The term ‘power dynamics’ probably conjures up images of scenes from Succession. A complex web of relationships with several individuals battling to end up on top.

Don’t worry – it’s not that deep. But there is a tension point to consider between brands and influencers. Because of the paid transaction, brands have at times treated influencers like another performance marketing channel, rather than individuals with audiences to serve and reputations to maintain.

Now, we’re seeing stories break, new platforms emerge, and behaviours change – leading to a power shift between brand and influencer.

Brand and influencer reputations are intrinsically linked

It’s been hard to miss recent headlines that speak to the reputational challenges of working with influencers. The latest to break was Shein’s influencer trip, described in a Fast Company article by Maxine Bédat, founder of the New Standard Institute, as “a whitewash of the entire company” that “puts fast fashion on overdrive.” 

The Fast Company article is both interrogating the behaviour of the brand and the credibility of the influencers, “purported to be investigative journalists while on that PR tour.”

Influencers are under more scrutiny than ever from their audiences – their integrity is constantly evaluated not only by their immediate followers but by the press. The Shein influencers were called out with comments such as “Integrity is worth more than a trip,” and “Did you read ANY news about this company?”. They are becoming more acutely aware of how their brand partner choice affects their reputation.

And why wouldn’t they be? Shein, Bud Light, and many others have demonstrated recently that the brand and influencer’s reputation are intrinsically linked.

Influencers recognise their power over audiences

Bédat reflects on the recent Reuters Institute Digital News Report which reveals that “[the youngest generations] often pay more attention to influencers or celebrities than they do journalists, even when it comes to news.”

For journalists, this must at times be a frustrating reality. But many influencers are aware of the power they hold and are doing their research and investigation on brands before they partner. They are in fact behaving much more like journalists than any other group of people or media platform.

It is by understanding this power that many of the bigger influencers are creating their own brands, their own successful brands. OG YouTuber Zoella was one of the first to do this, breaking into fashion, beauty and publishing and quickly proving that her loyal audience base translated into sales.

The latest success story – as wild as it might be – is of course the phenomenon of Logan Paul and KSI’s drinks brand, PRIME. Why partner with Lucozade when you can create and sell your own hydration drink and make $100 million in gross sales?

The most successful and credible influencers have more choices than ever, as well as the proven power to start their own businesses.

The creator economy is unlocking new revenue streams

We heard from a group of YouTubers recently who emphasised the importance of creating the most entertaining piece of content, and that brands requesting their brand message to be read out word for word were hindering this creativity.

YouTube has a unique revenue model for influencers which means a drop in views impacts not only the revenue earned on that one piece of content but could impact the success of future videos if the algorithm deprioritises them. On YouTube in particular, creators cannot afford to be making a bad brand decision.

Meanwhile, the growth of subscription integrations on social and platforms like Patreon and Substack will only push this further. Creators can earn money directly from their audiences – maintaining full editorial control of content and without brand support.

What does this mean for brands who want to work with influencers?

It’s a two way street. Brands need to work harder to create mutually beneficial relationships and find the value exchange that only their organisation can provide.

Those who are most successful in influencer marketing are building long-term relationships with influencers, not always starting with a brief but opening a conversation.

It’s a theme that emerged at the PR Week Influencer 360 conference recently, where we heard first-hand from Firdaous El Honsali, VP at Dove, discuss how important building relationships with influencers is.

Firdaous highlighted that several of the recent influencer activations by Dove, including its recent ‘Turn Your Back’ campaign – which the brand turned around in 72 hours – wouldn’t have been possible without already having strong existing relationships with its influencer community.

These kinds of relationships are what we mean when we talk about an earned-first mentality to working with influencers. By better understanding them and the audiences they serve, treating them more like editors and less like advertising channels, we will get to better creative outputs and build stronger reputations for both the brand and influencer.