Trust comes on foot and leaves on horseback: Unilever CMO Keith Weed on fake followers

Industry lauds Unilever's move to 'Weed' out Social Media Influencers who buy fake followers

e4m by Neethu Mohan & Dolly Mahayan
Published: Jun 19, 2018 8:58 AM  | 6 min read

Yesterday, consumer goods giant Unilever in a bid to make advertising more transparent, announced that it is cutting ties with digital media "influencers" that buy followers.

The announcement comes four months after Unilever CMO, Keith Weed was in the news for threatening to pull investment from digital platforms such as Facebook and Google if they did not take steps to improve consumer trust and eradicate "toxic" online content.

Let's take a step back first to understand this in depth. Marketing spillage or exaggeration has been an age-old phenomenon with traditional advertising, whether it's with TV, print or out-of-home. One of the biggest challenges with traditional media has been the inability to target specific type of consumers or effectively measure actual impact for a brand, and this is where digital came in and changed the game. Suddenly, one could track every impression, click, view & user-action. The boon however did come with its own bane. Digital Ad Fraud isn't just an Influencer Marketing problem, but a Digital problem at large.
Over the next few days, it’s understood that Weed will convene a group of industry representatives including the likes of the World Federation of Advertisers (WFA) and PR luminary Richard Edelman to discuss how Unilever will put in action the above mentioned decision.

Just yesterday, Weed had said to Reuters, "Trust comes on foot and leaves on horseback, and we could very quickly see the whole influencer space being undermined. There are lots of great influencers out there, but there are a few bad apples spoiling the barrel and the trouble is, everyone goes down once the trust is undermined."

“The announcement by Unilever is brilliant because it's one of the advertising giants putting further pressure on the social media giants (Facebook & Google) to check yourself before you wreck yourself. The responsibility however doesn't just rest with Facebook (Insta included) and Google to solve the problem, but also with the ad-tech industry and social media influencers themselves. At the end of it, brands will only work long-term with those that are ethical and create genuine value,” observes Pranay Swarup, Co-Founder & CEO at

“Social Media Influencers recognize that they're getting rejected by brands if they are not creating quality content today. Influencer Marketing is not just about the number of followers, but also relevance, quality of content, engagement and impact," added Swarup.

Influencer Marketing- Beginning of the End?

“To start with, influencer marketing is a glorified term given to the corrupt practice of paid opinions. This practice comes from conventional media where celebrities endorse the products and services beyond advertisements. When digital media got the dominance of the conventional media agencies it was but natural that the easiest way to follow was to bring the existing practices in new media. It was not appropriate for brands to use them in the first place. The budgets from more constructive activities were moved to this, now, no point complaining,” said Prasad Ajgaonkar, CEO of iRealities.

“This may not be an end to influencer marketing, it is more for the influencers who gave fake followers. I have seen an Instagram profile of a last generation television actress with more than I million followers. The lady was charging 1 lakh to 3 lakh for each post. Now this is fake. And it is not her fault alone, it starts from brand managers, agencies and influencers. Influencer Marketing won’t end, it would just get regulated. Influencers might have to give disclosure that they are paid for posting,” added Ajgaonkar.

Also, there have to be more interactive and engaging ways of influencing. We are not using technology to the fullest, we are just using the “reach” part of the Digital and not the “engagement" possibilities.

“It may seem that Influencer Marketing may come to an end, the truth is that it is only going to be better hereon. With companies like Unilever taking a stand, the midlevel influencers who have bought followers or generated followers through Bots will have a hard time to grow as brands have started acknowledging the quality followers (and are dissing followers that are just there to show quantity). Every industry goes through consolidation and its time that influencer marketing undergoes this change and only genuine influencers survive,” says Arvind Jain, CEO, Netbiz.

Sanjay Mehta, Joint CEO of Mirum India, is of the same opinion, "Authenticity matters. Influencer marketing, which boosts their base with fake followers is not doing justice to the brand and at the bottom line the genuine ones are here to stay."

"This (fake followers) was not giving reach in the first place so anyway it won’t impact brands, it will impact those with vested interests for sure. Rather brands will save money from putting it down the drain. Serious brands who want to really get benefited from social media should remember that social media is a medium of connections and not plain broadcast. The message gets spread if the users connect to it and through it they connect to other users. If used intelligently, scientifically and creatively, the medium can be extremely powerful. What Unilever has done is a real good first step but they will have to explore newer solutions going beyond their conventional mainline and digital partners. And it is the same for all brands. Find connections and enhance their experience, there is no other medium like social media," said Ajgaonkar.

Warning sign for social media influencers:

Social Media Influencers now need to get wary of their commitments and deliverables as such stands taken by industry leaders are a stepping stone to combat bigger issue of frauds in the digital ecosystem. Brands spend on branding activities to create better customer experiences and to measure impact. This crackdown will 'Weed' out Influencers who buy fake followers the by measuring their exact engagement with the consumers. Hence, focus on quality rather than quantity is the mantra that brands must follow.

“Basis the current algorithms of Facebook and Twitter, the reach and engagement has drastically dropped and with this push, it will become critical to give the right engaging content to the right audience. Interest based marketing and content marketing will take over the existing trends and only the loyal, interested followers will become brand advocates. So, (I am) wondering whether Influencer Marketing will become an indulgence of only the rich,” says Arvind Jain.

Commenting on whether more brands should follow what Unilever is doing, Swarup said, “Yes, absolutely. It will only help. Brands too often make the mistake of chasing vanity metrics for the sake of it."

“When I set up two years ago, one of the biggest trends to break was many brands wanting to get Twitter Trending orchestrated/faked. Unfortunately, this is still something that happens in the industry, and what influencer marketing is (limitedly) perceived as. Influencer Marketing, or as we call it People-Powered-Influence, is a much larger concept. It's identifying and engaging the right opinion leaders who have the ability to create positive sentiment and real impact for brands. Most forward-looking brands recognise this and are leveraging tools to get Influencer Marketing right,” concludes Swarup.

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