In our ever-expanding marketing landscape, influencers wield unique and captivating power. And more brands are depending on them to capture attention, forge connections with customers, and bolster brand equity attributes – even with controversies around curated posts and celerity scandals are in the media. Why? Because Influencers can significantly mold a brand’s reputation, financial health and social standing among their target audiences. In the digital age, a brand’s interaction with an influencer represents a dynamic exchange that has the sway to redefine how we perceive brands and their core values.

The high-profile partnership and break-up between Adidas and Kanye West serves as a case study and reminder of the importance of good governance when choosing influencers. The saga of this collaboration, fraught from the beginning as exposed by Megan Twohey’s recent New York Times article, unveils profound insights into influencer marketing. It underscores the role of ethics and corporate governance – and emphasizes the vital need for enhanced transparency and comprehensive reputation risk management in influencer programs.

At its core, this narrative stresses the fundamental principle that no brand, regardless of its iconic status, should underestimate the potential risks tied to influencer partnerships. Grant it, when Adidas eagerly embraced Kanye West’s Yeezy line as a collaborative opportunity to boost brand awareness and value in November 2013, the cultural landscape was less charged than it is today. At that time, influencers represented a direct route to rapid exposure and engagement. However, as Twohey reports, the ensuing years have delivered another cautionary tale that is slowly reshaping how marketers perceive brand-influencer collaborations.

Transparency Matters

Earlier this year, I posted about the implications of the HRSA-ILA Funds’ class-action lawsuit against Adidas. The lawsuit alleged that the brand had misled investors about the risks associated with an association with Kanye West and the Yeezy brand in its 2018-2021 annual reports. Underscoring the pressing need for brands to navigate the complex influencer landscape with utmost care, this legal action prompted discussions about transparency and disclosure standards in influencer marketing relationships. Moreover, as consumers demand genuineness and ethical accountability from brands, it’s increasingly becoming paramount to be open about the terms, expectations and values in influencer relationships.

Influencer Marketing as a Reflection of Values and Purpose

The Adidas-Kanye West controversy transcends Adidas’s lost revenue and even the evolving intricacies of influencer marketing. It’s a stark reminder of the essential role of ethics and corporate governance in a brand’s success. Beyond star power, brands must scrutinize potential collaborators’ ethical and value-driven dimensions. Today, in our digitally driven world where little is guaranteed concealed, brands must embrace a new level of caution.

Influencers aren’t selected solely for their ability to enhance brand equity; they’re chosen because their actions can be as consequential as any other marketing decision. In the contemporary landscape, no brand can afford to overlook an influencer’s values and behavior. Once seen as a fast track to success, influencer marketing has evolved into a multifaceted journey through a multi-layered terrain of reputation and values.

Evaluating Influencers

Diligent evaluation of all aspects of potential influencer partners is required to more accurately ensure their values and ethical standards align with a brands. While it’s tempting to close your eyes to one-off or small red flags, nothing should be overlooked. Popularity alone no longer can dictate the selection. Instead, brands should seek to develop a comprehensive understanding of influencers’ attitudes, past behaviors and relevance to the brand’s identity. Factors such as an influencer’s track record, consistency in espousing brand-aligned values and their potential to sincerely connect with the target audience should guide the assessment process.

Reputation Reigns Supreme

For most – if not all – brands, reputation reigns as the crown jewel. And the preservation or erosion of this has great potential to significantly impact the bottom line. A key aspect in protecting reputation must include careful monitoring influencers and their actions – alongside crisis management preparation. It’s not sufficient to entrust an influencer with the brand’s image; brands should actively co-manage their place in influencer partnerships. This entails setting clear guidelines, monitoring influencers’ online behavior and promptly addressing any potential threats.

Integrated Marketing and Corporate Governance

Perhaps most importantly, the implications of the Adidas-Kanye West partnership extend further than marketing governance to the domains of corporate governance and risk management. Marketing decision-making has evolved to be about much more than legal approval and it’s now essential for marketers to bridge the gap between corporate governance, legal perspectives and their choices. Such integration will aid in ensuring ethical influencer marketing becomes an inherent part of a brand’s overall strategy – emphasizing transparency, accountability and ethical standards across all collaborations.

Ethical Influencer Marketing as a Strategic Imperative

The Adidas-Kanye West break-up highlights the critical importance of approaching influencer marketing – and indeed all marketing choices – with discernment and a commitment to ethical and accountable practices. Influencer marketing has evolved from being a quick route to success into a nuanced landscape where ethics, transparency and corporate governance can determine a brand’s success and sustainability through an influencer’s social power. Reflecting on the lessons revealed by the Adidas-Kanye West collaboration, brand leaders can better navigate this complex terrain to safeguard reputation and deliver more genuine and purpose-driven narratives to their audience.

In essence, influencer marketing is a mirror reflecting a brand’s identity and commitment to a viewpoint on the world. With ethical and responsible business increasingly at the forefront of consumers’, employees’ and investors’ minds, brands should advance their approach. As the influencer landscape continues to evolve, brands that adapt and lead with a clear sense of purpose will emerge as champions of ethical influencer marketing.