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Lazada Thailand has been involuntarily dragged into the spotlight over the past few days after a TikTok video for its 5.5 sale by influencer Aniwat Prathumthi enraged royalists. Its spokesperson acknowledged and apologised for "the unacceptable mistake of a content created and posted by" the influencer on 4 May. It told MARKETING-INTERACTIVE that it "fully recognises that the content was hurtful and demeaning to human dignity".
"As soon as we became aware of the incident, we immediately demanded the post to be taken down. Our brand does not condone the mockery of others including those with disabilities. It is absolutely unacceptable and a breach of Lazada’s value of being respectful and inclusive," the spokesperson said. Multiple media outlets report that Intersect Design Factory, which was responsible for influencer management and content creation for Lazada's 5.5 sale, had contacted influencer Aniwat Prathumthi to create a video for the event. The agency has since "expressed condolences for the incident" in a statement.
Lazada's spokesperson explained that while Intersect Design Factory has issued an apology, "this regrettable incident is also clearly a result of [the brand's] oversight", adding:
Had this content been through the proper vetting process, it would never have been published as it is against our values and principles.
Lazada also apologised for the hurt that it has caused, stating that the video is not in line with what the brand stands for. "We do take this very seriously and have spent time to review the feedback. We want to sincerely reach out to the public, our customers, and partners to say that we will improve our process to not let this happen again in the future," the spokesperson said.
Prathumthi's video caused an uproar in Thailand recently, especially among royalists who claimed that the wheelchair-bound character in the video was a "veiled resemblance" to Princess Chulabhorn. Meanwhile, others were also outraged that the influencer mocked individuals with disability. Although the video has been removed, the Royal Thai Army banned its units from purchasing from Lazada and the government is also mulling action against Lazada and Prathumthi.
Meltwater's statistics from 3 to 10 May showed a 1.4k (466%) increase in mentions in the topic compared to the previous week. Mentions per day also jumped 200 (466%), peaking on 6 May. The top keywords included wheelchair, royalists, video, publicly known medical condition, disabled person, and threatening king Maha Vajiralongkorn. Most of the chatter originated from Thailand followed by the US, Indonesia, Germany, Malaysia, and Singapore. Not surprisingly, 55% of the comments were negative while 43% were neutral.
As the issue has now escalated to a boycott, Archetype Malaysia's managing director Tiam Siang Lee, told MARKETING-INTERACTIVE that it is critical to access how Lazada's business will be disrupted by this and how the uproar is affecting its stakeholders - including employees, sellers, customers, and partners. To monitor the public's attitude toward the ban and its effect on sales, Lazada should continue keeping track of what people are saying on various channels through active listening, he said.
"Most boycotts fade away in time and don't have much impact on sales. But this issue involves Thai officials, so Lazada should prepare to engage the key authorities, if necessary, to demonstrate lessons learned and sincerity to arrive at a resolution," he said, adding:
As the dust settles, it’s important that Lazada scrutinises its overall strategy, execution, and processes for influencer marketing to make serious attempts to fine-tune any gaps.
Along the way, Lazada should also capture what worked and what did not from the experience, which Lee said is useful in strengthening the organisation’s crisis operating manual. At a suitable time, Lazada should also plan and implement a recovery campaign to restore confidence if applicable – and be genuine about it.
Similarly, Nirote Chaweewannakorn, country director, Gushcloud Thailand said since the eCommerce platform has apologised and assured that it will exert more care in its marketing campaigns moving forward, there is nothing much Lazada can do with the exception of drawing up renewed and tighter internal marketing policies within the company and with agency partners.
"If Lazada were our client, I would suggest to take this time to relook our guidelines at engaging influencer and creative marketing as the world is moving towards cancel culture, and as influencers and the general public become more 'woke'," Chaweewannakorn said.
Giving influencers free rein while avoiding controversies
Influencer marketing has no doubt become increasingly popular. A report by influencer marketing and commerce platform, Partipost, as well as Quest Ventures, found that the number of brands in Southeast Asia spending more than 30% of their total marketing budget on influencer marketing has increased to 25.4% this year, up from 21.4% in 2021. Meanwhile, 69.4% of brands are spending 1% to 30% of their total marketing budget on influencer marketing.
Marketers have always been urged to give influencers room to experiment and create content that is in line with their style. This also helps better resonate with audiences, especially in an age where authenticity is very much valued. In Singapore, for example, Partipost's report found that authenticity remains an important factor that makes an influencer genuine and relatable to their followers, as followers view them as more "human" instead of a distant public figure.
