Pop-star Selena Gomez is an international celebrity with 144 million followers on Instagram. That’s second only to soccer icon Cristiano Ronaldo who trumps her by 500 followers.
So you might think companies would jump at the opportunity to enlist them as brand ambassadors. But companies are increasingly turning away from deals with mega stars like Gomez and Ronaldo and tapping lesser known social media personalities to represent their products. Too often, though, the liabilities involved in working with so-called micro-influencers are overlooked.
Companies can do more to protect themselves by simply using the same high level of caution with non-celebrity influencers as is used when entering arrangements with household names.
Influencers are becoming sought-after for two primary reasons:
- they are considered more cost effective, and
- their endorsements are often seen as being more authentic and better able to reach a highly engaged audience.
In fact, it is estimated that nearly 80 percent of professionals in fashion, luxury, and cosmetic industries in the U.S. and Europe implemented influencer campaigns last year.
However, the line between the traditional celebrity and the influencer is not as clear-cut as it once was. While influencer marketing continues to be far cheaper and can be more effective in reaching potential buyers, many influencers have shifted from casually filming videos in their bedrooms to becoming highly recognizable household names. Influencers are increasingly transforming this celebrity to build their own brands. With this transformation comes more risk.
While many companies have rapidly embraced influencer marketing, their legal strategies haven’t always kept pace. Missteps around content ownership and the lack of cohesive policies around disclosure requirements have led to costly and drawn out legal battles.
Accordingly, we suggest treating influencers like more conventional celebrities, specifically by focusing on the following.
1. Social Media Content Ownership
Companies should ensure that influencers are aware that sharing any image containing copyright-protected works might be infringing on third-party intellectual property and privacy rights and establish indemnity clauses and/or holdbacks for infringement by an influencer in any contract.
Further, while it is standard for influencers to own the content in social media posts, the brand should be sure both to retain the right to re-use it for future campaigns or advertisements and the ability to require the influencer to take down a post.
2. Design Collaborations
As influencers grow in popularity, many have established or are seeking to establish their own “brand” identity. Deals with influencers now go beyond mere endorsements, as many influencers aspire to launch their own product lines. This creates a gray area: does that, let’s say, pocket design belong to the company or is it emblematic of the influencer’s own brand?
In 2015, when Becca Cosmetics entered into a partnership with makeup artist and influencer Jaclyn Hill, it appears the company failed to establish ownership of the product packaging design of their wildly popular “Champagne Pop” collection. When another cosmetics company called Morphe later collaborated with Hill to launch a new “Vault” eyeshadow pallet with an arguably similar packaging design, Becca sent Morphe a cease and desist letter, prompting Morphe to file a lawsuit, leaving the two makeup companies embroiled in a legal battle. (See Morphe LLC v. Becca Inc., No. 2:18-cv-06667, C.D. Cal.)
Where both company and influencer may be competing for brand recognition, agreements with influencers should clearly specify which party owns the various elements relevant to the design collaboration and require an assignment of rights where necessary.
3. Risk of Reputational Harm
Brands may also want to make sure contracts with influencers protect against the reputational harm that can be associated with an influencer’s behavior, and not just focus on number of followers.
Influencers, like conventional celebrities, can become embroiled in scandals which can embarrass companies they work closely with. For example, beauty guru Laura Lee’s eponymous makeup line was recently dropped by Ulta Beauty after fans of rival beauty guru Jeffree Star uncovered racially charged tweets Laura sent in 2012.
To protect against these potential reputational risks, Companies should add mortality and non-disparagement clauses to the influencer’s contract, allowing them to terminate the relationship and/or recover damages in the event the influencer does anything that would reflect unfavorably on the brand.
4. Disclosure Requirements
In April 2017, the FTC sent letters to 90 influencers and marketers reminding them of their obligation to clearly disclose their relationships with brands when endorsing them on social media. The issue here is not always whether companies know that influencer disclosure requirements exist, but rather whether brands monitor their influencers’ compliance with these requirements.
Indeed, lack of compliance is so widespread that the FTC cracked down on companies and influencers and released updated FAQs clarifying how and when to comply with the 2008 Endorsement and Testimonial Guides.
While companies can’t shift the legal burden of disclosure to an influencer, they can protect themselves by crafting proactive compliancy policies, training influencers in the best practices for disclosure, and including a clear, simple, and specific disclosure mandate in the influencer’s contract. Companies must also actively monitor the influencer’s compliance.
As marketers have enthusiastically seized on influencer marketing as a relatively inexpensive and powerful way to reach their target consumers, the influencer economy has evolved. Influencers have increasingly transformed themselves into quasi-celebrities, building their own brands as they amass larger followings and command higher fees and more lucrative brand deals.
As the line between traditional celebrity and the influencer blurs, risk to brands engaged in influencer marketing increases. Legal departments can no longer engage with influencers as unsophisticated amateurs and should rethink the way they enter into agreements, incorporating some of the same protections they would when engaging with traditional celebrities.
Ilana Lubin is a partner in Crowell & Moring’s New York office and a member of the firm’s Corporate Group. She represents clients in the apparel, fashion, retail, luxury, and beauty sectors regarding cross-border and domestic mergers and acquisitions, joint ventures, and private equity investments.
Lauren Aronson is an Advertising & Media counsel in Crowell & Moring’s Washington, D.C. office. She represents clients across a variety of industries in advertising and marketing law.