Olivia Jade, a well-known influencer with over 1m followers on Instagram, is at the center of a college admissions scandal in the US.

In a criminal complaint that resulted from an investigation conducted by the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI), Jade’s parents, Mossimo Giannulli, founder of the multi-billion dollar fashion brand Mossimo, and Lori Laughlin, a popular actress, are alleged to have paid $500,000 to ensure that Jade and her sister were admitted to the University of Southern California (designated as recruits to the crew team).

Because of her status as a high-profile influencer, the scandal has brought new attention to the world of influencer marketing. Here are five things brands can learn from it.

Risk is inherent in influencer marketing

When brands work with influencers, they need to accept a simple, inconvenient truth: no amount of due diligence can eliminate the risk that an influencer has skeletons in his or her closet that could be discovered and cause a backlash.

Here, none of the brands working with Olivia Jade could have known that her parents were allegedly engaged in fraud related to her college acceptance and that she would be ensnared by a scandal of this nature.

Pay attention to what influencers are posting

While there was no way brands working with her could have known that Jade’s parents allegedly engaged in an illegal scheme to ensure she was accepted into a top university, they apparently missed or didn’t care about the content she was posting, some of which was less than flattering.

As Vox pointed out, on more than one occasion, Jade posted content indicating that she didn’t take her education very seriously. In fact, in one YouTube video, she told viewers “I don’t know how much of school I’m going to attend. But I do want the experience of, like, game days, partying. … I don’t really care about school.”

While Jade later apologized for her comments, they arguably revealed an attitude that brands would have been wise to consider.

Did the brands working with Jade see this content? If they did, it would have been reasonable for them to question whether the influencer they were working with was promoting values consistent with their brand.

Indeed, some of the brands that have worked with Jade support education in various ways. For example, Sephora, which had a partnership with Jade, offers tuition reimbursement as part of its employee benefits program.

If brands weren’t aware of Jade’s repeated comments about education, perhaps they should have been paying closer attention.

Have a clear qualitative rationale for working with an influencer

In many cases, brands work with influencers because of the reach they promise. In other words, it’s all about the numbers. Followers and apparent engagement with followers drive influencer marketing decisions.

While there’s no debating the fact that numbers are important, brands are wise to look beyond the numbers and evaluate the qualitative reasons they might want to align themselves with an influencer. Does the influencer represent lifestyle characteristics important to the brand? Is the influencer involved in activities and causes that the brand supports? Is there otherwise something special the influencer brings to the table that makes him or her uniquely qualified to be associated with the brand?

When brands can’t articulate a strong qualitative rationale for working with a big influencer, they should consider whether the numbers alone justify a relationship, especially when the relationship constitutes a partnership of some kind.

Be wary of social media mobs, but be prepared to respond quickly

Brands need to be prepared to respond quickly when influencer scandal hits. This isn’t always easy. Social media mobs can be very scary and powerful, and there’s a risk that by giving into them before all the facts are known, brands can respond in ways that are expedient in the short-term but foolish in the
long-term.

In the case of Olivia Jade, her closest brand partner, Sephora, decided to terminate its relationship with her without delay and pulled the Olivia Jade x Sephora collection it had co-developed with her. That seems like a reasonable response given the facts of the situation, which involves a criminal complaint
that resulted in the arrest of her parents.

Each situation is different and brands should think about the criteria for making such decisions about when to end relationships beforehand.

The long-term damage might be minimal or non-existent

While there were calls to boycott brands associated with Jade unless they terminated their relationships with her, it appears that most of the ire produced by the Olivia Jade scandal has been directed at Jade, her family, and the system that allowed the scandal to occur in the first place.

Sephora will probably experience some loss after pulling Jade’s product line, but provided that it didn’t dramatically overstock products from that line, it would appear that even Sephora won’t lose big.

Obviously, the fact that influencer scandals typically aren’t the end of the world for brands doesn’t mean that brands should ignore risk altogether, but it can provide them with the confidence that lasting harm can be avoided if the risk is well-managed.

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