Nick Woodhouse

Paying models or celebrities to hawk your brand is so 2016. Instead, Authentic Brands Group has found a novel alternative by creating a proprietary influencer network where it unearths fans of its brands and then brings them into the fold as influencers to communicate organically with other potential customers.

The software is called Winston and it allows the company to recruit influencers based on their number of followers, brand affinity and the content they share.

Nick Woodhouse, president and chief marketing officer of ABG said that because the company is now so large — ABG today owns 33 brands, operates over 4,600 stores globally, has 20 million unique visitors, 236 million social followers and will have sales of nearly $8 billion this year — it was becoming expensive and unwieldy to navigate through a sea of influencers.

One day, when researching the social media data the company had compiled about its Aéropostale division, Woodhouse found that by the hashtags and emojis its customers used that this was viewed as “a happy brand.”

He said, “[Our industry] has probably spent tens of millions of dollars on brand studies to see what our consumers are saying. And I’m not saying those are not important, but this is free information. And we can now measure sentiment.”

This is evident with everyone from Colin Kaepernick and Serena Williams to Aretha Franklin, he said. “This data is available and we use it all the time for our licensed partners and our retailers around the world.”

With that as a backdrop, Woodhouse launched an experiment. He asked his head of digital to search social media for people who had mentioned Marilyn Monroe over the past six months. ABG owns the estates of Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley and Muhammad Ali and controls the Thalia Sodi, Shaquille O’Neal and Greg Norman brands, among others including Nautica, Juicy Couture, Spyder and Neil Lane.

The digital chief came back in 45 minutes with a list of people. “Some had 11,000 followers, some had 100,” Woodhouse said. “I said DM [direct message] them all and ask them if they’d like to be an influencer for us. He did it and got a resounding response. They were astonished that the estate of Marilyn Monroe had contacted them. They’re gratified that we have reached out, they feel special, and they’re helping me promote my Marilyn Monroe brand.”

This led to the creation of Winston, which Woodhouse described as “a platform of influencers and creators driving sales at scale. We operate through Instagram’s API [application program interface], requiring all members to opt in through their personal Instagram accounts. You go on, punch in what your interests are and we can parse out which campaign you would organically like to talk about.”

Although the term “influencer,” is relatively new, the social relationship it describes is ancient. Woodhouse joked that Jesus was probably the original influencer but everyone from Vladimir Putin to Barack Obama can be considered one. “Kris Jenner and the Kardashians, God bless them, they helped to invent this business and love them or hate them, certainly respect them because we use them all the time and they move mountains. And they moved a mountain of Juicy Couture velour for me,” he said.

While traditional celebrity endorsements still have their place — Woodhouse said Jennifer Aniston still has credibility talking about hair products, for example — those are few and far between.

“That’s what we’re always struggling with, when we hire or use influencers,” he said.

So instead, ABG opted to use Winston to winnow down the list of people it would work with.

“If we want to shoot the new Spyder campaign and we want some influencers, we say, we want 10 shots on the mountain with a Spyder jacket and then our team would decide which shots are the best and we would go ahead and use those on social and we would compensate that individual either through product or through funds,” he said.

Today, ABG works with over 1,800 influencers who have more than 150 million combined followers. “Every single one of our influencer campaigns now is based out of Winston,” he said. “We are, in effect, the agency.”

The company is using the same strategy for searching out people to model for its brands. “I can’t stand writing checks to models anymore,” he said. And realizing that “there are 80 million young women who would like to model for Juicy Couture,” ABG now uses the women it found through Winston to be the face of the brand. “We’re crowdsourcing and insourcing all the services we used to outsource,” he said. “But it’s organic. I don’t have an agency telling me this person likes Juicy Couture. My head of Juicy Couture can speak to them and we can decide if they’re going to promote our brand.”

One key component of this software, he stressed, is that everyone involved in the program has opted in and ABG is “maniacal” about vetting them to ensure that they’re legitimate. And while Woodhouse said that ABG hasn’t seen the response it expected from some influencers, it has been pleasantly surprised by others. “We haven’t gotten the ROI on some of the influencers with large numbers of followers that we thought we would, but we’ve gotten way more engage-able content from people with fewer followers because it was way more organic,” he said.

Looking ahead, Woodhouse said ABG is intrigued by the idea of synthetic CGIs or computer-generated imagery of humans. “I would equate it to Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley,” he said. “They always show up on time for their photo shoots and I never have to read about them in Page Six. That’s why we don’t purchase a lot of other celebrity brands because I’m always worried about what’s going to happen. With a synthetic influencer you can dictate what they’re going to do and it makes a lot more sense. We haven’t done it yet but I’m excited to learn a lot more about it.”

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