Elysha Young
Elysha manages the Asia Pacific Mintel Trends team made up of expert analysts and trend spotters. She currently oversees content for Mintel Trends as well as client servicing for the region.

Mintel has been at the forefront of predicting the trends that matter most, calling them early and accurately, over the last 15 years. In our series, ‘You Heard It Here First’, we take a look at some of the predictions that we’ve made and where they are today.

Back in 2007, when Facebook had just recently emerged from a dorm room at Harvard to take on the world, Mintel spoke about how important it would be for brands to successfully target and encourage the influential creators operating in new media with the then newly-launched Mintel Trend ‘Influentials’. ‘Influentials’ highlighted the way the internet was facilitating a new kind of social influence by providing everyone a global platform.

While the idea of key opinion leaders or influential people was nothing new, the advent of social media made ‘influence’ something concrete and measurable – something that can be tracked with metrics like follows, likes and engagement – which could provide marketers the ability to quantify someone’s social power.

However, it wasn’t until earlier this year – over a decade later – that the word ‘influencer’ was officially added to the English dictionary to describe the way tastemakers and well-connected early adopters are cashing in on their access to engaged audiences and ability to influence their purchase decisions.

Just over a year after its launch in 2005, Facebook had become the dominant social platform. Technologies like Klout followed, giving users ratings according to their online social influence by considering their follower count and the engagement they received on the content they posted. The following year, we saw companies attempting to sell ‘friends’ to companies on Facebook, prompting Mintel to recommend that brands connect authentically with followers online by slowly building relationships and cultivating communities of fans.

Stop, collaborate and listen

By 2011, we saw brands make more concerted efforts to harness the power of influencers online – not just famous people, but anyone with a large and engaged audience. In 2013, Mintel warned brands to tread carefully with an overt approach to influencing the influencers as credibility with fans is everything. By this time, restaurants had started to change their décor and lighting to make for better influencer photos, thereby enticing them into their venues.

By 2015, hotels were offering free rooms to those with big enough social media followings and food Instagrammers were getting free meals for documenting their dining experiences. This led to the current problem of every man, woman, and dog vying for attention on social media in hopes of scoring free stuff, with some users going so far as to pretend they were already sponsored to make their profile seem a bigger deal than it actually is.

Brands began to hand over the reins to influencers, letting them create the content that they thought would resonate best with their audience. Brands like Grefusa in Spain allowed YouTubers complete autonomy with content creation, with the hope that their unique interpretation of the brand, coupled with their new way of telling stories, would lead to a campaign that targets an engaged audience with content that they actually want to watch.

Age of authenticity

In an age of fake news, it’s little wonder that today’s consumers are drawn to the seeming authenticity of online experts and personalities, who put faces to their recommendations and stake their hard-won reputations on the brands they endorse. In 2015, we started to see nontraditional faces hit the mainstream.

Juliana Romano’s Elle coverpage

Brazilian plus-sized blogger Juliana Romano was on the cover of Elle in nothing but a Prada jacket, while in China, luxury brand Burberry partnered with fashion blogger Mr Bags to launch a handbag that was sold exclusively on WeChat. In the Philippines, YouTubers got together to encourage young people to stay informed about upcoming elections, reflecting the heightened political landscape in 2016.

Virtual influence

The flipside of this authentic connection with real people is the emergence of AI influencers like Lil Miquela, Shudu Gram and Liam Nikuro, all of which have modeling contracts and millions of real-life followers.

While the advantages for marketers are clear – more control over the influencer output, less risk, and faster turnaround – most followers are very aware that nothing an AI influencer posts is organic or unbiased. CGI influencers are simply human-like manifestation of a brand, not an actual user of a product.

In a strange twist, a ‘Sponsored Post’ tag actually lends it more authenticity as it implies some sort of agency – as though Lil Miquela chose to work with Calvin Klein herself. Mintel research shows that almost a third of UK consumers who follow influencers have unfollowed an account because they pushed a product too hard. A plus for virtual influencers, however, is that followers seem less bothered by their sponsored posts than they are their real life counterparts – after all, it’s hard for a robot to ‘sell out’.

Lil Miquela and Bella Hadid for Calvin Klein

What’s next

The saturation of the influencer market has started to create less value and trust, and hyper-stylised profiles are no longer cutting it. Passion-led content creators who influence simply as a by-product of their broader profile will be the way forward for brands looking to connect authentically with audiences.

E-sports players are emerging as influencers with enormous power and highly engaged audiences, and this will only continue as Twitch stars like Ninja move further into the mainstream with sponsorship deals from brands like adidas. Livestreaming will become an increasingly important tool for influencers and brands alike.

Politically-minded Gen Z will also look to activists as influencers, so brands who want to showcase their ethical sensibilities have an opportunity to partner with young adults who are working to change the world, and help their progress.

From L to R: Will “Egg Boy” Connolly; Greta Thunberg