When Erno Laszlo founded his namesake skin-care line in 1927, influencers as we know them were not part of the conversation. Nevertheless, his bespoke formulations for treating everything from acne to scars garnered a star-studded following, which included Marilyn Monroe, Audrey Hepburn and Jackie Kennedy.
The brand thrived off of those associations for years, partnering with high-end department stores including Saks Fifth Avenue, and receiving accolades from Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. Today, however, as retailers like Sephora and websites like Net-a-Porter deplete department store traffic, and print media loses its power to the endless voices online, the Laszlo brand has had to rethink its strategy.
“I tell everybody that we’re a 90-year-old brand going on three,” said Kristy Watson, the brand’s chief marketing officer. “When you’ve been around for that long, you have the history, but the world doesn’t wait for you to catch up; you have to keep evolving and stay current.”
Watson joined the company over three years ago, after stints at Ippolita and Yummie Tummie. Tasked with bringing the brand into present-day conversations, one of her focuses has been developing an influencer strategy in the U.S. and abroad to increase the brand’s recognition. That strategy has seen particular success in China, according to Watson, as well as Canada, where the brand is the third best-seller in beauty at Holt Renfrew (also popular with Chinese consumers).
We spoke to Watson about what’s behind the micro-versus-macro-influencer debate, why influencer marketing is easier in China than the U.S. and how she sees the space evolving in the next few years.
What was holding the brand back from influencer marketing, at first?
We had authentic endorsements from Hollywood [stars] before every brand had influencers, so every time we would talk about our influencer strategy, we’d struggle a bit; we we weren’t paying for this type of affiliation. But the world has changed and, in today’s world, your story is told via influencers.
So what does your strategy look like now?
With influencers, we focus on new products and brand storytelling, [incorporating] everything from product giveaways to customized packages, to pay-to-play, if they have an affinity for our brand. We also take a three-tier approach, which touches micro-, macro- and mid-tier influencers.
We’ve done things individually with one or two influencers, and we’ve done things with up to 10 influencers, all of which is paid — but if it’s not authentic, we don’t want to work with them.
How do you determine which influencers feel authentic?
It’s become very data-driven; we don’t just blast products out to hundreds of influencers and hope the brand sticks. We look demographically at where they live and what type of following they have: Is their audience going to appreciate what we have to say? That can be very hard to do, because there are so many brands out there, and it’s very important for us to find the people who will help us break through [the noise].
We’re also not looking for the biggest [influencers]. We’re looking for the most authentic, with our biggest metric being engagement.
So where do you stand on the macro-versus-macro-influencer debate?
We always get the analytics back about how many people made their way to our social platforms and our website through an influencer’s post. Sometimes we’ll see a post from a macro-influencer that has a million views and 20,000 likes, but the comments have nothing to do with the subject they’re posting about. In that case, the influencer is probably not a fit for us, because her fans are just obsessed with her; they’re not really looking to learn more about our brand.
What we find is that mid-tier — with 20,000 to 50,000 followers — are the influencers who best connect with their communities. We just worked with with [fashion and lifestyle blogger] Christie Ferrari for a #selfcaresunday series we’re doing on Instagram, and we saw over 500 fans of hers come to our channel, because she’s very passionate about skin care. We’ve been courting her for a while.
What does that courting process entail?
Chatting with her and sending products to see if she likes them. We’re always courting influencers so we can build an arsenal of people that we think resonate both with our brand and our customers. Every day, eight to 10 people are talking to influencers on our behalf, whether they’re on our PR team or our social media team.
What kind of guidelines do you give your influencers for product posts?
When we gift or pay an influencer to work with us, we have very loose guidelines for posts. We actually want posts featuring real reviews and real feedback. We also don’t mind being rounded up with a lot of other brands, because we believe that’s how today’s consumer shops.
How does your influencer marketing strategy differ in China?
We have a big Chinese following, and we do big business there — but influencer marketing in the country is so different than in America. The influencers, Key Opinion Leaders, in China are very affordable. You can also get such a big hit on WeChat from three KOLs, which can make your business, on some level — at least for a company our size. We get more bang for our buck in China, due to the way they communicate and the fact that KOLs are gods there.
So are you investing more on influencer marketing there?
It’s about proportions. We have a huge following through the shopping app Little Red Book, WeChat, Tmall, etcetera. I just held an event there in November, where I hosted 30 KOLs at the Puly Hotel in Shanghai. I paid them practically nothing to come — just refreshments, and I put on a beautiful presentation about our brand, as they’re very into product details. We spent two hours with them, they all left with product and we got millions and millions of online mentions. I had to pay for a host, but it’s very inexpensive — like $2,000 — to get a well-known host in China.
The markets are just very different. In the U.S., we’re very segmented, influencers have agents and are represented by lots of people, and there’s always another brand willing to spend more money.
Are there any setbacks to the Chinese market?
The Chinese consumer isn’t very loyal, so you’re constantly having to invent new products, deals and gifts to keep them engaged.
How do you see influencer marketing changing in the next few years?
Consumers are already really savvy about all of this, and I think they’re only going to become more sophisticated in terms of who they follow. I don’t know if influencers are going to change, but I think that consumers are potentially getting a little tired of [them]. They want to really trust the people they follow, so I think influencers may become more selective with what partnerships they do and don’t take. Consumers are going to get harder and harder to trap, because we have so much at our fingertips. We’ll have to continue to evolve as brands to keep up with them.