How legacy brands can market effectively with influencers

March 15, 2023
Kaleigh Moore
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Mercedes. Samsung. Colgate. 

Luxury cars. Phones. Toothpaste.

It only takes a word or two to understand the power of legacy brands. We instantly associate them with the products they represent. Some brands have been at it so long, they’ve affected the culture itself. Even modern-day Santa Claus wouldn’t be quite the same without Coca-Cola.

When you’ve built up that kind of brand recognition, do you even need the help of creators and influencers?

You’d be surprised. Influencer marketing isn’t always a strategy for borrowing name recognition from celebrities. Legacy brands have big budgets and decades of goodwill already working for them. 

But what they don’t always have is a connection with their audience. Gen Z’s favorite brands aren’t legacy names. They’re platforms, like Google, YouTube, and Netflix. And yes, it matters these days: 73% of Gen Zers report only buying from brands they believe in. 

The generation of YouTube and TikTok has heard of legacy brands. But do they “believe” in Colgate and Mercedes? More than YouTube and TikTok? Different questions entirely.

Big legacy brands may not need name recognition, but they have other challenges:

  • Mass marketing in a world where first-party data is becoming king
  • Marketing to a Gen Z that understands TikTok but doesn’t watch as many mainstream TV commercials
  • Competing with smaller brands who have figured out influencer marketing

It’s the latter point that sticks in the craw of legacy brands. The digital revolution has removed traditional barriers to entry. TV commercials? Full-page magazine ads? No longer the be-all-end-all required to amplify your message.

It’s in the wake of the digital revolution that influencer marketing is making its impact. 92% of marketers now believe it’s an effective form of marketing, leading to its record $16.4 billion industry size

This leaves legacy brands with a new challenge. How can they zoom in, personalize, and customize their campaigns for niche relevance, especially amongst younger consumers? 

They’re turning their big-name advantages into authentic stories that resonate with 2023 audiences.

Examples of successful influencer marketing campaigns from big brands

Legacy brands aren’t new to influencer marketing. There are plenty of examples of a few who have navigated the world of influencers to build effective campaigns. Here are three examples:

Coca-Cola

Coca-Cola is the ultimate legacy brand. The secret recipe’s been around since the Gilded Age. Their sponsorships go all the way back to the 1928 Olympics. And like a true legacy brand, Coca-Cola has barely relied on influencers for brand-building. The closest thing they have to a mascot is Santa Claus. 

Even so, Coca-Cola isn’t always content to sit back and let its cursive logo do its talking. When it does enlist a celebrity, it doesn’t dabble in small potatoes. It hires Selena Gomez and gets more Instagram likes than any image up to that point in the platform’s history.

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They’ve also found success with personalization. Take the famous “Share a Coke” campaign. In Australia, for example, they printed bottles with 150 of the most popular names across entire countries. People started buying Cokes just to see theirs in print.

So why reinvent the wheel, at least when it comes to influencer marketing?

Because celebrities don’t solve all advertising problems. When Coca-Cola wanted more popularity in western Europe, it turned to Share a Coke rather than Selena Gomez. Who is the Selena Gomez of western Europe? It’s a trick question. Coca-Cola couldn’t conjure up a celebrity with similar clout.

But they could reach out to influencers. The company created a campaign called #ThisOnesFor, partnering with 14 influencers. Here’s the thing: 8 of those influencers had fewer than 100,000 followers. Even so, 22 sponsored posts later, the campaign generated 173,000 likes for Coca-Cola’s European Instagram handle. Not bad, right?

Gilette

“The best a man can get.” 

Catchy. Recognizable. Outdated. Outdated, at least, if Gilette wanted to gain more traction with Gen Z women. 

A few years ago, Gilette sought to bolster its Venus line of products with a younger demographic. Rather than focusing solely on big-budget TV ads, Gilette sent out “Influenster” boxes to female influencers on Instagram. There wasn’t a set follower threshold for these influencers, either. Some clocked in at fewer than a thousand followers total.

The campaign, #ChooseToSmooth, succeeded in engaging these influencers. Nano-influencers, micro-influencers, and regular influencers all pitched in with a variety of photos, videos, and meme-worthy gifs. 

Added together, the campaign resulted in a 2.2% average engagement rate across nearly half a million followers. 

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Even better: the brand connected with social media users on a human level. There were no washed-out celebrity bathroom pics that looked like TV studios. Instead, women on Instagram could log in, see someone they knew on a more personal level, and think: “Oh, she uses Venus? Maybe I should, too.”

Reaching out to nano-influencers matched their campaign to their target audience: real women seeking practical, everyday products.

Marriott

Marriott started out in the 1950s. Name recognition has rarely been a problem since. But in the 2020s, it faced a challenge common to legacy brands. To Gen Z, the brand sounded old. 

