Should Your Brand Hire a Virtual Influencer?

xiao liu headshot

By Xiao Liu, Serim Hwang, Shunyuan Zhang, and Kannan Srinivasan

When the meal-kit delivery company HelloFresh wanted to promote its latest line of healthful menu items, it made an increasingly popular choice: It hired an Instagram lifestyle influencer. Jenna Kutcher is a Minnesota-based mother of two who has more than a million followers, and as part of a 21-day challenge, she and 15 other influencers hired by the brand posted recipes and photos of meals they made using HelloFresh, each tagged #RefreshWithHelloFresh. The campaign produced 461 influencer posts and generated 5.5 million impressions, with 20% of the influencers’ followers mentioning HelloFresh on Instagram—a clear success.

Results like that helped influencers earn some $21 billion in 2023. But such partnerships are not without potential pitfalls. Influencers’ credibility is built on trust, which can prove delicate. Sometimes a post is perceived as inauthentic, or the influencer exhibits off-platform behavior that’s not aligned with the image or values of the brand being promoted. And as influencer marketing grows, so do examples of promotional relationships that caused disillusionment and regret.

In 2017, for example, Adidas Originals created an Instagram ad featuring Kendall Jenner as its brand ambassador. Detractors argued that there was nothing “original” about Jenner: “[Has she] really faced it all? What could a bourgeois like [her] have possibly faced?” In late 2023 China’s “Lipstick King” Li Jiaqi, a pioneer among fashion and cosmetic influencers with 76 million followers, publicly lost his temper with one who complained about the price of eyeliner, excoriating the commenter for not working hard enough to grow his income. The incident prompted a backlash and a tearful public apology by Li. When Chriselle Lim, a fashion and beauty influencer, collaborated with Volvo on posts promoting the carmaker’s eco-friendly product line, critics highlighted the disconnect between the green promotion and Lim’s high-consumption, materialistic lifestyle.

Read the full Harvard Business Review article.