INCA’s Kunal Sawant On Influencer Marketing Thriving Through The Pandemic

Digital data and content consumption had hit the roof during the pandemic, he comments

By Soumya Sehgal

Influencer marketing has evolved in the last five years, but the basic essence of collaborating with influencers has remained the same; building trust and staying authentic. What probably started as a word-of-mouth tool today stands at the core of a brand’s content marketing strategy. 

We have seen a lot more platforms launching in the past few years, more so post the death of TikTok in India, which gave rise to a host of Short Form Video content platforms. SFV platforms gave us exactly what we wanted – short snackable entertaining content. Not only that but the existing platforms also launched features and formats to match what others had. Youtube launched Youtube shorts, IG launched IG stories, IGTV and Reels; so did Facebook. And now you see the short-form video players also starting to support long-format content. 

Mapping the post-pandemic impact on influencer marketing and its present-day contours, Kunal Sawant, Head of Client Engagement, INCA India believes that brands were quick to sense the overall mood around the crisis, with purpose taking the center of every conversation rather than the product. “I clearly see trends like social commerce / live social commerce and content to commerce to explode in the near future. There has been more than $500Mn investment already in this space and more will follow soon,” he says.

INCA is GroupM’s brand-safe influencer and content marketing solution and also part of WPP.


Q1. How have brands rewired their communication strategy between the two waves of the pandemic?

When handshakes and high fives got replaced with hand fists and elbow nudges, how can your communication be the same? Honestly, I feel brands, as well as creators, were quick to sense the pulse of the audience and change their communication accordingly, those who played deaf ears to the change in mood did face the music from the troll army. 

While during the first wave our social feeds were filled with home cooking, family workout, immunity-boosting recipes and all sorts of DIY videos; all this disappeared during the second wave. This time our social feeds were more empathetic, concerned and full of action and hope. During the first wave mask, Sanitizer and social distancing were the core of every communication; the second wave was dominated with vaccination and oxygen and hospital availability information along with Mask, Sanitizer and social distancing. 

We at GroupM executed a campaign for one of our large FMCG brands during both waves, the first wave was to highlight the fact that the elderly are the most susceptible to this disease and we need to step up and take care of them; the second campaign during the second wave urged citizens to encourage and help our house help, security guards etc.. to get vaccinated. INCA recently launched a playbook on how brands should communicate during these testing times “Navigating the Road ahead”. 

These are 6 simple guiding principles for brands to reach out to their audience yet remain humane.

Be sensitive – Be serious but not sombre or mournful – the intent is to communicate a crucial message, without adding to the negativity. Remember that this is both a medical and mental-health crisis

Show empathy and concern – Use this opportunity to let the human side of the brand come to the forefront. Avoid hard-selling or overtly branding content

Keep it simple and relatable – void embellished corporate language – explain complicated matters in simple language. Do not preach – let your audience learn from others’ experiences

Ensure credibility – In the age where fake messages dominate – the audience readily embraces verified facts presented by experts.

Have an Action-Oriented Approach – Focus on the solution, not the problem. Inform and empower your audience and Spread hope

Take Action – This is the opportunity for your brand to gain mindshare and meaningful engagement with customers. Thoughtful communication can substantially improve brand imagery in consumers’ minds. While several others adopt the “wait & watch” policy, be the one to Take Action

Q2. Pandemic has given a major push to the surge in influencer marketing globally. Do you agree?

It’s a fact that Influencer Marketing did get a boost during the pandemic, while the production houses were shut, brands leaned on the creators to produce high-quality content. With 80% of the country under lockdown and no original content available across leading television networks for a brief period, audiences were pushed towards digital for their daily dose of entertainment. Digital data and content consumption had hit the roof during this time. 

Having said that, I feel influencer marketing has existed for many years. Prior to the digital era, brands used popular faces and pasted them across print or television hoping to get a positive brand association with the celebrity. Come to the digital era and we see a lot more specialty creators who people followed for a certain craft and skill and very soon these speciality creators build a strong bond with their audience which gives them the power to influence their purchase decision. 

Over the last few years, the contribution of digital in the overall media and entertainment industry has grown steadily, and so has the contribution of Influencer marketing. With an increasing number of users deploying ad blockers brands will have to look for smarter ways of reaching their audience, and influencer marketing is one way of navigating this challenge. Brands have realized that amassing a loyal follower base on their own handles is time-consuming and might not help gain credibility and trust, on the other hand partnering with an influencer who is seen as an expert in a certain domain and has a loyal fanbase will help build trust with the desired target audience much faster. Hence, influencer marketing always exists in some form or the other and will remain an effective non-intrusive way of reaching the audience.

Q3. How is the social media influencer community evolving with changing marketing dynamics?

Social media is an ever-evolving landscape, and so are platforms and creators. Consumers are spending more and more time online and on social media and brands will follow where their audience is. Few trends which I feel we will see in the near future are:

Ecommerce – Pandemic has given a big push to ecommerce even for our daily needs, this habit might remain the same for a lot of us. Hence a combination of Social and commerce will emerge to be the huge winner going forward.

Go Local – We have seen a large number of regional content getting released over different OTT platforms in the last 18 months, clearly there is an audience which enjoy content in their own native language, this trend will also be followed by Influencer marketing. At GroupM we have already seen large brands partnering with regional influencers to meet specific market objectives, and I clearly see this trend to continue in future as well.

ASCI guidelines – While all this while there were no checks and balances on Influencer Marketing, the rate at which the industry was growing some amount of regulation was much needed. The new guidelines will bring in more authenticity and accountability to Influencer marketing. A lot of brands and creators are already adhering to the new guidelines, with continuous education and reinforcement the implementation will get even better

Long term partnership – I feel while brands are experimenting with different kinds of creators, there will be learning and over a period brands will start getting into long term partnerships with select creators.

Q4. What kind of technologies will disrupt the Influencer marketing space in 2021 and beyond?

The influencer marketing sector has exploded as a result of major technological breakthroughs in the fields of AI and ML, blockchain, data analytics, and easy access. This is a trend that witnessed significant growth last year and is expected to continue, with businesses increasingly investing in social media and influencer marketing over other more traditional kinds of marketing.

Blockchain has the potential to change the future of influencer marketing. Take tokenisation: It has received a lot of attention in recent months, thanks to application cases in various areas like sports, the arts, finance, and entertainment. Indeed, with the launch of blockchain-powered platforms that allows people to purchase and sell tokens representing their identities, it has just recently made an appearance on social platforms.

Smart contracts, which are enabled by blockchain, can also assist influencers in receiving timely payment when each campaign is done. Smart contracts are digital contracts that are pre-programmed with pre-determined terms that may be set by both brands and influencers. Once an agreement has been reached, the cash can be transferred automatically without the need for a third party to slow down the process.

With the current technological advances, it will be fascinating to witness how influencer marketing evolves in the coming months and years.

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