Social Media: Brand Recognition

social media photographer

Instagram influence is about nuance, and in this instance, the escape of riding off into the mountains with nothing but a bedroll and a long beard. Photo courtesy of R. Mankoff

Brands are turning to Instagram to find influencers, and we asked Sean Estes, the global PR manager of Specialized, a bicycle manufacturer, about the process. Specialized was looking for someone to represent adventure in the sport with a unique viewpoint and found that in Ultra Romance, an Instagrammer with a sizable audience. While photographers usually agonize over the process of trying to get found, they rarely know what the ad buyer is looking for. Estes gives some insight into the process of finding and working with an Instagram influencer.

DPP: What are brands and art directors looking for when they’re searching social for talent?

Sean Estes: I can’t speak for other brands, but we generally look for people who are really living the lifestyle that we feel embodies certain products and experiences. Authenticity is the key—without that the whole thing doesn’t really work. People are savvy these days. They can tell when someone is plugging a product purely for money as opposed to someone who genuinely believes in the product they use. It has to be a partnership; it can’t be one-sided.

DPP: If you could include related info like pay, generally speaking, was it successful, has the landscape changed? What was the emphasis, and did it sell bikes for you and forward the brand?

Estes: I would say ambassadors have been impactful and beneficial for our brand without a doubt. That can be corroborated with specific metrics to evaluate ROI, but really it’s also just a gut assessment. When you have a good ambassador, you will know it. Some people just get it, and that comes across in the way they present themselves and their personal brand on social. Those are the people you want.

DPP: I expect Specialized has had great success with Instagram, including employees and influencers program. [Specialized product managers and other employees regularly contribute to social media.] What came to mind was the influencer Ultra Romance. How does a major brand marketing team find and work with someone on Instagram.

Estes: I’m not sure if we’ve had great success or not, but I think we’ve done pretty well as far as identifying people who mesh well with our brand. Ultra Romance is a great example, but on the other end of the spectrum you have someone like Ken Block. Whereas Ultra Romance is a total free spirit, fly-by-night, does-his-own-thing kind of dude, with a loose program, Block, on the other hand, is super-structured and super-professional, and everything he does is extremely calculated. They’re both highly effective ambassadors, though, because they have that thing in common I mentioned earlier about authenticity. That comes across in everything they do, and that right there is the magic.

What Makes An Ambassador Work?

The campaigns I’ve been impressed with are the ones that are 100 percent driven by a passion for community.

Authenticity is the magic. To become influential enough to attract a brand ambassadorship, you must first have the body of work, and that certain look or feel the brands want to express or associate with. In the case of influence versus celebrity, some products are sold on celebrity alone—take the Kardashian empire, for example—but that’s really brand ambassadorship, too. The Kardashians are displaying their lifestyle of wealth and travel, and the brands that partner with them want their followers to associate a product with that lifestyle.

Take a look at the Ultra Romance Instagram feed ( He’s a freewheeling hippie with no shirt, helmet or day job. He’s escapism for anyone camped in an ergonomic chair in an office park who instead wants to be camping in a yurt. A brand sponsoring an adventurer on Instagram has the same goal as a sponsored athlete wearing a cap with a logo once did, but with more subtlety and nuance.

social media photographer

Nowhere on Ultra Romance’s page do you see a Specialized ad, and he may not even be riding one of their bikes on any given day, even though it’s now mentioned in his bio. What Specialized has done is to get its name associated with the fringe of the sport that many cyclists daydream about.

If you break influence down, you can create four quadrants: macro-influencer vs. micro-influencer (big audience vs. small audience) and broad vs. niche. As Olivier Blanchard, senior analyst at Futurum Research, told me in another interview, “Ellen [DeGeneres] is a broad macro-influencer, George Hincapie [a repeated Tour de France stage winner who never won the whole event] is a niche macro-influencer, while my knitting foodie grandma is a niche micro-influencer.”

Influence is about members of a tribe speaking to one another. If you want to be a successful influencer, you have to be legit. People in the community must accept you as someone who belongs, not a poser. And the community is the audience. For photographers, if you’re going to carry a camera across Iceland (like so many have before) and get props for it, the photos better be not only good but spectacular.

So, back to nuance. What often gets left out is credibility and what Specialized focused on with Ultra Romance. Compare that to agencies looking for big numbers; they don’t understand that their influencers don’t actually influence anyone. They just get Likes.

Blanchard recommends to his clients that they spread their budget on 10 authentic niche micro-influencers and help them develop their reach rather than blow a budget on a professional “influencer” with irons burning in 30 different niches.

That’s pure gold for brands that know how to play a scene in the Instagram community.

You can follow DL Byron on Twitter at @bikehugger

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