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Who Cares if Influencers Don’t Know Their Food?

Who Cares if Influencers Don’t Know Their Food?

  • Current Affairs
  • Opinion
“We engage them mainly for their reach and exposure, especially if we think that their followers are aligned with our target crowd,” she says, “Definitely not for their expertise on food.”

Ru Ai, a former cafe manager, tells us what we already know—that influencers are enlisted to help market brands as part of their lifestyles. And yet, this hasn’t stopped naysayers from speaking of the need to ‘crackdown’ on influencer marketing.

At the same time, who said that these influencers were hired to pass judgment on taste and flavour combinations in the first place?

Muriel Barbery’s Gourmet Rhapsody tells the story of an ageing food critic who once wielded the power to make or break any restaurant. With the advent of social media, it does seem like a good thing that such individuals no longer have as much power as they used to.

Instead, social media has made food commentary democratic. Now, anyone with a hashtag can weigh in on the conversation. Or so it might seem.

In an interview with Bon Appetit magazine in April, Instagrammer Patrick Janelle (@aguynamedpatrick) conceded that a New York Times review remains the “holy grail for putting a restaurant on the map.” However, he also raised the question, “But for how long?”

This is perhaps indicative of where we’re headed in the near future: for a division between those who eat for their love of food and those who eat for their love of Instagram moments.

This distinction has put pressure on brands to align themselves with the right social media influencers instead of just borrowing pretty feeds and faces en masse to generate exposure. Ironically, as young adult consumers have become more trend sensitive, they have also come to expect what we can loosely term as “authenticity.” They want brands to look sharp and polished, but demand also a sense of exclusivity and individuality.

As a result, social media has become responsible for dictating the way that some brands design, position, and market their products. There is the immense (perhaps imagined) expectation that one should always create something viral and ‘instagrammable’, whether its a rainbow coloured grilled cheese or your regular symmetrical latte art.

As with most products that are designed to be on trend, there is always a danger that that is all they will ever be—a trend.

They fly off the shelves for the few months following their appearance on social media, but will they ever achieve the kind of cultural clout that Hong Kong’s Australia Dairy Company, Bangkok’s Gaggan or Hanoi’s Bún Chả Hàng Mành command? Will they prove themselves financially sustainable in the long run?

Of course, not every food establishment aspires to be critically acclaimed, and not everyone needs to dine at one that is. But as consumers grow to learn the place and function of social media, the odds are that they will begin to discriminate good pictures from pictures of good food.

We’ve all heard the words repeated in many a trendy, industrial-chic restaurant: “It looked better in pictures” or “It doesn’t taste as good as it looks.” Whether or not we we want to continue risking the disappointment of the disconnect between what we saw online and what we eventually put in our mouths, it’s completely up to us.

Already, there are signs that the industry itself is changing.

“Companies are generally smarter nowadays,” says Tan Chun Rong (@xlbcr), a Singaporean home cook and food photographer with a follower count of over 52 000, “And they tend to lean towards people with professional skills and organic followers.”

One of his brand collaborations, for instance, saw him crafting a recipe, executing it, and then doing an entire photoshoot for a chocolate flourless cake made with that brand’s product. This is the kind of value-add and attitude that other Instagram stars like Hong Kong based Mandy Lee (@ladyandpups), known for her creativity and irreverence, and Malaysian Samantha Lee (@leesamantha), of storytelling food fame, bring to the table.

In the past few years or so, many brands have gone a little bit crazy with influencer marketing, and we can’t really blame them. Influencers are, after all, social media professionals. Their skills are simply underplayed and highly glamourised.

So there is really no need for talk about having to ‘kill influencer marketing,’ as the Harvard Business Review not-so-subtly puts it. More likely than not, it will die its own quiet death, or it will evolve to become something more nuanced, palatable, functional, enjoyable, entertaining, and far less pretentious.

Ultimately, we dictate the kind of content we want to see, and brands will have to figure out if Likes are translating into actual purchases, and what they intend to do about that.

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Julian Wong Managing editor