Influencer vs. Relationship Marketing: Why Brands Must Invest in Relationships Going Forward

In pursuit of friendships, not hired guns

Andrew Sealy for MINI USA

As brand marketers, we work hard to cultivate a strong brand and to foster a community that is anchored upon the love of our products. For a niche lifestyle brand with a passionate fan base, you might need help creating a groundswell of conversation that motivates a broader customer base to feel the same way and ensures that your positioning is being understood. Influencer marketing is the ideal tool to solve this problem, but most brand managers wield more insights than what consumers are seeing through typical influencer campaigns. Existing fans expect, and respond best to, authentic communications, so craft your marketing approach around emotional storytelling. Instead of relying on traditional marketing tactics entirely, newer strategies like relationship marketing programs can account for changing consumer behaviors and evolving technologies while holding influencer marketing to a higher standard, delivering immediate and long-term results.

By elevating the role and value of relationships in the marketing mix, brands can build a strong case for investing in people who demonstrate an authentic connection with them. Trust that nurturing these relationships with influencers (quality vs. quantity) triggers not only organic word of mouth, but reaches the right consumers in exactly the right way. For a recent campaign targeting the West Coast, we identified local influencers whose personal passions aligned with our overarching brand message, and could genuinely be integrated into custom experiences using a new MINI vehicle. This campaign resulted in astounding ROI—including powerful content and authentic conversations around the brand in the communities we care about. Here's what we learned from this process and how any brand can adapt this program to its needs. 

Build a strong brand POV.

To determine the "right" people to connect with, know the strengths in your brand and have an ownable personality. Prioritize impressions and engagement as KPIs, and trust that finding the right influencers and building authentic relationships translates into sales. After identifying a POV, home in on a unique fact about your consumers—in our case, they all love MINI because it separates them from the crowd—then target communities with the same values and personalities. Another example is Southwest Airlines, which has carved out a specific position in its industry and speaks directly to the needs of their core customers. 

Building relationships with influencers is really reliant on finding the right people. After all, the 2019 Edelman Trust Barometer shows that 66 percent of consumers trust "people like me" and 49 percent trust "online personalities with small followings" over CEOs (39 percent) and celebrities (27 percent). For brands in niche spaces, you may want to look at a few prominent people, but you might not know how to identify those partners or what to do once you've found them. 

Partner with experts.

Brands know their values and messages better than anyone, but it's important to recognize when to bring in an expert to maximize results and efficiency. For most brand managers, our expertise is in brand building, not influencer relationship management and long-term collaborations. Relationship marketing agencies, like our partner RQ, have unique tools to identify who is right or wrong for a brand. They have pre-existing relationships, so the individuals they connect you with understand the approach and the expectations. They are also excited to collaborate with the brand. Developing long-term relationships with influencers should be important to brands. Make them part of the family and build relationships underpinned by authenticity and longevity. 

The benefits of treating people like people, not media. 

Most brands have experimented with pay-to-play influencer campaigns where every aspect is spelled out in a lengthy contract, but communities today expect more authenticity. A way to circumvent this is to approach relationships with influencers as long-term investments worth cultivating. Meet potential influencers and work to understand their goals and find ways to mutually support them over the long term. People in your community shouldn't be afraid to support your goals (i.e., brand awareness in a community), because they know that their goals and growth are supported as well. 

Influencers are real people whom brands must consider as trusted friends and vice versa. They seamlessly incorporate the brand into their content because it's become part of their routine, which maintains trust with their audience. This is extremely important, as 92 percent of consumers trust people they perceive as friends over other forms of marketing. It's not about creating a lengthy roster of new partners. Micro-influencers have macro-power in terms of rapport and helping reach new brand fans within target audiences. 

As your brand and the future of marketing evolve, bring these relationships along for the ride to help launch new products and initiatives. We've seen tangible success and sales from this program and increased awareness of the MINI lifestyle to a wider audience. Many influencers we worked with, like Garance Doré, have purchased their own MINIs after trying the car—proof that creating authentic partnerships with influencers can benefit the bottom line. 

Though getting people to feel authentically attached to your product can be complex, brands can find success by organically cultivating these relationships, informing others what you stand for, and working with the right people and partners. At the end of the day, you are who your friends are, and we believe our community is more than just a transaction—they're family.

Profile picture for user Matthew Shukaitis
Matthew Shukaitis
Matthew Shukaitis is marketing manager at MINI USA.

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