digital disruptors | Apr 12, 2021 |
West Elm is going all in on influencers

Influencer marketing in the fashion and beauty industries is a mature ecosystem, with its own celebrities, agencies, rules and culture. (Just because it’s a mature business doesn’t mean it always makes sense. For example, Addison Rae Easterling, one of TikTok’s biggest beauty stars, has a following bigger than the population of California—she’s 20.) By contrast, the home industry has been somewhat slow to embrace the model. If West Elm’s new ambassador program is any indication, that’s soon to change.

The program, called West Elm Collective, has two components: 20 content creators, called Insiders, who will have an ongoing relationship with the brand, as well as a series of featured Tastemakers each month.

The move is not entirely unexpected from West Elm. Years ago, the brand moved quickly to embrace the blogging community, frequently featuring bloggers in its catalogs and online platforms. In recent years, it opened a portal for potential collaborators—a pool of creators that has served as a springboard for many of its partnerships. “As influencer marketing became more of a million-dollar marketing industry, we were really well positioned to seize on it,” says Dru Ortega, the brand’s director of strategic partnerships, public relations and influencer marketing. “It was natural to think, ‘OK, what does this look like for us?’”

For its Insiders, West Elm has tapped not only content creators in the home space, like Portland, Oregon–based designer Max Humphrey and Baltimore-based designer Saudah Saleem, but also social media personalities who typically post about lifestyle topics like fashion, wellness or parenthood. The creators come from a mix of backgrounds, life stages, and geographic locations, and they excel on different platforms. (Their follower counts on Instagram range from 4,500 to 417,000.)

Each of the Insiders has curated their own West Elm shop with an assortment of products and will share recommendations with their audience. The program has the allure of a stylish friend with the enviable home that you’re always looking to for inspiration—and that’s by design. “They’ve selected their favorite West Elm pieces, many of which they actually have in their own homes, so their audiences, as well as our customers, will be able to see on their channels how these products actually live in a space,” says Ortega. “It’s taking the West Elm product out of our catalogs, off of our website and out of our stores and putting it into real people’s homes.”

Insiders make an affiliate commission on all purchases made through their shops. They will also be the first to preview the brand’s new collections, refreshing their personal shops (and bringing their followers along for a sneak peek) as they do.

Interestingly, none of these Insiders were new to the West Elm brand. Instead, the company approached content creators it had worked with in past campaigns, asking if they’d be interested in deepening the relationship. It’s a strategy that speaks to the changing nature of influencer marketing: Long gone are the days when brands would tap hired guns that fit a demographic niche for a one-off post. Now, the model is to develop relationships that evolve over time.

“In the past, we’ve worked on seasonal campaigns—a holiday entertaining campaign to delve into Latinx traditions in 2019, and then we broadened that into Passover and Ramadan spring entertaining last year and again this year,” explains Ortega, who began mulling how to turn those collaborations into an ongoing partnership. “The Collective is really a culmination of all of those campaigns—to say, ‘Hey, we’ve worked with some really talented individuals through these campaigns. They’ve all welcomed us into their homes, so how do we now open our doors to them?’”

For New York interior designer and influencer Alyssa Lenore, joining the Collective was a natural extension of her partnership with the brand in 2019, when West Elm helped outfit the new home she had purchased with her fiance. “I’ve always shared my favorite pieces with my audience,” she says. Now, she has a formal platform to point them to.

Florida blogger Rachel Owens joined the Collective after collaborating with West Elm on a sold-out pop-up shop at her local store and content around seasonal design refreshes. “It was really fun being able to help my audience learn how to transform their space with little changes,” she says. “I am a mom of two boys, a toddler and preschooler, but I also love luxury and timeless pieces that create an experience. I want that mom who feels like me to know that she can have the home of her dreams while also raising her family. I’m also super excited to share about the Greenguard-certified furniture that we can all feel good about.”

If its Insiders reflect the “best friend with good advice” approach, the Tastemaker platform is a more aspirational one. Tastemakers also curate a shop during their one-month spotlight, but the initiative collects notable names from fashion, as well. The program debuts with Brother Vellies founder Aurora James, Meso Goods founder Diego Olivero, and Maison Trouvaille founder Erick Garcia, and West Elm has lined up fashion designers Misha Nonoo and Jonathan Saunders for future editions.

It’s that unbridled enthusiasm for the brand that Ortega hopes will resonate. “Hopefully, they’ll be interpreting these pieces in ways that their audiences relate to,” he says. He’s also looking forward to opportunities to experiment across platforms. “What does an Instagram Live or a Clubhouse room with a few Insiders look like? Those are the elements that make me excited about how this can grow, and how some of these Insiders can grow with us.”

Eventually, Ortega also expects the Collective to grow—a swelling of the ranks once again fueled by past collaborators with a deep connection to the West Elm brand. “A successful influencer marketing program is about authenticity, shared values, and the way that you manage your relationships,” he says. “That comes with time, a genuine love for the brand and a genuine admiration for what the creator is doing. All of that together is what will make this succeed.”

Homepage photo: Courtesy of West Elm

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