The following is based on my Masters dissertation. A version of this post was originally published as a guest post on the BuzzStream blog.
That title is a pretty bold statement to make. But that is exactly what I discovered with my Masters dissertation: “How do vloggers and celebrity endorsers compare as marketing sources for beauty brands?”. In this blog post I will explain my research process and the conclusions I came to – conclusions that all brands even outside the world of beauty should pay close attention to!
A short history of celebrity marketing
Let’s start by looking at celebrity marketing. For decades, brands’ main choice of marketing sources has been celebrities through endorsement and sponsorship contracts. These celebrities made for persuasive marketing messengers thanks to their undeniable physical attractiveness and strong influence. Examples of this communications strategy abound: Brad Pitt for Chanel, Catherine Zeta-Jones for T-Mobile and Tiger Woods for Accenture, to name a few.
However, as celebrity scandals and broken contracts grew more and more widespread (e.g. Accenture ending Tiger Woods’ contract after the revelation of his infidelities), many endorsements were increasingly met with scepticism and exasperation from consumers. Brands became weary of this strategy and rightly so.
The rise of bloggers and vloggers
Simultaneously, consumers were turning to the growing information source that was the Internet. The volume and variety of online forums exploded, and many consumers wrote and consulted online peer reviews to guide their purchase behaviours. These reviews helped consumers to screen different purchase options, as well as discover new products and create new aspirations.
Bloggers then came into play and became huge influences in consumers’ purchase decisions worldwide. The blogosphere quickly grew in an exponential manner, with thousands of new blogs being created every single day.
Recently, a new kind of bloggers named ‘vloggers’ (video-bloggers) has drastically risen in popularity. Vloggers or ‘YouTubers’ create and post videos on YouTube about their lives, their hobbies and areas of expertise.
In the beauty-sphere, vloggers are an increasingly popular source of information and tips, and many have grown to boast over a million subscribers and several million views on YouTube. Famous examples in the UK include Zoella (10 million subscribers), Tanya Burr (3 million) and Sprinkle of Glitter (2 million).
A new strategy was born: influencer marketing
For a few years, the blogosphere grew in its little corner of the web, and brands did not really pay attention. But around 2005 and onwards, brands in many industries eventually turned outwards and grew to involve the blogging community in their marketing strategies.
This led to the rising popularity of ‘sponsored content’ in the form of monetised blog posts and YouTube videos. The trend grew rapidly in many blogospheres including technology, beauty and fashion, and countless brands now pay bloggers to perform as ‘buzz’ agents online – this is influencer marketing.
How can we compare the two strategies?
Brands looking to diversify their marketing messengers by involving external people are now faced with two viable options: celebrity or influencer marketing. So which one should they go for? This is precisely what my Masters dissertation sought to answer. I based my research in the beauty vlogosphere as beauty is a passion of mine and it was a vlogosphere I already knew pretty well!
I started my research by undertaking an extensive netnography (i.e. a web-based ethnography) across 8 beauty vlogger channels and 8 brand channels on YouTube. Building on insights gleamed in this first research phase, I then built and distributed an online experimental survey. Participants were asked to watch two YouTube videos about a beauty product (Revlon ‘Lip Butter’ lipsticks) – an official advertisement featuring celebrity Emma Stone, and a product review by beauty vlogger Ingrid Nilsen. They then answered identical questions about the two videos, allowing me to compare the marketing sources’ effectiveness.
I started by looking at the hard stats and found some striking results. For example, the average number of YouTube subscribers to vlogger channels is 22 times higher than the average number of subscribers to brand channels. There are almost 40 times more likes and 38 times more comments on vlogger videos as there are on brand videos on average.
Most importantly, the qualitative analyses of my netnography and survey led me to identify four personality traits or ‘source attributes’ which were more or less present in celebrities and vloggers and ultimately determined their effectiveness as marketing sources.
Celebrities and vloggers’ attributes
Attractiveness: This source attribute is a result of likability, similarity, familiarity and physical attractiveness. While celebrities score highly on familiarity (being omnipresent in movies and TV shows) and physical attractiveness, vloggers display high levels of likability (due to their friendly personalities) and similarity (to their viewers), as well as physical attractiveness (although this may be characteristic of the beauty vlogosphere!).
Credibility: This attribute is based on expertise and trustworthiness. Celebrity endorsers were found to have neither – viewers know they are being compensated for the advertisement and not necessarily truthful. Vloggers on the other hand score exceptionally high on both accounts, demonstrating real expertise in beauty products and techniques as well as complete transparency about their intentions.
Legitimacy: This attribute refers to the rightful claim of the source over the viewer – i.e. is their message beneficial to the recipient? Both celebrities and vloggers were found to display this trait. Interestingly, vloggers were found to have more emotionally charged legitimacy, with many viewers following their recommendations to the letter as they trusted they were the right ones for them.
Power: This attribute indicates that the message source has a strong influence over the viewer’s thoughts and actions. Vloggers certainly display power – their product recommendations incite thousands of purchases, while celebrities’ appearance in advertisements has a much less notable effect.
It is all well and good to know what attributes celebrities and vloggers have, but what are their implications in terms of marketing effectiveness? In order to answer this question, my experimental survey also investigated the effect of these four attributes on viewers’ attitudes towards the message source and finally, viewers’ purchase intentions.
I found that due to their high attractiveness, credibility and legitimacy, vloggers had a strong positive effect on purchase intentions. Viewers were much more likely to purchase a product recommended by a vlogger than a non-recommended product.
As for celebrity endorsers, I demonstrated that none of their attributes had a significant effect on purchase intentions. This means that although celebrity endorsers certainly display attractiveness and power to some degree, this does not translate into actionable purchase intentions by the consumer, therefore severely challenging their effectiveness as marketing messengers.
The source of a message can be as important if not more than the message itself; and brands need to pay particular attention to the sources they use. Postmodern consumers are growing weary of traditional marketing communications strategies, and celebrity endorsements are no exception.
It may be time for brands to turn their attention to a new promising course of action: collaborating with vloggers.
Thanks to their impressive levels of likability as friendly people and their similarity to viewers as ‘regular’ girls, vloggers are highly effective in delivering messages. They show strong emotional legitimacy, becoming like true friends to their viewers, as well as high power, influencing their attitudes and decisions. Moreover, my research demonstrated that sponsored content does not trigger a negative reaction from viewers, meaning that a collaboration strategy would be low risk for brands, as long as it is carefully handled: viewers value honesty and transparency.
In a saturated market like the beauty industry, being able to access and remain in consumers’ minds and hearts through a social influencer is an invaluable asset for brands. Vloggers dominate beauty on YouTube, creating the large majority of content (97%) and receiving a much more positive reaction from viewers. Brands need to get on the bandwagon soon and showcase their products through collaborations with vloggers, before being perceived as out-dated by younger consumers.
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