Marriott? Really? I’ll just use AirBNB.

The challenge was clear: how do you connect a legacy brand with a contemporary audience?

So they set out on a fresh campaign to modernize both their hotels and their brand appeal. Tagline? “Let your mind travel.” Marriot didn’t miss the “Gen Z appreciates authenticity” seminar. They started on the inside, transforming its guestrooms, M Clubs, and great rooms to fit a more modern aesthetic. 

But they still needed to tell people about it. Enter the “Let your mind travel” campaign, featuring about a dozen brand ambassadors ranging from Karamo Brown from “Queer Eye” to Sara Dietschy, a YouTuber. Instagram influencer Drew Alexander Ford (@thatviolakid) posted a video of himself playing the prelude to a Bach Cello Suite on a Marriott bed.

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With a new look and fresh brand ambassadors, the campaign served as a brand reintroduction of sorts. And the social media onslaught was palpable: there were 150 social posts and 300 new marketing assets for the brand in a year that generated some 300 million impressions for Marriott.

Even better was the engagement rate: 20% on influencer-specific channels like Instagram. According to Marriott, the campaign even outperformed paid social media ads, costing 35% less per completed view of their videos.

Any brand would be pleased with results like that. But for a brand that’s been around since the 50s, it provided a way to meet the world again.

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Tips for how legacy brands can most out of influencer marketing in 2023

Is influencer marketing for legacy brands as easy as building a roster of influencers and sending them out into the world? Not exactly. Even big-budget brands need to know the latest influencer trends and best practices:

#1: Big is not always better: find small stories that resonate

Coca-Cola might get in the Guinness Book of World Records for its Selena Gomez Instagram ad. But as Marriott showed, it’s not always the mega-celebs winning over an audience.

Levi’s, for example, is celebrating the 150th anniversary of its 501 jeans to kick off 2023. Rather than going big with its influencer campaign, the brand decided to go for authenticity instead. And authenticity often requires going with a small approach, like someone just starting in influencer marketing.

Levi’s decided to look across the country for the best story about its 150-year-old jeans, like one from a man in Georgia who once traded the family cow for a pair.

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Hundreds of stories flooded in for their “greatest story ever worn” campaign. Levi’s proved you don’t need a major influencer to launch a major campaign.

Reaching out to individuals turned out to have more universal appeal than the brand thought. Levi’s owners served up stories that no copywriter could have dreamed up. “When we looked back also at the heritage of Levi’s past ads, the thing that they did so well was lean into those single stories,” Cara Cecchini, a senior art director Droga5 (the agency partnering with Levi’s), told MarketingDive. “It felt right to bring that ethos into this anthology of stories that we created.”

Influencer marketing has always been a great way for brands to borrow what they need. Small brands need to borrow exposure. But legacy brands can go the other way, zooming in on individual stories and borrowing emotional resonance.

As it turns out, there’s research to back this up. Among influencers like microcelebrities, reports the Boston Hospitality Review, there is the “same power as traditional celebrities in influencing consumers’ purchasing behaviors.”

If your brand needs a megaphone, amplification is the name of the game. Influencer marketing works. But if you have a megaphone and need to think of something to say, specificity is the name of the game. And influencer marketing can help in that department, too.

#2: Match the messenger to the message

If your message is good, who cares who the messenger is? As it turns out, quite a few people. Especially when it comes to brands that need to communicate specific values to an audience that shares those values.

Influencers have a lot of power in impacting sustainability choices, according to a Unilever study. In fact, influencers impact those choices even more than TV documentaries. 78% of survey respondents said influencers were impactful, beating out documentaries (48%), news articles (37%), and government campaigns (20%).

The message for legacy brands: choose your messengers wisely. 

It’s a particularly potent effect in the world of sustainability, an ever-increasing concern for fashion brands. Three-quarters of the survey respondents said social media content made them more likely to adopt sustainable behaviors. 86% of respondents between 18 and 34 said TikTok and Instagram are helpful resources for finding advice on becoming more green at home.

As a brand, your response is simple: all right, then. Influencer marketing it is.

But who? If your message is sustainability, take a page out of Allbirds’s book. The company was launching a new line of sustainable apparel, and the primary influencers involved were crucial.

They enlisted the help of a bona fide climate advocate in Aditi Mayer, a sustainable fashion blogger, influencer, and climate advocate. For Allbirds, this was a shortcut to communicating credibility. Allbirds hadn’t been selling this particular line of sustainable products for years, but Aditi Mayer had been advocating for sustainability for years.

