As marketers, we know that sometimes we make choices and take chances that just don’t pan out. We’re human, and sometimes mistakes are made. However, in 2023, some brands made bigger mistakes than others. In no particular order, we present to you the four biggest influencer marketing flops of 2023, along with some thoughts and insights as to what brands can learn from them.
Flop #1: Tarte Cosmetic’s Brand Trips
Throughout 2023, Tarte sent hundreds of beauty influencers and their plus 1’s to exotic locales like Dubai, Turks and Caicos, and Miami for an over-the-top, extravagant trip on the brand’s dime. From first-class plane tickets to rooms in the most luxurious villas and hotels, the company spared no expense when it came to making attendees feel like VIPs.
Well, they tried at least.
What Went Wrong?
Honestly, there were red flags all over these Tarte trips. The first – and most obvious – was the clear lack of diversity in the lineup of influencers that the company chose to invite. For example, 50 influencers were invited to Tarte’s trip to Dubai in January 2023, but only 7% of them were Black. On top of this, a number of BIPOC creators claimed that they’d received lesser-quality accommodations than their white counterparts. Many of the influencers shared videos highlighting the fact that their rooms were smaller than those of their white counterparts; others showed their invitations, which indicated shorter stays than those of the white creators who were invited.
In May 2023, the brand sought redemption by attempting to launch two additional creator trips: one to Turks & Caicos and the other to the F1 Grand Prix in Miami, Florida. However, many of the creators who were invited to the Turks and Caicos and Miami trips shared that there were some very noticeable disparities between the room sizes, length of stay, and additional perks that white vs. BIPOC creators received – often leaving BIPOC with the “shorter end of the stick.”
This isn’t the first time Tarte has been put on blast for its lack of inclusivity. Of note, in 2018, the brand faced major backlash after vlogger Jackie Aina posted a review video in which she put them on blast for launching a 15-shade foundation line that only offered 3 shades that catered to darker skin tones. However, this latest DE&I misstep wasn’t a particularly good look for Tarte. Adding insult to injury, their efforts to make amends for the blunders came across as largely performative than anything else, which landed flat with its audiences.
The best brands – and the best marketers – don’t ignore differences: they embrace them. The lack of diversity within the influencer community is something that we should all be cognizant of and actively work to change. Every creator deserves to be treated equally and compensated fairly, and we believe that anyone can do great work as long as the collaborations and partnerships are genuine. As for the future of sponsored trips: we expect to see increasingly more influencers not only demand transparency and equitable treatment, but also refuse to work without it. Brands have a lot more work in this area, but we are confident that in an industry driven by creators and social media, we’ll see these changes sooner than later.
Flop #2: Shein’s Influencer Trip
In June 2023, Shein – a Chinese clothing company – hosted a sponsored trip for a group of influencers to tour its “innovation center” in Guangzhou, China. According to TIME’s Moises Mendez II, Shein promised that the trip would give the influencers “an inside look at how their garments are designed, manufactured, and shipped.”
What Went Wrong?
As you may already know, Shein has drawn major criticism over the past few years for a slew of workers’ rights-related problems, including unethical working conditions, forced labor, and substandard wages – all of which have created an overall sense of wariness when it comes to their business practices. Ostensibly, this Shein-sponsored trip was meant to quash those accusations and show the world – once and for all – that they are a fabulous place to work and have an “awesome” company culture.
The details of this trip – and the content that rolled out from creators – made it clear that the brand did, in fact, have a clear agenda underpinning this entire venture. For starters, the creators framed the trip as an opportunity to showcase the “real workers” at the company. One creator even noted that “they weren’t even sweating,” despite allegations of 18+ hour workdays, unlivable wages, and more.
Let’s just say that Shein’s efforts didn’t go over well. However, if you look at responses to the trip on social media, especially on TikTok, you’ll see that the creators took the brunt of the fallout. Specifically, many followers saw the creators even accepting a spot on the trip as disingenuous.
Here’s a thought: if a brand actually treats its employees properly and maintains proper working conditions for them, it probably doesn’t need to go through the effort of paying for an influencer trip to show that all off…
…But that’s just us.
However, it’s also up to the influencer to be thorough and thoughtful when making the decision to partner with a brand. Why? Because once that decision is made, the brand’s reputation reflects upon them as well. (And it can quickly turn into a “guilt by association” situation if influencers choose to partner with brands who don’t share their values.) Regardless of whether you’re a brand or an influencer, taking accountability for your decisions – even the mistakes you make – is key for maintaining an authentic and meaningful long-term relationship with your audiences.
