Make-up brand Morphe, who regularly partners with YouTube beauty influencers, announced on Friday the termination of all commercial activity with YouTube celebrity Jeffree Star and his retail brand, Jeffree Star Cosmetics. Morphe finally made the move after weeks of a growing backlash among the YouTube beauty community against Star and his friend and co-collaborator, Shane Dawson, for racist remarks. Morphe, up until this juncture, led in brick and mortar sales for Star, hosting events at shopping malls and even collaborating with him on their Morphe X collection.
So, how does a brand make the decision to cut ties with an influencer for disparaging behavior?
While rare, especially as most brands do in-depth due diligence to really understand the background and personality of an Influencer they’re going to sign an agreement with, bad behavior still can inevitably happen. While brands can structure approval for content or products, they cannot predict or control an Influencer’s overall behavior, both online and offline. Each brand has differing values, as well as levels of sensitivity around those core values, and most brands make sure to structure a contract such that if the Influencer behaves in a way disparaging of those values, they can immediately cut ties and mitigate damage to the brand’s reputation.
The bigger the influencer, the louder the voice, and therefore the more attention on the resolution of the partnership. Macro or celebrity influencers tend to have longer-term partnerships or contracts with brands than other tiers of influencers, who are typically retained on a campaign by campaign basis. This long-term partnership provides more opportunity for disagreement and causes more liability for a brand as a large portion of their marketing may be tied to that individual influencer.
As a lawyer and CEO of Influence Central, I ensure that all our social media brand campaign contracts with high-level influencers include a morals clause. This clause is designed to reserve the brand’s right to immediately terminate the agreement and require the Influencer to remove all brand posted content if the Influencer engages in any act or conduct that is offensive to the decency, morality or social propriety, resulting in public scandal or ridicule. It’s highly likely that Morphe had similar language in their contract with Jeffree Star and his brand Jeffree Star Cosmetics.
When it comes to ending relationships with an influencer in the swirl of controversy, brands want to make sure they get it right. While their social responsibility and desire to do right by the community and consumers is paramount, brands also want to avoid a rash judgment without all information. That said, once incriminating video surfaces and it’s apparent the allegations against an influencer partner are true, the brand should act as quickly as possible both for its own reputation, and to support the values it claims to follow.
Morphe doddled, likely due to internal conversations and debate on the subject, too long to cut ties, only doing so after weeks of public acrimony with YouTube beauty influencers calling out Jeffree Star and Shane Dawson’s racist behavior, and customers starting to challenge and protest the connection. In this case, the behavior in question involves a history of racist comments that Morphe should absolutely have known about if they did any background checking before entering a contractual agreement with Jeffree Star Cosmetics.
At Influence Central, we recently had a family-focused campaign for a national brand, in which we engaged a high-level social influencer family. The Dad turned out to be sending inappropriate texts to an underage fan, who in turn flagged the texts for her mother. Screenshots of the texts got leaked on social media. As the controversy broke, the brand cut ties immediately and Influence Central ensured that all brand content was taken down. This not only preserves brand values but sends a message to all creators that the behavior won’t be tolerated.
At the end of the day, brand reputation, bottom-line profits and future influencer trust are just a few of the impacts severed partnerships can have on brands. In addition to the marketing plans and budget allowance, an influencer of Jeffree Star’s status brings in a huge revenue stream with the actual retail product sold and collaborative product lines. Despite ultimately severing ties, in the time it takes to make the decision, a brand can lose a significant customer base. While some will return once they feel the brand has done right by them, it is much easier to lose followers/customers than gain their trust back.
By association, consumers remember the brand as endorsing this behavior and it can create powerful harm to a brand reputation- from boycotting of products to, in the case of Morphe, having other creators, such as Jacki Aina in this instance, refuse to work with the brand. A brand that has sunk as much money and energy into an influencer of Star’s caliber may not be quick to trust another partner of similar status.
Controversy can prove a double-edged sword: the swirl of controversy itself driving powerful impressions and engagements. The flip-side is the destructive nature of that controversy when it repels consumers away. There’s a fine line brands must walk between controversial and offensive. A brand may continue to work with a controversial influencer as (similar to mainstream celebrities) talent of that status tends to be big personalities. Not everyone is going to like or agree with them on every basis. In some cases, the brand may feel their customer does resonate with that person. When an influencer crosses the line to offensive, as Star has with racially insensitive content, a socially responsible brand will make the decision to cut ties.
The ultimate takeaway: Brands need to do their homework, with an in-depth look at the social media content as well as offline behavior of an influencer. They need to ensure values align and make sure their agreements contain a morals clause as discussed above. It’s imperative to look into the history of that influencer in terms of prior content they’ve posted even before reaching macro status. Lastly, they should find a seasoned influencer marketing partner to help them navigate the high-end influencer space, and safely avoid or best navigate any damage that occurs.