When legacy brands get this part wrong, the results can be disastrous. Remember the famous (infamous, rather) Kendall Jenner Pepsi ad? The messaging was all wrong. Pepsi needed to find authenticity in its influencer, not audience size. The idea that Kendall Jenner and a can of Pepsi could resolve the complex issues of the Black Lives Matter movement seemed, in retrospect, almost laughable.

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Don’t be laughable. Be careful—particularly when it comes to selecting the appropriate messenger.

#3: Remember your audience (before you delete a post)

Sometimes things go wrong even if your messenger is perfectly appropriate. If the content is inappropriate, however, there’s little you can do. At best? Delete the post and hope nobody sees it.

Unfortunately, when you have audiences the size of adidas and Addison Rae, that’s not always an option.

Rolling out “Holy Trinity” swimwear, a social media post featured the young influencer in a white bikini. On the top: the words “Father” and “Son.”

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You can probably guess what the rest of the bikini said.

Addison—or Addison’s team—took down the picture immediately. But the Internet is written in permanent ink, especially when you’re an influencer as big as Addison Rae. (A little context: Rae currently has 88.8 million followers on TikTok.)

A user snapped up the post before it came down. And that was enough to spark outrage across the web. “Why did they think this was ok to begin with?” one commenter asked. “In all seriousness,” another agreed. “No one on her team was like ‘hmm maybe this will upset people. Especially in today’s world.’”

The result: bad PR, an offended audience, and a social media influencer campaign that had to go back to square one. Brands like adidas don’t need to be overly provocative to sell their merchandise, especially when working with mega-influencers. Lesson learned.

#4: Build a community of micro-influencers

The Addison Rae example highlights one problem legacy brands can have with mega-influencers: everything has an amplification effect. Including wrong choices.

Legacy brands can mitigate this effect without losing amplification. The solution is to build a community of enthusiastic microinfluencers. These influencers can serve as a continual resource a big brand can regularly tap.

Sephora is a big-name brand using this exact strategy. The #SephoraSquad is a beauty influencer program dating back to 2019. The initial class of said squad included twenty-four influencers. 

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They weren’t mega-influencers. They were simply micro-influencers with some makeup and beauty product reviews to their name. They’d established audiences, but Sephora didn’t need celebrity-sized endorsements.

The goal of developing a community of brand ambassadors? To generate ongoing buzz. This buzz can sometimes be greater than the sum of its parts. That’s what Marriott learned with its “Let Your Mind Travel” campaign. 

With enough micro-influencers involved, a brand can create a synergy of unique talents. For legacy brands capable of hiring plenty of micro-influencers, it turns any campaign into an A/B testing proposition.

What influencer’s contributions had the best results? How can those results scale up into a larger campaign? It’s hard for legacy brands to answer those questions without the rapid campaign iteration from tapping an entire community of micro-influencers.

#5: Use influencer marketing to repurpose a successful earlier campaign

Legacy brands have another advantage in influencer marketing: prior history. They know what kind of messaging has worked for them. In some cases, as with Marriott, they want to rewrite that messaging.

But influencer marketing provides an opportunity for other brands to repurpose successful campaigns.

Coca-Cola knew its personalized bottles were an enormous success. The mere act of printing a name on a bottle got customers more invested in buying an ordinary bottle of Coke. It made Coke “shareable” again. A Coke suddenly felt more like a gift than something you’d tack on to a lunch order.

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As Coca-Cola North America Senior Vice President Stuart Kronauge said: “Personalization is not a fad; it’s a way of life.”

So when they ventured into influencer marketing, they took the same approach: #ThisOnesFor. Once again, they reframed the bottle of Coke as a gift. They left the name out of the hashtag, letting influencers and social media users fill in themselves.

Share a Coke? This One’s For? Two separate campaigns. Two different strategies. But the same essential core principle: people like seeing their own stories in products like Coke.

Translating legacy success into a new era

There’s a common saying in advertising: “don’t fight the last war.” It means don’t stick to outdated technology and strategies. And especially don’t stick to the paradigms that rose out of an outdated approach. Those same paradigms may lead you astray when it’s time to tap into new demographics.

Influencer marketing is fast becoming one of the fastest ways to reach Gen Z. If Gen Z listens to influencers for sustainability and living-green tips even more than they will TV documentaries, there’s been a paradigm shift. All legacy brands need to do is learn to meet them where they are.

They can do that with influencer marketing in 2023. True, legacy brands carry advantages and disadvantages in influencer marketing. Name recognition is an advantage. And no one is underestimating you. But Gen Z can eye big brands skeptically and turn one misguided campaign into a meme (Read: Pepsi).

It takes careful planning, matching messenger to messaging, and an enthusiastic community of micro-influencers to win over Gen Z with influencer marketing. The advantage of a legacy brand? Budget isn’t a concern. All they need is the will to try new things.

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