Content creators tell all: Horror stories with brands

April 8, 2022
Jayde Powell
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Most people would argue that in any relationship—whether platonic, romantic or somewhere in-between—communication is the key to success. This idea can be applied to relationships between brands and content creators as well. With more brands wanting to get their message delivered to consumers, the battle for visibility is making it harder for them to stand out. Additionally, with a multitude of content-based, digital platforms (i.e. Instagram, Twitch, YouTube, etc.) to choose from, marketers need help.

The creator economy

As content creators and influencers continue to grow their communities, many brands are reaching out to incorporate them into their content strategies and marketing campaigns. In fact, according to a 2019 influencer marketing report by Social Publi, more than 90% of marketers are using influencer marketing as part of their overall marketing strategy. While this means business is booming for influencers, the territory is still new for both the creatives and the marketers. Social Publi’s report also discovered that less than 30% of marketers have been using influencer marketing for over three years and only 20.9% percent have been using it for less than a year. In terms of influencer marketing campaign building, brands have a lot of room to learn and grow.

That said, influencers and creators are becoming savvier than ever when it comes to building their partnerships with brands. From the initial outreach (aka “The DM-slide”) to the contract, every touchpoint with an influencer or creator is crucial to maintaining long-lasting relationships. Unfortunately, some brands miss the mark leaving creators with a bad taste in their mouths. This could be for a multitude of reasons such as not providing a clear brief or using the creator’s content without their permission.

Word of mouth builds a communi-tea

The creator community is a strong one. As more creators connect with one another, they’re not only sharing their content creation tips and tricks, but they’re also sharing the experiences they have with brands. Recently, I reached out to a few creators to learn more about their negative experiences with brands to gain a deeper understanding of how better partnerships can be built between creators and brands. Many of the moments from these stories will very likely make you cringe if you’re a marketer, however, I recommend that brands look to them as cautionary tales for what not to do as you build relationships with creators.

And if there’s anything that a marketer knows, it’s that word-of-mouth will always be one of the most powerful forms of marketing. With influencers and creators being a hot commodity, they’re not afraid to spill the tea.

It’s tea time—The creators and their stories

One of the creators has elected to remain anonymous for the sake of future partnerships with brands and thus has been given a pseudonym to protect their identity.

Kahina J.

In December of 2021, Kahina, esthetician and skincare content creator, posted an organic Instagram Reel featuring a product from the beauty brand, Sacheu Beauty. A month later, the brand reposted the video on its  Instagram feed with Kahina’s permission. This is common for brands to do, as reposting content on Instagram (with credit) is often encouraged. The following month, Sacheau Beauty repurposed the content for a post highlighting Black creators for Black History Month, identifying Kahina as one of the Black creators on their roster, and even making a call to action to their community to support Black creators. The problem? Kahina did not permit Sacheau Beauty to use her video in that context. 

“This was done without my consent. I wasn’t financially supported for this content and they weren’t even following me. After calling the brand out for their actions, the owner Sarah Cheung, insisted on setting up a licensing deal for them to pay for rights to use my content. She then CC'd her colleagues to follow up with me for the arrangement. One of her colleagues, Lori Puzon, emailed me directly asking for my rates and when I replied to her with them, she never responded. I did not hear from her or Sarah again until I called the brand out three weeks later for ghosting me. When I did hear back from the brand, Sarah sent me a strongly worded email insinuating I was ‘hostile’, mocking my frustration around because ghosted because I did not reply-all to the email. She also shared that Lori was not authorized to make such payments. It was an insult to my intelligence and my work. I still have not been paid by the brand or apologized to for the microaggressions in her email to me.”

Ultimately, this entire experience left Kahina feeling regretful and inspired her to share her story on her channels including a post on her blog which received a lot of support from her community. Many of Kahina’s followers ran to her defense in the comments of Sacheau Beauty’s Instagram posts, which have since been removed by the brand.

“I regret sharing about the brand in the first place. I know the trust my community has in me to share and support ethical brands and Sacheu Beauty is not one of them. I wish I knew I'd be exploited for my image and discarded when it was no longer convenient for the brand. As a Black creator, I am ashamed I amplified a brand that so clearly sees Black people as a source of profit rather than a valued consumer.”

Note: Since this interview, Sacheau Beauty’s CEO, Sarah Cheung, has privately and publicly apologized to Kahina and has compensated her for her content.

Taylor S.

Taylor, an influencer and content creator, was approached by a marketing agency with an ask to create Instagram content for a national coffee and donut brand. In the agreement, there was a clause that stated the agency didn't have to pay Taylor if they didn’t receive payment from the brand. After creating the content and submitting her invoice, the terms in which were Net 90, Taylor realized that they hadn’t been paid.