Flop #3: Bud Light x Dylan Mulvaney
Dylan Mulvaney, a TikTok star and trans advocate, has accumulated well over 10 million followers on her social media platforms. She shot to stardom with her viral TikTok series, “Days of Girlhood,” in which she recorded her first year of gender transitioning. To celebrate reaching day 365 of this series, Bud Light sent Mulvaney a personalized Bud Light can with her face on the label.
What Went Wrong?
The campaign didn’t land particularly well with conservative beer drinkers, who were outraged by the fact that Bud Light had partnered with a trans influencer. As a result, they boycotted the brand and stocks fell.
However, the real issue at play was Bud Light’s response – or lack of one. As a company that has positioned themselves as an ally for the LGBTQ community, Bud Light chose to do virtually nothing to support Mulvaney in the midst of the chaos.
“For a company to hire a trans person and then not publicly stand by them is worse, in my opinion, than not hiring a trans person at all,” she stated in a TikTok.
Sometimes, a campaign “flops,” but not because of anything the brand and/or influencer did – or even because of the strategy itself. No, sometimes a campaign is planned well and executed perfectly, but it just doesn’t land with a particular audience. And if (or, really, when) that happens, today’s consumers expect brands to know how to read the situation and respond appropriately…whether that’s to acknowledge a mistake it made or – in the case of Bud Light – to stand by its decision and provide backup to the influencer it partnered with.
It’s 2023; it should be the norm for brands to partner with creators across all categories and demographics. Partnering with an influencer like Dylan Mulvaney was the right thing to do for Bud Light, and the choice likely welcomed a new audience of consumers for the brand. However, a truly successful partnership is one that results in a positive, long-term relationship with the influencer you choose to work with – one that benefits both parties equally. In this case, that didn’t happen, and Bud Light missed a huge opportunity to genuinely advocate and be a voice for the LGBTQ+ community.
Flop #4: Bioré x Cecilee Max-Brown
In support of Mental Health Awareness Month, creator Cecilee Max-Brown partnered with Bioré on their “Stripping away the Stigma” campaign. Specifically, Max-Brown was featured in a video in which she discussed her struggles with anxiety while being a student at Michigan State University.
Sounds innocent enough, right?
What Went Wrong?
During the promo video, Max-Brown talked about the “countless obstacles” she’d encountered during her time at Michigan State – and specifically referenced the school shooting that occurred on campus earlier that year.
The video was shared on Max-Brown’s TikTok and had been live for less than 24 hours before an outbreak of negative reactions and criticism flooded in. Though Max-Brown focused on how the shooting had impacted her, specifically, many people took exception to the fact that she was talking about a school tragedy in the context of a promotional video. Bioré didn’t come out of this unscathed either: many found it off-putting for the video to imply that the Bioré’s skincare products could help alleviate mental health issues of that severity, and they called out the brand for capitalizing on this horrific event.
Both Bioré and Cecilee shared lengthy apologies for their place in the partnership, but it’s safe to say that for many, it left a lasting impression.
Consumers expect brands to handle sensitive topics with care, plain and simple. If a brand or creator has a connection with a sensitive topic, there should be an immense amount of thought and consideration put into how they tell the story around that connection. And, sometimes, that means that the goal of your campaign should truly be to support the community, not your bottom line.
Here’s an obvious truth: no one wants to make mistakes. But the good news is that when we do, we have a chance to learn from them. In fact, mistakes give us valuable opportunities to evolve and grow. However, this requires us to be willing and open to learning and growing from them in the first place — and if we don’t, we may be doomed to repeat them.
It’s also safe to say that the most successful influencer partnerships require a genuine understanding between both the creator and the brand. Today, audiences are becoming increasingly more willing to hold companies and influencers accountable for the decisions they make and the values they choose to align with.
The moral of the story here is this: we believe that there’s always room for growth and learning. When we reflect back on these campaigns, our hope is that agencies, brands, and creators alike can take away useful lessons so that we can all do great work going forward.
Want to learn more about A&G’s Creator Relations program? Contact us today to schedule a quick 15-minute chat with our Creator Relations & Social Media team.
About the Author
Caylie Poola is an associate on the Creator Relations & Social Media team at A&G.