How personal controversies affect influencer-brand association

Personal controversies in the lives of brand ambassadors often take a toll on the names they endorse. But will brands face a similar impact when influencers run into controversies? speaks to experts to know their views

Benita Chacko
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Social media influencer Kusha Kapila was recently trolled on Twitter after a Clubhouse conversation, which she was a part of, was shared online.

It is seen that personal controversies in the lives of brand ambassadors often take a toll on the brands that they endorse. For example, Gillette dropped brand ambassador cricketer Hardik Pandya after his comments at the chat show Koffee with Karan ignited a controversy.

Kapila is a popular influencer and is associated with major names. So will brands face a similar impact when their influencers run into controversies just like brand ambassadors? spoke to experts from the industry to understand its impact.

Harikrishnan Pillai

Harikrishnan Pillai, CEO and co-founder, TheSmallBigIdea, said, “Big brands usually prefer staying away from controversial public figures. Brands associate with public figures for what they stand for. If what they stand for is something tricky, then the brand runs the risk of that rubbing off on them, especially when the public figure is more involved, like being a brand ambassador. The influencers who have a more short-term relationship don’t really do large damage to a brand’s public reputation.”

“Influencers are roped in because they are able to create certain chatter. There are topics sensitive to a larger community and no brand wants to invite that ire onto them. So they usually skip the frequently controversial ones,” he added.

Krishna Menon

Krishna Menon, Chief Operating Officer, The QYou, said brands do not get affected by such controversies and they may not disassociate with influencers due to this.

“You will have such incidents happening even in the future when influencers will get trolled. There will be some kind of reaction for every communication that goes out. But I don’t think brands will get affected by it. Unless it is a huge controversy, like the recent Sushil Kumar case, which is criminal in nature, where influencers can have a bad effect on their brand, it's unlikely that they will disassociate with them,” he said.

Ramya Ramachandran

Ramya Ramachandran, Founder and CEO, Whoppl, shared an experience when a television celebrity associated with an influencer campaign got involved in a controversy. There were some social media comments seeking the boycott of that celeb. However, after waiting for things to cool down, they nonetheless shared the campaign.

“We have to wait till things become better and only then have a branded association with them. Because releasing the campaign when the controversy is at its peak will just ruin the reputation of the brand as well as the influencer. If a celebrity who is part of an endorsement gets embroiled in a controversy, then good PR, reputation management, etc., are done so that the brand is not affected. Usually, on the internet, everything settles in a week's time and after that, no one really remembers what happened. Many a time, it's best to remain silent during that time and then everything is back to normal,” she said.

When these influencers face a personal crisis, it tends to reflect on their work as well. Take the recent case of Nisha Rawal, a popular mom influencer, filing a case of domestic abuse against her husband, Karan Mehra. Though it is a personal matter, it is now in the public light and it has become relevant to the brands she is associated with.

Shradha Agarwal

Shradha Agarwal, COO & Strategy Head, Grapes Digital, said that one of their clients was to hire Mehra for an influencer campaign, but due to his divorce case and allegations of domestic abuse against him, they had to drop him overnight. Even Rawal was to be signed for a mommy brand but eventually was dropped.

“When you choose her as a face for a mom brand, we are choosing her for her personal life—she's a mom, she's using the brand in her personal life. It's not a character that she's playing in my film; then I'm picking her only for her acting capabilities. But she’s chosen for the choices she makes in her personal life: her background, her personal relationships. What she’s going through in her personal life has impacted her and she's not getting any influencer work. It's not personal anymore. The influencers are selling their personal life and we give them business for that,” she said.

Citing the example of American footballer Colin Kaepernick, who took the knee during the national anthem before a match in 2016, saying he could not stand to show pride in the flag of a country that oppressed black people, Pillai said that some brands stand by their ambassadors when they take a bold stand. Nike featured him in their campaigns with the slogan, ‘Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything’.

“Sometimes it's also about standing up for something. But it also depends on the brand's personality,” he said.

Menon said that brands like to associate with a messaging that resonates with them. “If somebody is talking about a relevant social issue, and the tide is against the issue, brands might want to earn cash on it. Or if the DNA goes with what the influencers are saying, brands would want to cash in on that. And if it is relevant, then massy brands would want to associate with that if it's a right topic and it goes with their communication, messaging and marketing values,” he said.

Ramachandran said brands like to associate with good work of influencers, like the recent Covid relief work in which influencers participated by amplifying the reach.

“It all depends on how brands jump on the bandwagon. It should not be for sales because of the times we are in. It has to be very subtle, with no real sale value to it. It’s more for awareness or extending their service,” she said.

Agarwal said that in today’s time when dissent is discouraged and freedom of speech and expression is under threat, brands are all the warier about an influencer’s stand.

“When an influencer stands for any religious issues or gay rights, brands tend to get wary even though it's their personal choice. Brands just want to play safe. Calls are taken based on how safe the brand wants to play, what is the current circumstance of the influencer, is it too serious, etc. Today people are so fearful to voice their opinions; then imagine brands would be super fearful,” she said.

So how can influencers stay away from these controversies and ensure these do not impact their work?

Pillai suggests there are some topics that tend to keep brands away. “I am not saying that you should do this or not do this. It is up to everybody. But if they associate themselves with some subjects, there is a possibility that brands will distance themselves from them. Be very wary of politics, religion, commentary on oppressed sets,” he said.

Ramachandran said influencers have to remain strong in their stance. “A problem occurs when you don't really stand for what you're saying and instead say it because of peer pressure. That becomes controversial because you're not true to yourself. If you take a stance towards a community or a cause, and strongly feel about it, then you can avoid controversies,” she said.

personal controversies influencer-brand association