Influencer Marketing

The origins of influencer marketing

Influencer marketing isn't new. It existed way before Instagram, and its history can teach us a lot. Let's find out more.
Posted on
September 28, 2022
10 minute read
Deepti Jain
Marketer at SARAL

The modern influencer marketing industry, as we know it, began with the rise of social media, which gave brands new opportunities to connect with consumers. Then, the idea of working with influencers as brand ambassadors really took off.

In 2015, data revealed that 67% of consumers are influenced by online reviews.

In 2018, the New York Times coined the term “nano influencer,” alluding to the fact that anyone can now become an influencer. Marketers saw an opportunity to use social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter as tools for connecting with consumers.

The idea was that if you could connect with an influencer in your industry who has a big following, you could get your brand message out without spending money on expensive ad campaigns.

This statistic shows just how powerful word-of-mouth and influencer marketing can be when it comes from someone you know rather than an unknown brand spokesperson or celebrity endorsement.

The sheer number of social media users out there makes influencer marketing even a more logical choice for businesses looking for ways to engage with customers on a more personal level.

In this post, you'll learn more about how influencer marketing came to be and its impact on businesses today and over the years.

The history of influencer marketing

Influencer marketing is not a new concept, but it has become more common lately.

Word of mouth has been the oldest form of marketing, with influencers being those who transmit information to others en-masse. In the past, they were usually friends or family members. Then, brands started to use big-name celebrities to promote their products in exchange for a hefty sum.

Today, influencers are putting word of mouth on steroids. For the uninitiated, influencers can be anyone with a large following on social media who shares information about products and services through their accounts.

According to Forbes, the first major influencer marketing campaign was created in the 1760s, when Wedgwood created a tea set for King George III’s wife.


To capitalize on the power of royal endorsement, Wedgwood advertised in London newspapers and named specific pieces for individual members of the nobility.

This was more than 200 years before Instagram influencers were even born, but the principles were already in place: Find someone with influence over their peers or a large audience that trusts them and looks up to them, then give them something they want to share with their friends.

While it may have been intended as a publicity stunt, Wedgwood’s strategy was a precursor to modern-day influencer marketing campaigns — except that most brands today don’t have access to royalty or aristocrats with large followings.

The earliest modern example of influencer marketing comes from Mark Twain (1835-1910), who authored The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Thanks to his success, Twain was consecutively featured in three ads, including Great Mark Cigars, Mark Twain Cigars, and Mark Twain flour!


Another example comes from Coca-Cola in 1931, when they started using Santa Claus to push their soda during Christmas – during the height of the great depression. The ad was regularly featured in acclaimed magazines like the Saturday Evening Post, Ladies Home Journal, National Geographic, The New Yorker, and others.


When you look at how much influence Santa had over people’s holiday shopping decisions, it's easy to see why influencer marketing works today — even if we didn't call it that back then.

It was just the beginning before people saw the rise of celebrity endorsements.

Marlboro capitalized on the phenomenon by featuring a string of models and celebrities that embodied masculine sophistication to create a narrative that men who smoked Marlboros were rugged and masculine.


At a time when smoking cigarettes was considered only men’s domain and women smoking were looked down upon, Marlboro came forward to shift the narrative. They featured glamorous, sophisticated celebrities in their ads to depict smoking as glamorous – doing a complete volte-face from its image of being unladylike.

They debuted with the tagline "Mild as May" in reference to the flavor of their cigarettes and the women smoking them.


Their campaigns were so successful that they became one of the best-known brands in history. In fact, it still remains popular today.

The numbers affirm this.

In 1955, when the Marlboro Man campaign was started, sales were at $5 billion. Within two years, they'd increased 300% to $20 billion.

Brands like Nike and Pepsi started teaming up with celebrities with real preferences and mass followings to reach out to more people than ever before — or to reach out to people who would never even think about buying their products otherwise (like children).

Cindy Crawford’s glorious and much publicized Pepsi campaign from the 1990s comes to mind.


The campaign wasn’t just about selling soda; it was about selling an image and lifestyle. Pepsi saw the opportunity to use a supermodel like Crawford to sell its product — and it worked. The ad was hugely successful, and Pepsi was able to reach a massive audience.

