Who run the world?

Rihanna's Snapchat feud shows how much power big-name influencers now wield

27th March 2018

If you’ve ever derived any joy from using the internet, then chances are that at least some of it came from Black Twitter. Whether it be Big Shaq, #OscarsSoWhite, Black Panther’s success, or any of the 90 billion viral Drake memes, Twitter’s Afro-Caribbean users around the world always appear to be ahead of the curve when it comes to things that will influence life and shift culture.

Given the Mystic Meg levels of clairvoyance, Black Twitter has had so far, people looking for the next big thing have rightly began paying attention to it. And last year, among all the chatter, a simple trope describing fashion briefly appeared and vanished again. Behind the punchline was a stone-cold reminder of fact: “It’s ugly until Rihanna says it isn’t.”

Of course, adoration and worship of Rihanna from all corners of social media is far from uncommon. But this was one of the first examples of a meme which acknowledged an unholy amount of clout that the Bajan pop superstar has. A breath, a look, an appearance from her sets gears in motion in fashion houses and recording studios around the world. As time goes on, she seems to make her titanic impression felt in the commercial world all the more, and recently, Atlas finally shrugged.

#SnapchatIsOverParty

Before the fateful day that Rihanna decided to strike a blow to Snapchat, the cute social selfie-taking app’s journey to becoming a publicly-traded tech giant had already been tumultuous. Optimistic valuations, a critically-panned new layout and the botched launch of diversification products like Spectacles have all left Snap Inc with red faces on the stock market in the past. This time, a third-party advertisement was their undoing.

For those unfamiliar with the story, the advert was for a downloadable version of the “would you rather?” game and featured a demo question: “Would you rather a) Slap Rihanna or b) Punch Chris Brown?”.

Naturally, given the high profile events that preceded the 2009 Grammys where Brown assaulted his then-girlfriend, this poorly-conceived and hastily-approved ad caught a ton of flack online, including Rihanna herself who chimed via, of all places, her Instagram story.

She encouraged all within reach of her words to ‘throw the whole app away’. And they did. They really did.

In a statement, she dressed down Snapchat for not being her “favourite app”, for trivialising and shaming her and other victims of domestic violence, and encouraged all within reach of her words to “throw the whole app away”. And they did. They really did.

Galvanised by Rihanna’s rallying cry, a small but noticeable subset of Snapchat users began to get behind the idea of deleting their apps — led in part by, you guessed it, Black Twitter. Even television host Christine Teigen, a Twitter impresario and meme queen in her own right, got in on the act.

The result? Within 48 hours of Rihanna’s statement, over a billion dollars was wiped off of Snap’s stock market valuation, representing a 5% plummet in shares and knocking off a reported $150 million off of CEO Evan Spiegel’s personal net worth to boot. How’s that for clout?

Rihanna’s statement was the first from a public figure of her stature to clearly position Snap’s main competitor — Instagram stories — as the superior option

In financial terms, this is a drop in the bucket and it’s possible for Snap — which has lost over 25% of its valuation since its ostentatious IPO in March 2017 — to bounce back.

Perception wise, however, it doesn’t look good. Not only does Snapchat look corporately callous and out-of-touch with the socially-aware world it was designed to serve in the first place, but Rihanna’s statement was the first from a public figure of her stature to clearly position Snap’s main competitor — Instagram stories — as the superior option. Losing the cool wars, particularly in this day and age, may not be fatal, but it could very well signify the beginning of the end for Snap as part of youth culture.

It’s an influencer’s world, we just live in it

This isn’t the first time that what Forbes calls The Rihanna Effect has been felt. Just last year, Rihanna dropped her inclusive range of Fenty Beauty products, forcing competitors to create a wider range of darker makeup shades to keep up. She’s been a one-woman stimulus package for the pop music industry too over the years, turning down songs written for her which go on to become hits for other artists, everything from Sia’s Cheap Thrills to Ed Sheeran’s Shape of You. For all her accomplishments as a musician, humanitarian and businesswoman, Rihanna’s greatest talent might be as an exquisite trendsetter and tastemaker.

It’s not just her that companies like Snapchat need to convince though, it’s others that near her level of influence. When Kylie Jenner complained about the Snapchat redesign via Twitter a month ago, they lost a further $1.3 billion dollars in valuation. That’s extra significant when you consider that Jenner famously used Snapchat to extend her brand, and her popularity, along with others like DJ Khaled, helped prop up the legitimacy of Snapchat in the lead-up to its IPO.

So with the Rihanna-Snapchat fiasco in our rear-view, we have to ask ourselves what we learnt. And I think the clearest lesson here is that, for better or for worse, influencer marketing may be what social brands and tech companies have to live and die by in future.

A key marker for venture capital firms looking to invest in startups is organic growth, something new businesses are painfully aware of. Forbes states that 80% of millennials don’t trust traditional advertising but 58% would tolerate sponsored content which entertains and contains authentic personalities.

Young people love to feel part of something, whether that’s a social group or a social movement

This is where people who have organically built an audience by being themselves online come in. The days of an obviously PR-managed public image are definitely passé — the authenticity-tinged approach that celebrities like Stormzy and Cardi B are using is very in.

We may not like ads, but young people love to feel part of something, whether that’s a social group or a social movement. We’re also 70% more likely to take recommendations from friends than from adverts, so the friendlier companies make their marketing, the more effective it will be. Artists like Khalid and 6LACK have hit singles just from Kylie Jenner using their music in the background of her videos. Compare that with something so obviously artificial and targeted like Kendall Jenner’s Pepsi commercial, it’s clear that less is more.

It remains to be seen whether there’s a ceiling to the effectiveness of influencers. After all, the controversy with Run The Jewels member Killer Mike and the NRA shows that celebrities are people too and they can be misled or manipulated. Further, a study by fashion website Dealspotr claims that millennials are pickier about which influencers they trust than ever before, preferring quality content over sheer number of followers.

Nevertheless, it should make for an interesting few years ahead as the major tastemakers flex their muscles. What if Rihanna decides to throw her weight behind #DeleteFacebook or #MarchForOurLives next? All I’m saying is, the powers that be should be afraid. Very afraid.

27th March 2018