What Shein’s misstep means for the influencer marketing industry

Advertisers are once again taking a closer look at the relationship between brands and influencers, questioning who is responsible for brand deals and who is held accountable if and when things go wrong.

This comes after fast-fashion giant Shein recently sent a handful of diverse content creators to tour its factories, based in China. Seemingly, it was a move to restore public faith in its brand reputation, which has been called into question for subpar labor conditions and negative environmental impacts. (Shein did not respond to a request for comment in time for publication.)

That move, however, backfired, leaving both the clothing retailer and influencers facing backlash. In lieu of Shein clothing hauls on TikTok, users are posting parody brand trip videos and critiques that accuse the influencers involved of inking inauthentic brand deals. The whole kerfuffle has agency executives questioning the benefits of using creators and influencers to restore brand image and it remains to be seen what ripple effects, if any, will take hold of the influencer marketing space after the dust has settled.

“Criticism of the sponsored Shein influencer trip is justified. Not only because of the questionable ethics surrounding it but also because of the poor execution of the campaign,” said Ed East, CEO and founder of global influencer agency Billion Dollar Boy, in an email. “It made the whole campaign feel inauthentic and its aims of cleaning up the brand’s reputation were transparent.”

For the most part, consumers trust influencers. In fact, the 2021 Nielsen Trust in Advertising study found that 71% of consumers trust advertising, opinions and product placements from influencers. However, consumers are more savvy than they’ve ever been, scoffing at inauthentic partnerships in which influencers are accused of selling out for ad dollars.

Seemingly, Shein’s misstep could point to an inflection point in the industry, in which creators and influencers need to think more critically about their brand and public personas, said Jayde Powell, founder and head of creative at The Em Dash Co., a content and creative development agency. 

“We often talk about this new wave of brands making values-led business decisions in the industry, but it doesn’t just apply to major corporations like Target or Nike,” she said. “It applies to everyone with a brand, including influencers and creators, whether building a brand is intentional or not.”

To East, Shein’s misstep could impact the industry — for better or worse. It could stain perceptions of the influencer marketing industry as a whole or alternatively, force the industry’s hand to adhere to updated brand deal standards. The fashion retailer isn’t the first brand to have influencer trips backfire. Last month, Tarte Cosmetics announced plans to overhaul its influencer program after its creator program was called out for lack of diversity.

Perhaps more importantly, he added, “it could help to put the outdated sponsored influencer trip model to rest. Lavish all-expenses-paid trips simply don’t chime with the modern audience anymore, appearing tone deaf in the current, challenging economic climate.”

Multiple social media users noted how the Shein controversy used creators from historically marginalized backgrounds, including plus-sized creators and creators of color. These creators have long since spoken out about their relationships with social media platforms and brands, often citing pay disparities and less opportunities than their counterparts. That said, passing up a brand deal may be a tougher sell for these creators, agency executives say.

“Being marginalized creates hesitancy,” said Vickie Segar, founder of Village Marketing influencer agency. “We need to make sure that we’re protecting, especially as a talent agent community, that we are protecting people who might have hesitancy in [using] their voice.

Theoretically, brands, influencers and their managers or agency partners should have a seat at the table to ensure equity and accountability, according to agency executives. After all, influencer marketing is big business, valued at a record $21.1 billion this year, according to Statista reporting.

That trend isn’t expected to slow anytime soon as more agencies and brands are investing in the space. According to the latest Digiday+ research, at least 69% of agency professionals said their clients spent at least a very small portion of their marketing budgets on influencers. That number climbed to 79% in Q3 2022 and held steady at 76% in Q1 2023.

But too often, agency executives say, influencer marketing efforts happen in silos, a throwaway afterthought instead of a “a full out marketing strategy that has all these multiple pieces and parts and work that needs to be planned out,” said Danielle Wiley, CEO of influencer marketing agency Sway Group.

She added: “When something that’s really complex is treated like a throwaway, one-off tactic, mayhem ensues.”

It’s not just Shein or Tarte that’s drawn public ire over questionable influencer partnerships. Earlier this year, Bud Light faced backlash stemming from its partnership with transgender influencer Dylan Mulvaney. Going even further back, consider Pepsi’s collaboration with Kendall Jenner or even the influencers of the Fyre Festival. 

As the creator economy and influencer marketing space grows, the vetting process for all parties involved needs to be considered from the very beginning, especially around politically charged topics, executives say. 

“If you’re going to talk about a topic that is politically charged or policy sensitive, you need to make sure you understand the weight of what you are going in and speaking about,” said Segar.

It all comes down to trust as the influencer marketing agency plays catchup to what consumers have come to expect in forms of media like broadcast or print ads, said Deana Graffeo Weeks, vp of content and communications strategy at Rosie Labs.

“Whether a brand wants to be trusted, or the influencer is looking to maintain a level of trust with their audience, authenticity and transparency are critical,” she said.


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