PR industry's take on ASCI's new draft guidelines for influencers

Industry observers opine that the draft guidelines will create a balance between the three stakeholders - the brand, the influencer, and the influencer’s audience

e4m by Nafisa Shaheen
Updated: Feb 25, 2021 10:43 AM

The fact that guidelines are coming in place to regulate influencer advertising is a proof that influencer marketing has established itself as one of the key components of the marketing portfolio of brands. The mainstay of the new draft code of the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI) is to clearly identify and label upfront that a said communication by an influencer is an advertisement/sponsored content. 

Influencers have been gaining ground for a while now owing to the increased inclination towards video-content and the changing consumer sentiment in the Covid backdrop. According to digital marketing agency AdLift, India’s influencer market is estimated at $75-$150 million a year as compared to the global market of $1.75 billion. It is no wonder that brands and agencies reach out to these influencers for their increased reach and engagement through the digital medium. 

Based on the feedback and inputs, the final guidelines will be issued by ASCI by 31st March 2021. The guidelines will be applicable to all promotional posts published on or after 15th April 2021. How will it impact the brands and agencies dealing with influencers and their advertising and marketing landscape once it comes to effect? Industry watchers weigh in.

New draft: Boon or bane?

“Influence is a function of credibility”, opines Nikhil Dey, Executive Director, Adfactors PR. “This move is going to help protect the credibility factor of the influencers. Like anything new, there will be a steep learning curve, but through an iterative process of what is feasible and what benefits the audience, there will be a win-win proposition that emerges”, Dey notes.

He further adds that audiences have the right to know when they are receiving commercially prompted messages. Influencers have the right to express their opinions and a need for creative expression without too many curbs. A balance between these two needs has to be found.

Talking about various stakeholders that agencies have to go through, Deepshikha Dharmaraj, CEO, Genesis BCW explains,” When we look at an influencer engagement, there are three stakeholders whose interests we are concerned with—the brand, the influencer and the influencer’s audience that the brand is trying to reach. The new guidelines are a win-win for each of them.” 

She feels that being upfront about brand associations in the content will help bring clarity, credibility and build trust among the audience. “There has been a certain section of influencers and even brands that have tried to take advantage of the grey areas in these associations. So, these guidelines will act as a deterrent for that. Global rules are also getting stricter so it is good that we are setting down our own guidelines too”, underlines Dharmaraj. 

Effect on Consumer sentiments 

The erratic nature of consumers and their ever-evolving behavior has been a major catalyst for brands to make changes in their marketing strategies time and again. The rise of influencer confluence is one such example of the shift in consumer sentiment. Will this move reduce the consumer trust in promoted content and impact the consumer sentiment relating to trust and approachability of influencers?  Sunayna Malik, Managing Director – India and Senior Vice President – APAC, Archetype believes that the ASCI guidelines are pertinent and will serve as guard rails, protecting consumer, brand, and influencer interests even as they allow for transparent and honest connection between brands and influencers. “Given the increasing proliferation of influencer marketing such measures are necessary to keep brands and marketers authentic”, added Malik.

Ashutosh Munshi, Executive Vice President – Head of Brand Practice APAC Edelman firmly believes that the guidelines reiterate their longstanding commitment to authenticity and transparency. “As per the Edelman Brand Trust Report 2020, there is a bigger need for trust today than ever before. And this trust in brands cannot be bought. It has to be earned with action - by creating experiences with products/services, or through earned media and peer conversation and trusted channels. Influence too, is far higher when trust levels are high. It is built through authority and empathy – but only when authentic and credible. It is built when influencers have a personal connection or expertise related to a topic or issue. While promoting brands too, this trust remains paramount and with it the need for transparency,” added Munshi.

“In the midst of this influencers that show up with full disclosure and yet have an interesting point of view will flourish. Influencers need to either entertain their audience, educate them or make their life easier. If they serve their community with good intent, their followers will grow and the brands will continue to find partnering with them valuable”, remarked Dey.

Putting the spotlight on the spread notion of millennials and Gen Z being more attracted to influencers, Indu Sharma, Head Corporate Communications, Reckitt Benckiser said, “The influencers have caused a change in the conversation since groups such as millennials and Gen Z have become more vocal in their support of transparency with larger corporations. The content generated by the influencers is a bridge between the customers and the company. The aim is to engage the customers by providing creative content that is appreciated by them. This creates a unique trust between the brand, influencer, and the customers and this transparency will further bolster it.”

Impact on influencers as brand ambassadors

Unlike a celebrity endorser, which is usually "one face", brands are looking at a select few or sometimes many influencers at the same time for reach and engagement these days. With this move of the regulatory body, what will be the impact on the exponential growth of influencers as brand ambassadors? Dharmaraj feels that this will help in encouraging more long-term and meaningful associations. This is a good opportunity for the ecosystem to do a course correction and will help build greater credibility, trust, and engagement for the brands. 

Resonating with the same thought, Dey added, “Those brands that find a smart fit with an influencer and where the collaboration seems natural will benefit. Force fitting a narrative will be jarring and won't translate, but a smart partnership will pay dividends for all 3 parties, the influencer, the brand, and the audience.”

Sharma intervened with a different opinion. According to her a brand ambassador and an influencer are quite different and engage with a brand in a different manner.  While the brand ambassador is the face of the brand, an influencer promotes the product/brand by becoming a positive word of mouth amongst their niche audience. These lines blur in certain cases but broadly they remain intact.

Highlighting the altered moves that will be undertaken by agencies doing influencer marketing post issuing of the new ASCI guidelines, Dhramaraj added, “Our counsel to clients has always been to look at influencers as long-term advocates for the brand to deliver measurable impact.”

“We believe the new guidelines will drive the clients to look at influencer marketing in a more structured manner and with a long-term perspective rather than being episodic and event-led,” she added. 

“It is on the back of this reality that we at Edelman have built our influencer marketing offer called Trusted Influence. We create campaigns for brands using insight-driven, earned-centric creative thinking, amplified through credible influencers that deliver true impact and return on investment,” concluded Munshi.

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