And then reality TV shows, such as The Bachelor, brought together real life and screen life. As the shows portrayed reality, the stars were seen as more relatable and authentic as compared to traditional celebrities – akin to the divide between big influencers and nano influencers today (more on this later).

Real People as Influencers

Influencers have always been around us, but their role and value were never appreciated until recently due to their massive following on social media platforms like Instagram and YouTube, where they share daily content on beauty, fitness, etc.

Reality TV personalities led the way, along with sports stars, models, and movie stars, until social media took over.

It isn't just celebrities who are being used in ad campaigns anymore. The popularity of reality TV shows, social media, and YouTube has made influencers more crucial than ever before.

Celebrities have always been used in ads because they have huge followings and people tend to trust them because they're familiar faces — but they're not always the best choice for every brand or product.

Many brands even prefer influencers because they tend to relate better with their audiences than celebrities do and can provide more relevant recommendations based on their own lives and interests.

For instance, Sperry launched a micro-influencer campaign to raise awareness for cold, wet-weather shoes. It worked as the brand partnered with influencers who felt a genuine connection to their brand and their product.


In fact, according to a study by Google, 70% of teenagers said they relate to YouTube creators more than traditional, world-famous celebrities. The study also found that 4 in 10 Millenials think their favorite creators understand them more than their friends.

This is from 2016.

But the first wave of influencer marketing didn’t appear from YouTube or any other social media. It started with mommy bloggers like Melinda Roberts and, who documented their tips on motherhood, daily ups and downs, parenting, and more in 2002 on their personal blogs.

The second wave of influencer marketing came from YouTube stars like PewDiePie and Bethany Mota, who gained fame for her DIY videos about fashion, beauty, and lifestyle.

As YouTubers grew in popularity over time, many brands began working with them through sponsorship deals or paid sponsorships. Some of these YouTubers have millions of subscribers on their channels today.

Fast forward to 2022: Influencers are everywhere now.

Many influencers from TikTok and Instagram, like Addison Rae, are household names and even sign their own shows and movies.


Witnessing the humongous rise of influencer marketing and gauging the massive potential, TikTok even created a $1 billion Creator Fund in 2020 to nurture influencers.

Types of Influencers over the years

1. Movie stars as influencers

One of the first types of influencers was the movie star. Celebrities have always been an essential part of advertising, especially when it comes to promoting luxury goods or lifestyle products. They represent something unattainable (or at least out of reach) that people want to emulate.

Influencers like Jennifer Aniston, Brad Pitt, and George Clooney have been paid millions of dollars to endorse products on TV, radio, and print ads.

Despite the rise of social media personalities, it's still one of the most popular ways for brands to work with influencers today.

Actors and other entertainers have long been featured in cigarette ads because they were seen as a way to get young people interested in smoking. In the 1950s, for example, film stars like Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, protagonists of "I Love Lucy," were used to promote Philip Morris cigarettes.


Philip Morris also sponsored the "I Love Lucy" show, and both movie stars were lifelong smokers.

Another example of a movie star, who was an influencer, is Bob Hope, a comedian. He promoted Chesterfield cigarettes as part of the "ABC" campaign in 1949.


These stars were seen as glamorous and desirable, and it was thought that if they smoked a certain brand, consumers would want to follow their lead and buy that brand too.

2. Sportspeople as influencers

One of the most common ways brands use influencers is through sports stars. This has been true for decades and is one of the most popular ways for brands to use influencers. There are many reasons this is so effective, but the primary reason is trust.

People trust athletes because they represent their favorite teams and do sports at the highest levels. These people have worked hard all their lives to get where they are now, making them relatable to audiences who want to be like them or aspire to be like them.

For instance, even before social media, Michael Jordan was a popular influencer worldwide. Any shop or logo with the background of his photo became an international success. Nike was able to get the best deal when they launched the iconic Air Jordan line.


The famed footballer, Cristiano Ronaldo, is another sought-after sports influencer. With more than 477M followers on Instagram, his profile has a 1.15% influence rate. An Instagram post of Rolando can have an estimated average of 6M Influence.

3. Reality TV stars as influencers

Reality television has become one of the most popular genres on TV, with shows like Keeping Up With The Kardashians and Love Island leading the way. These shows have made their stars household names, and it’s no surprise that brands now use them as influencers to promote products or services.

