Shein on the Road: Lessons for Brands, Influencers, & Everyone Else
Last updated on
September 18, 2023
This piece was written for our Insights newsletter, featuring Founder & CEO James Nord's thoughts on what's happening the influencer marketing industry. Subscribe to Insights here.
Let’s address the latest influencer trip backlash – Shein on the Road, now with 4M+ views on TikTok.
If you read the Insights newsletter, I'm assuming you know what happened, but I want to share some potential takeaways for influencers and brands.
What was Shein thinking with this influencer trip?
In many ways, this trip resulted in content that achieved what the brand wanted. They got overwhelmingly positive content aligned with the story they wanted to tell – that story being their manufacturing practices are merely misunderstood, workers treated well, and the incredibly discounted prices are due to technological innovation, not worker exploitation. I thought the influencers stayed on brief in telling that story, and it seemed like they genuinely believed it from what they saw.
What went wrong?
The fact that a large portion of these recent influencer trips unfolded on TikTok—where the creators’ content can be served up to anyone, not just their followers—is the root of some of the internet uproar around the trips.
When shit hits the fan, it is unfair to expect and ask influencers to be the seawall against a typhoon of drama. Several influencers have received intense backlash from the trip, including hateful messages.
I don't think paying Dani to do a follow-up video with scripted talking points in the face of the backlash helped Shein, and it certainly isn't a fair position to put an influencer in, even if you're paying them.
Where do they go from here?
It will be difficult for Shein to do brand-focused marketing for quite some time, especially on TikTok. If I were advising them, I'd suggest a short break from doing any sponsored content and start easing in with product-focused posts in 4-6 weeks.
Lessons for influencers
99% of sponsored content an influencer will publish exists to help that brand sell products. You focus on the benefits, weave in your personal stories, and move on. There is the 1% where a brand asks you to help rehabilitate their image.
Charge a premium
If the ask involves diffusing or shielding a brand from controversy, you absolutely need to make them pay for it.
Do your research
You need to be confident in the story they are asking you to tell because you will be responsible for defending it. Key messages around sustainability, working conditions, equity commitments, or observation months should be prompts to do your own research, see where you stand, and what you're comfortable with.
Talk to the brand
If a brand is embroiled in controversy, ask them for talking points and discuss a strategy for addressing negative feedback. Ask about their expectations in case of overwhelming backlash. Will they want you to take the post down? Will they expect you to delete or engage with negative comments? Knowing the answers to these questions is best before you’re forced to ask them.
Thoughts for the rest of us
Influencers are powerful because they have the trust of their audience. For brands with complex stories or wanting to shift perception or address misconceptions, having a trusted influencer tell that story to their audiences is unmatched.
As we saw with the Shein influencer trip, social platforms and algorithms increasingly push that content outside their followers. When that trust and context don't follow, it opens the influencer and brands up to an unintended PR crisis.
Carbonari went live on IG, saying she should have looked into the brand more. “This whole experience has caused me to reevaluate myself, my brand, and to fight even harder for sustainability options for plus-size people and just be so much more particular with who I work with, do the research that I should have done from the beginning. I can take accountability for myself and my actions,” she said, “but I can’t take the fall for Shein.”
"I can take accountability for myself and my actions,” she said, “but I can’t take the fall for Shein.”