Are social media influencers merely hype? Does influencer marketing really work? Most marketers say it does. In fact, influencer marketing seems to be giving traditional advertising a run for its money. Because influencers are way more effective at engaging audiences than traditional media like TV, radio, print, or outdoor billboards.

According to Mediakix, influencer marketing is likely to become a $5 to $10 billion industry by 2020. The customer acquisition rate and ROI from influencer marketing is pretty impressive too. Even though brands might calculate ROI differently, they all agree that influencer marketing truly works.

But is this really a new phenomenon? Who were the earliest influencers? How did it all start? In this article, we’ll take a look at the history of influencer marketing, and how it’s evolved over the years. So, let’s get started, shall we?

The History of Influencer Marketing

The Earliest Influencers: the Queen and the Pope

In advertising folklore, it is said that long ago, the Queen and the Pope used to endorse medicine - for the benefit of the common people. In a sense, they were the earliest influencers, promoting the use of medicine to people who weren’t believers yet.

1890: Nancy Green Becomes the Face of Aunt Jemima

In 1890, Nancy Green was hired by R.T. Davis Milling Company to be the face of their pancake mix called “Aunt Jemima.” She represented a popular character, Aunt Jemima from a local minstrel show.

Nancy Green Becomes the Face of Aunt Jemima

Image via The Militant Negro

Aunt Jemima gave the pancake mix a unique identity and made it famous. She is considered the first African American model to have influenced a generation of buyers of readymade pancake mix.

She has even been awarded medals and certificates for her effective showmanship. In the history of influencer marketing, Aunt Jemima is certainly one of the pioneers.

1905: Fatty Arbuckle and Murad Cigarettes

Another well-known instance of a celebrity endorsement in the history of influencer marketing is that of Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. And his endorsement of Murad, a Turkish brand of cigarettes.

Fatty Arbuckle and Murad Cigarettes

Image via Campaign

It is said that his publicist and the brand would’ve liked him to actually smoke the cigarettes on stage as part of the endorsement. However, Arbuckle wasn’t willing to do so. He was worried that he’d develop a cough, or that the cigarettes would ruin his voice. He did, however, agreed to promote the cigarettes in print.

By this time, people realized that celebrities endorsing products was the next big thing. In the history of influencer marketing, this was the time when people started opening up to celebrity endorsements or recommendations.

1931: Santa Promotes Coca-Cola

Did Coca-Cola give us the plump, friendly image of Santa? It certainly appears so.

Coca-Cola introduced this image of Santa Claus in 1931 in their advertisements. He was a white-bearded, friendly, and plump grandfather-figure dressed in a red outfit. Before they came up with these advertisements, Santa was represented in many different forms. Even as a scary elf sometimes.

Santa Promotes Coca-Cola

Image via The Coca-Cola Company

In the history of influencer marketing, the 1930s saw experimentations with established loveable figures like Santa. If people loved the person promoting a product, they loves the product too.

That’s the basis of influencer marketing as we know it today. According to Experticity, 92% of consumers trust the recommendations of people they follow on social media. They don’t trust advertising from brands nearly as much.   

1950: The Era of the Marlboro Man

The Marlboro Man was the symbol associated with being “macho” in and around 1950s. He was an icon portrayed by various actors to make smoking look trendy and masculine. The Marlboro Man was one of the biggest influencers of that time, and endorsed the cigarette brand Marlboro until 1999.

The Era of the Marlboro Man

Image via Tint

The sales of Marlboro skyrocketed because people associated the cigarette with having macho and rugged attributes. This was an era that showed a marked increase in the use of influencer marketing. The Marlboro man helped shape and style a generation.  

2010: The Age of the Old Spice Man

Before this immensely successful marketing campaign, Old Spice was considered to be a brand for old men. “The Man Your Man Could Smell Like” campaign completely transformed their brand image.

The objective was to make the brand fun and relevant for younger men. The campaign starring Isaiah Mustafa became hugely successful, and set the bar high for other campaigns to follow.

The Age of the Old Spice Man

Image via Wieden+Kennedy

The 30-second ad featuring Isaiah Mustafa was aired a few days before the Super Bowl and also the day after the game. Because of its appeal and humor, it quickly went viral.

The result? The sales of Old Spice doubled and the traffic to their website went up by 300%. They became the #1 men’s body wash brand. This was undoubtedly one of the most successful campaigns in the history of influencer marketing.

2010: The Rise of Influencer Marketing on Social Media

By 2010, social media had started making waves. Facebook was the new kid on the block that everyone was captivated by.

Around this time, Amazon came up with the idea of connecting Facebook with their brand -  so consumers could see what their friends and family members were buying. And of course, there are various studies that suggest recommendations from friends and family actually influence purchases.

Amazon also started suggesting gifts for friends and family based on their interests. People could even see notifications about the upcoming birthdays of their loved ones along with suggestions for gifts. This was a very successful ploy that drove other brands and platforms to take influencer marketing more seriously.

2015: Airbnb Collaborates with Mariah Carey

Airbnb took influencer marketing one step further by offering Mariah Carey the experience of staying at luxurious Airbnb properties. Mariah shared the details of her stay with her fans on social media.

Airbnb Collaborates with Mariah Carey

Image via Daily Mail

She posted her photos and videos on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat. Airbnb leveraged her popularity to showcase their vacation rental properties. The partnership was immensely successful, leading Airbnb to continue with such collaborations.

Present Day: Most Brands Have Adopted Influencer Marketing

Gone are the days when brands used to rely mainly on celebrity endorsements and advertisements. Millennials and Gen Zers have disrupted trends in consumer behavior. They need social proof before they decide to buy anything.

This has given birth to newer categories of influencers, from people with only a few thousand followers to those with millions of social followers. All of them have two things in common. Authentic voices, and the power to effectively engage their followers with aesthetic content.

Most Brands Have Adopted Influencer Marketing

Image via Instagram

Influencer marketing is here to stay, and most brands have realized this. They are now looking to come up with more creative ways of collaborating with influencers. The reason? Because influencer marketing really works.

Wrapping Up

There is too much noise in the marketplace with brands all screaming for attention. Consumers only hear the messages they really want to, and turn a deaf ear to the rest.

Social media influencers can help you cut through this noise, and reach your target audiences efficiently. People want to listen to authentic voices. They trust the opinions of influencers they follow. And so, any recommendations or endorsements from them are truly valuable for brands.

What are your thoughts on the way influencer marketing has evolved over the years? Let us know in the comments below.

Brian Mechem

Brian Mechem

Brian Mechem is COO and Co-Founder of Grin, a software solution for companies who run influencer marketing programs. Grin's software powers some of the best influencer programs in the world, providing insights on ROI and adding efficiency to the influencer marketing process.

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