly competitive market, product launches with only still-life imagery are not enough. Content with influencers solves for the both aesthetic and control issues, in that said influencers and their respective imagery are vetted by the brand prior to inking a deal, and trips are also under the guidance of the brand.

For Shiseido, specifically, when it doubled its foundation product range with the Synchro launch in August, it turned to influencers who are known to discuss complexion, like Ashley, who developed a line for NYX Professional Makeup and Aina, who landed a deal with Too Faced after being critical of the company’s existing foundation lineup. Not only do Aina and Ashley have 1 million-plus followers on Instagram each, but they also boast engagement rates (the rate at which an audience interacts with content) of around 9%. This mega-influencer play was not only to drive credibility for Shiseido within color cosmetics, but also to gain greater consumer awareness as the brand is best known for its skin-care offerings.

However, to date, its mid-tier influencers have had a clearer dotted line to conversion. With 196,000 Instagram followers, Gabrielle Johns boasts a 8.7% engagement rate, and Kahlana Barfield Brown, with 243,000 followers, has a 6% engagement rate. Without revealing exact figures, Carter-Thompson said Barfield Brown proved a strong entity for the brand when it worked with her earlier this year on a sun-care launch. Her call-to-action posts drove customers to both the brand’s e-commerce site and Sephora. At the time, the brand had no other marketing activations.

Weighing the value of conversion versus awareness can be tricky. It is still early days for Shiseido’s Synchro foundation debut, but soon after the trip, the term “foundation” was the No. 1 search term on Shiseido.com, and its strategy of less is more appears to be working. With 43% fewer influencers activated in August 2019 compared to August 2018, Shiseido saw its year-over-year visibility increase by 336%, based on its reach of content, impact and quality of content for the overall brand image. But with the current softening of the U.S. prestige makeup market — per latest NPD data, it is down 4% for the second quarter — the relevance of these trips needs to be held under a microscope.

“Every time a brand has a trip, it raises the bar of what you have to clear to be impactful. If one does a crazy trip to Bali, then as a competitor, you can’t just take a bunch of influencers to Miami,” said Nord. “Influencer trips are not a super effective last-click to sales, especially because Instagram is a distraction platform. Trips might attract attention, but they’re still a difficult way to build ROI.”