Ever wondered just how influential influencers really are? Trend forecaster WGSN has just released a report analysing Southern Africa’s youth, and the influence of key creatives, collectives and tastemakers in Southern Africa. Sara Maggioni, director of retail and buying at WGSN, explains

Sara Maggioni
Sara Maggioni
Image: Supplied

For those who've never heard the phrase, can you describe what an influencer is and why they're important? In commercial terms, an influencer is someone with a considerable following who has the power of “influencing” people to purchase a product or engage with a brand. Brands and companies work with influencers to promote their product and reach different consumers and wider audiences, particularly when it comes to more “local” influencers as they would often “localise” the message and translate it and make it relevant for that particular market. Or vice versa, for a local brand to get wider exposure globally. This is the more “commercial” part of the influencers’ spectrum.

At WGSN we track many influencers from a more cultural view point, so not necessarily people who promote products but artists, musicians and creatives which will somehow have more of a cultural impact. They don’t necessarily have a huge following and they are not selling anything, but they are often paramount for the start of a trend/movement as they really capture the zeitgeist. They are the innovators and early adopters within the trend curve (after that we have the early majority, late majority and finally the laggards), so they are a different sort of “influencer”, more “cultural influencers” I would say.

What do you think has contributed to the emergence of influencer culture?The obvious reason is the rise of social media, particularly Instagram (but of course it started with blogs, Tumblrs, YouTube). This has created a way to bypass traditional channels across all industries, not just fashion, music, beauty. Anyone could, essentially, have a go.

Influencers are fundamentally like celebrities/brand ambassadors, but the fact that they are “real people” makes them more trustworthy and authentic as their followers can emulate them, they can buy into their lifestyle (or the idea of it) – something you can’t do with superstar celebrities as they are unreachable, a dream. Whereas the “girl next door” wearing mid-priced jeans and eating Acai bowls for breakfast is much more accessible. In traditional marketing channels, a brand promotes itself. But if you think about how people trust other people’s opinions, then you can see how consumers trust your brand a lot more if it’s endorsed and recommended by someone they like and believe. It creates a much more authentic connection.

How was the data for this collected? For this particular report, we have focussed more on the “cultural influencers”. These guys aren’t necessarily the commercial influencers who will help brands sell products (some of them do or will in the future), but they are all young creatives who are doing something interesting and worth tracking. They are tastemakers, innovators and some of them trailblazers, who are starting cultural movements, coming up with innovative ideas and solutions and making an impact. We worked with local freelancers who travel across the continent for this particular report.

What are some of the trends that you have seen change when it comes to influencers trends over the years? The rise of sneakers and “ugly shoes” (comfort sandals like Birkenstock) within the fashion arena could be an example. Sneakers like Adidas Stan Smith, Vans skate shoes and pool slides have always been in sports stores, but because an influencer or a tastemaker starts wearing them, they suddenly start appearing everywhere. I think, in this particular instance, it was a positive thing because they got people into comfort shoes and now it has become more acceptable for someone to wear sneakers in a more formal environment.

However, often, social media can really “kill a trend” as it is so saturated that nobody wants it anymore, it totally loses its cool factor. Some things might have “a moment” but because they are classic and timeless they kind of stick around (for example, biker jackets, kimonos), but some things have a very short trend life and they quickly become uncool when over exposed (for example studs a few years ago, man buns, kale, and the #cleaneating movement, sharing every single detail of your workout/gym selfies).

What does this report tell us about influencer trends specifically in Southern Africa? This report looks at the broader picture of what is happening in Southern Africa from a more cultural point of view. WGSN is a global company and there is a lot of focus on the African continent at the moment, so this gives a brief insight on the movers and shakers, those people who are standing out because they are doing something interesting and timely.

On that note, what are some things you look for when identifying an influencer? Their taste level: is it current/relevant/good? Their network: are they part of a wider cultural movement? Not necessarily famous or important people (although it’s also important for them to have a wider reach and impact), do they have the “right” followers? Numbers are important, of course but it’s also very much about quality rather than quantity. These are the type of influencers I personally follow, but we of course need to be aware of all the big (commercial) influencers, even if they are not necessarily to our taste. Brands look at many different things when they engage with an influencer: number of followers, engagement of the followers, whether they fit the aesthetic of the brand, other associations they have. Some brands prefer to use established names other brands are really good at spotting them early in their career.

Why is a report like this important especially for brands and businesses? It gives insight of what is happening in the region and who is doing something worthwhile, particularly for global businesses and brands who are not as familiar with the region. And for local brands and businesses, it is also interesting because quite often we look outwards and take for granted what is happening next door. It’s also important for local brands to know who/what global brands are looking at within the region and find interesting and worth writing about.

Do you think the role of influencers will evolve over time? If so, how? Yes definitely, it will need to evolve (like everything!). I think the “cultural influencer” will remain because that’s more of a figure ingrained within society that influences cultural shifts. They are more subtle, and often even unaware of the impact they are having.

But if we are talking about the more commercial influencers, the Insta-girls and boys, people are already starting to question that very authenticity that made them likeable in the first place. Most posts nowadays are sponsored, and also the perfect, glossy life they seem to be having is quickly getting boring, cliché and tiring – and clearly not real.

I feel people will seek a new sort of authenticity, although of course, this will not happen overnight. We are seeing some great young people standing up for causes they believe in and using Instagram as a platform to voice their concerns and raising awareness of social issues as opposed to show how pretty their salad and #greengoddess juices look (Rowan Blanchard, Amandla Stenberg, Xiuhtezcatl Martinez to name a few).

Teen magazines like Teen Vogue are actually very interesting reads nowadays, with great political and diverse coverage, strong opinions and analysis. Still, it remains a fashion magazine, a hint that you can be into fashion but also interested in world’s affairs and social issues! It really shows how the new generation is seeking other things. I know it’s only a small percentage, but the idea of simple product placement within an Instagram is quickly getting outdated, and people will move on and seek something else, hopefully more interesting and meaningful. So the figure of the influencers won’t disappear but it will need to evolve like everything else.

Some of the influencers found in this report include: 

Perfumer Marie Aoun, founder of Saint d'Ici

Writer, feminist and self-love activist Siphokazi Veti 

Swaady Martin the founder and CEO of the Swaady Group and Yswara 

Performance artist, musician and writer, and one half of art duo FAKA, Desire Marea (Buyani Duma) 

Stylist and Art Director Gabrielle Kannemeyer

Johannesburg-based multidisciplinary creative collective The Sartists


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