Brands Are Reevaluating Influencer Deals Following Kanye West’s Fallout

Kanye West’s litany of controversies—including wearing a “white lives matter” t-shirt and making anti-semitic statements that emboldened similar hate speech in Los Angeles—has led to a public reckoning for the brands that were associated with him.

The first to drop the rapper was Balenciaga, the luxury fashion brand that had previously collaborated with West. Adidas, the athletic company that oversees the production of his clothing brand Yeezy, faced intense scrutiny over its slow response.

By the end of October, at least 12 companies had severed ties with the rapper.

West’s collapsing brand deals reveal the inherent risk of influencer marketing: “At the end of the day, you're not just dealing with a brand,” says Jordan Leschinsky, director of strategy at creative communications agency Codeword. “You're dealing with a person, and people are fragile and unique and aren't always consistent.”

West, clearly at the high end of what is considered an influencer—his portfolio includes chart-topping albums and a sneaker company that brought in about $1.5 billion in sales—isn’t, however, the only influencer who has faced disintegrating brand deals. In 2019, YouTuber Olivia Jade Giannulli was dropped by brands like Sephora and Dolce & Gabbana following her involvement in the college admissions scandal—a moment that entertainment lawyer Jon Pfeiffer says was a turning point in how brands approach influencer contracts. While contracts used to focus on prospective conduct, Pfeiffer says these events led companies to cover statements or actions from the past.

Those moral clauses often exist on top of termination clauses that allow brands to end a partnership for any reason, Pfeiffer says. Though he hasn’t seen West’s specific brand deals, Pfeiffer says it’s likely that such language was within the contracts—allowing companies to quickly sever ties.

Leschinsky compares the brand and influencer partnerships to dating—brands have to ask the right questions to determine if they align with the creation and consistently re-evaluate those relationships.

Up until now, Leschinsky says most brands have been focused on increasing influencer marketing. But in the aftermath of West’s comments, Leschinsky says, “brands will be more cautious in general about who they're partnering with.”

But according to Eric Dahan, CEO of Open Influence, an influencer marketing service, investing in more influencers could help mitigate harm. To that end, Dahan says, having a wide variety of smaller influencers prevents a brand from putting all of its eggs in one basket—a tactic that could leave them vulnerable should that influencer find themselves embroiled in controversy. This is where brands may turn to micro-influencers—a rising group of creators with less than 100,000 followers.

“When you're working with a big celebrity, you're concentrating a lot of focus of your delivery of your messaging on that person,” Dahan says. “As opposed to when you're working with a bunch of influencers, it's a lot more sort of segmented or diversified.”

Still, some brands will always be determined to sign an influencer based on how many followers they have. This is why Lisa Jammal, CEO of digital media company Social Intelligence Agency, says brands have to be thorough whether signing on a major celebrity or a niche influencer. Jammal likens the process to one similar to getting a driver’s license—just as the government asks people to prove they can responsibly drive a car, influencers have to prove they can follow a brand’s guidelines.

“Everybody wants to be an influencer,” Jammal says. “To go back and look and see their history—these are just conversations that agencies and brands are going to need to be more thoughtful with.”