For instance, reality TV stars like Kim Kardashian and Kylie Jenner not only endorse other brands but now also focus on their own successful businesses, such as KKW Beauty and Kylie Cosmetics.

They also keep their audience hooked by showcasing their luxurious and glamorous lifestyle with a mix of personal posts.

4. Fictional characters as influencers

Throughout history, there have been many fictional characters that have been able to create such an impact on society that they have become influential in their own right. From literary characters like Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Ugly Duckling” or George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” to the many films based on books by J.K Rowling and Stephen King, fiction can be quite influential indeed!

As an example, let us take a look at one of the most famous fictional characters that ever lived – Santa Claus!

Santa Claus has been around since the 16th century and has become a firm part of our Christmas celebrations ever since. This jolly old man with his red suit and white beard brings joy and presents on Christmas Eve every year! Kids all over the world wait for him eagerly every December 24th when he delivers gifts under their Christmas trees or through their chimneys!

Other common examples include Superman, Harry Potter, and Captain America. Many people look up to them as role models or idols, who they want to be like when they grow up.

Another example of a fictional influencer is Barbie from the late 1950s. She has the biggest following on Facebook. Even her other social media account, Instagram, has 2.1M followers, and her Youtube account has 11M subscribers, where she vlogs.

Social media: a game-changer for influencer marketing

Influencer marketing is a relationship between an individual who has influence over others and the marketer who works with them to promote products or services. As we have seen, this type of marketing isn't new; in fact, it's been around for centuries.

However, social media has made it easier than ever before for brands to connect with their target audiences and find influencers who can help promote their products or services. As a result, brands are using influencers as a means of reaching consumers both directly and indirectly through sponsored content.

Influencer marketing has become a preferred strategy for brands because it allows them to connect with their target audiences without having to invest heavily in traditional advertising methods, such as print ads or television commercials.

The ROI in social media is also fast outpacing any other medium. As per studies, 60% of customers said they were influenced by social media or a blog while shopping.

And as many as 84% of Millenials suggested user-generated content from strangers has at least some influence on how they spend their money – with about 80% of marketers deeming it effective as well.

And with about 2.89 billion monthly users worldwide, Facebook is among the most influential social media channels. In fact, 52% of purchasing decisions are influenced by Facebook.

However, When it comes to influencers, 93% of influencers said they preferred Instagram for their influencer marketing campaigns.

Another major shift in influencer marketing: the rise of micro-influencers and nano-influencers

Another major shift in influencer marketing is the rise of micro-influencers – individuals with smaller audiences than macro-influencers but with more engaged and loyal fans.

Micro-influencers are often bloggers or social media personalities with smaller followings but higher engagement rates than macro-influencers. These individuals may not be household names but have built up a following on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and other social media platforms by creating content that resonates with their audience.

Micro-influencers have been around for years, but they’re starting to come into their own as a valuable part of an overall influencer marketing strategy. According to research, the market share of micro-influencers increased from 89% in 2020 to 91% in 2021.

One of the reasons customers respond better to micro-influencers than macro-influencers is because they feel like they know them better. Their audience also tends to be more engaged and likely to convert into sales.

Another study found that TikTok influencers who have less than 15,000 followers (usually called nano-influencers) see an engagement rate of 17.96%. It beats out Instagram’s 3.86% average.

From the brands' and marketers’ perspectives, the reason for this trend can be twofold:

  • First, marketers are looking for more authentic, relatable content from influencers who aren’t celebrities or models;
  • Second, it’s easier for brands to work with micro-influencers because their audience sizes are more manageable than those of macro-influencers.

With the right approach, micro-influencer and nano-influencer marketing can help you get better ROI on your influencer marketing investment – without breaking the bank.

Time for you to reap the benefits of influencer marketing!

In the end, it's simple – influencer marketing is important because people trust other people before they trust companies, and they'd rather buy from someone they feel is real and someone that has been recommended to them by a friend or celebrity.

When done right, influencer marketing can augment your existing strategy, you can do it without spending a fortune, and it's possible to do this without the celebrities or the crazy ROI promises.

As a brand, it's time for you to start seeing the benefits of influencer marketing and take advantage of this tool that can take your brand to new heights. And with third-party platforms like SARAL – making it easier to connect with influencers in your niche – it’s the best time to leverage the power of influencer marketing.