“When I asked about my payment, I was told that the brand that contracted them hadn't paid them and because of the clause, that meant that they didn't have to pay me. I was in a sticky situation because I could not confirm or deny payment to the management company from the brand. They could have lied to me for all I know. About 9 months later, I had someone contact the marketing team of the donut brand and tell them what happened to me. Miraculously, the marketing agency contacted me shortly afterward saying they were going to pay me soon. I'm assuming the donut brand said something to them but I don't blame the unfair practices on them directly because it was a marketing agency that acted unethically.”

Unfortunately, like Taylor, many creators and influencers experience similar situations with brands where there are unclear or unstandardized clauses in their agreements. Taylor’s advice to creators—”Read contracts very carefully. Most people in this field are nice but some will include predatory clauses in their contracts.”

Irene W.

In December of 2021, Irene partnered with Soylent, a nutrition brand offering plant-based meal-replacement products. Soylent, through an online platform that connects brands to creators to develop UGC-style content, provided a brief to several creators. The ask was a video promoting its high-protein beverages with an incentive for those who submitted their content by December 13th—a payment of $50. After submitting her content, Irene was later included in an email thread with other creators that had participated in the campaign instructing them to indicate how they would like to be paid (via PayPal, check, or ACH electronic transfer). Irene elected to receive her payment via PayPal.

Later that month, one of the creators on the thread (in a reply-all email) shared that she had received her payment but later received a notice from PayPal indicating that the payment had been reversed by the sender (Soylent). While it was thought to have been a one-off circumstance, Irene noticed that she was in the same predicament, as were several other creators that had been included on that email thread.

“When they paid through PayPal, there was a fee taken off the $50 so we were paid less than $50. Then for some reason, our payments were reversed so everyone had a negative balance in their PayPal accounts. Multiple emails were sent and Soylent blamed the issue on PayPal when I believe they should have paid us to remedy the situation right away and get a refund through PayPal.”

While Soylent’s team worked to fix the issue for over a month, Irene and other creators were becoming more impatient and frustrated. Some creators shared that because of fees their accounts were overdraft and were left with a negative balance. Ultimately, Soylent relied on  PayPal to fix the payment issues but there is no word on whether each creator was paid for their content.

How brands can do better

The best way to describe Kahina, Taylor, and Irene’s stories is “unfortunate”. However, the experiences that they had are completely avoidable. Creators lean on each other which means they talk to one another. As the creative community expands there is a strong likelihood that they will talk about their experiences with brands. Take this from someone who has been on the brand side, hiring creators and influencers, and also from someone who currently works as a creator—a few extra tips on relationship-building and longevity won’t hurt.

  • Be clear on your ask. This is where a creative brief will come in handy. The more details you can provide on what exactly it is that you’re looking for the better. The creative brief is your moment to give the creator the story behind your brand and the “why” behind your product which will help provide context and direction when the creator is in their content development process. If possible, set up a meeting to talk them through it. That way, they can ask questions and you can get a sense of which direction they’re going in.

  • Have integrity. It’s always going to be in your best interest to get the most bang for your buck. However, you can still accomplish this without taking advantage of the creatives you intend to partner with. Always give credit when re-posting social media content and if you want to use it for any of your other channels or in a campaign, ask the creator and offer to pay for it. If you don’t have the budget, offer free products in addition to a testimonial for their website or portfolio, a feature on your channels, and/or anything that will help the creator grow their brand. Speaking of the budget—if you know that a creator is offering you a rate for content that is lower than the amount of money you have set aside for a particular campaign or program, tell them. It can be very hard for creators to gauge how much they should be paid because the circumstances for every brand partnership differ. This will help the creators price their content equitably and keep them in your community for a long time.

  • Ask for feedback. Feedback on your campaign programming will be key in developing seamless partnerships with creators and influencers in the future. Think of it as market research. If there are some common themes in the feedback you receive from the creators, whether it be about the briefing, creative, or payment processes, they can be leveraged to improve the overall marketing experience. You want the creators to leave the campaign feels as though it was a mutually beneficial long-term relationship. This ultimately helps you build your community and grow brand awareness in the process.

With these recommendations and the stories of Kahina, Taylor, and Irene in mind, go out into the world (or somebody’s DMs)! Work to build strategic yet fruitful relationships with the immensely talented creatives that are out there but don’t forget, treat your relationship with creators and influencers like any other relationship—one with respect, clear communication, and a prompt payment… you know, for a little bit of spice.

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