Live By Influencers, Die By Influencers

June 28, 2022
Social media influencers can be great for marketing -- except when things start to go bad.

Depending on social media influencers to market your food product has some significant advantages. Influencers cost considerably less than most other forms of marketing; you can often get their attention with nothing more than free samples. They’re a good way to reach younger consumers, and they have a higher degree of credibility than standard marketing channels.

Except when things go bad.

That’s what Daily Harvest, a meal-kit service specializing in vegan products, is finding out. Daily Harvest launched in 2016 with a marketing campaign heavily dependent on social media and celebrities like Gwyneth Paltrow and Serena Williams. Influencers, mostly on Instagram, were its major advertising vehicle.

Starting earlier this month, Daily Harvest suddenly started fielding reports of severe illnesses among consumers of its French lentil & leek crumbles. The perfectly terrifying symptoms included liver enzyme levels that were twelve times higher than normal; two consumers had their gallbladders removed.

The culpability of Daily Harvest, if any, is unclear. There has been no report of a definite link, and the FDA will only say that it’s investigating. Daily Harvest initiated a voluntary recall of French lentil & leek crumbles on June 19, warning people not to consume them. But what infuriated consumers who spoke to CNN was what they perceived as an insensitive response by the company.

One recounted how, after days of being “doubled over in pain” after consuming a Daily Harvest crumble, she was in an emergency room for a CT scan when she got an email telling her to throw away the crumbles and offering a $10 store credit: “It was just like a huge [obscenity]. The fact that they’re just handling it so poorly feels like such a huge slap in the face.” Others complained that the company’s initial response was a June 19 Instagram post that featured only a promo picture of the product with a link to “an important message” that directed them to a blog post on its website not to eat the product.

Ironically, it was a social media post, on TikTok, that touched off the controversy. Abby Silverman, a digital creative director at Cosmopolitan magazine, described her elevated liver enzymes and other symptoms after consuming the crumble. Her post blew up and turned into a resource for other Daily Harvest consumers.

One of the victims “feels that some of the onus has fallen on influencers to alert their followers,” according to the CNN report. That in my opinion points out a big problem with depending on influencers for marketing, especially when things go wrong: You lose control of the message. If there’s a health risk or some other dire situation, can influencers be counted on to get the word out? Conversely, if a scare or rumor is being bandied about, there’s nothing like a few influencers to really blow it out of all proportion.

Reputation and goodwill are precious things in business, especially consumable goods. Social media and the internet in general have become a way to build and burnish reputations at the speed of pixels. But what the internet gives, it can take away with a few mouse clicks.

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