While influencer marketing is banked on authenticity, this furore could have been avoided. According to Chaweewannakorn, different cultures perceive creativity and humour differently. As such, brands need to ensure diversity within the team to cross-check and ensure that the content will not be taken out of context and intention, he explained. At the same time, influencers will also have to be more thoughtful in the content they create and understand that their content holds more weight today than it did a decade ago.
When it comes to toeing the line between giving influencers free rein while ensuring the content does not stir up controversy, industry players are aligned on the fact that there should be boundaries established. Archetype's Lee acknowledged that it is important to respect the creativity of the influencers brands work with. However, when it comes to brand engagements, marketers are responsible for ensuring that influencers' content is reviewed before publishing - especially on how the brand is portrayed. This can be on check points such as campaign objective and messaging, as well as elements that may be deemed inappropriate or controversial. This will provide freedom within the framework to influencers where they can express themselves through their content while respecting the engagement brief.
Meanwhile, APRW's managing director of digital studio, Sharon Koh, told MARKETING-INTERACTIVE that the concept of influencer marketing has evolved greatly, from authentic reviews and opinions in the early days to paid partnerships and collaborations in the current age, with the latter being a known and accepted fact. The type of content created by influencers has, therefore, also evolved to content that is required to drive attention and engagement, as the influencers are paid to create those types of content.
"The influencers definitely should be given creative license to develop creative content that cuts through the clutter, but within established boundaries that still allow for content that best befit the style and personality of both the influencer and the brand to be created," Koh said. She added that this is not a rule book, but markers to create a safe environment for the influencer to explore his or her creativity.
Should influencer content be vetted before being published?
Clearly the TikTok video by influencer Aniwat Prathumthi has garnered international attention, however due to its controversial nature, the attention hasn't been a positive one. While it is natural to assume that the vetting of an influencer's content prior to publishing can result in it becoming less authentic and sterile as brand inputs will undoubtedly be given, Lee explains that the vetting process "as long as it’s done with openness where feedback can be exchanged and expectations are clearly aligned" will not result in inauthentic content being produced.
Commending Lazada, Lee said the brand has generally been consistent and thoughtful with its celebrity engagements – using the right personalities, at the right moment, for the right purpose. "It’s especially entertaining for someone like me, who loves the Thai pop culture. I sincerely wish the brand well and recovery from this experience," he added.
Agreeing with him is Chaweewannakorn, who said a sponsored or paid piece of content should always be vetted, and doing so doesn't take away from the authenticity. "In fact, it will force the influencer to create better and more meaningful content," he said. "How brands and influencers think about creative content should be limitless. Being in the entertainment and advertising industry for a long time, sometimes when you put OB markers, it does encourage creatives and influencers to think more creatively," he added.
Tips to fostering a successful marketer-influencer collaboration
One way to improve the marketer-influencer relationship would be to involve the influencer at the beginning to ensure that expectations are aligned. DDB Group Singapore's CEO Jeff Cheong said during a panel session at MARKETING-INTERACTIVE's recent Content 360 conference that content creators have their own native voice which resonates well with their following, hence, it is important to involve them in the creative process "and not use them as a classified ad".
Aside from this, APRW's Koh told MARKETING-INTERACTIVE that a good production and execution process should be put in place to prevent backlash and ensure a successful collaboration. And it generally starts at the selection stage where there needs to be a good fit between the brand, client and influencer. It is important for the agency to understand its client’s brand and the influencers well enough to recommend influencers that can be the best ambassadors for the brand, she said.
Establish clear brand guidelines and OB markers for the brand. I will always advise my clients, at the very least, to do the litmus test. Steer clear from anything racial, religious, and political.
Brands should also practice sending a written brief with brand guidelines to every influencer, along with expectations and dos and don’ts so that both parties are aligned. After which, marketers should take time to schedule a meeting or call to take the influencer through the brief. According to Koh, this is the best time to answer any questions, emphasise certain key points to note, and clarify any doubts.
"When the above process is done well, the influencer will be able to work his or her creative juice around the environment that the brand operates in. This process is not meant to stifle the creativity of the influencer but to prevent any unexpected negative outcome," she explained. Doing so also allows for less back and forth, as well as changes that the influencer needs to make to the content, reducing frustrations for both parties.
While Koh agreed vetting needs to be done to catch any potential faux pas early, she advised that brands refrain from changing content to the point where it becomes unnatural for the influencer's brand. If there are influencers who do not practice allowing clients to vet their content before they are posted, brands will need to fully evaluate these influencers before embarking to work with them. In this case, Koh said it is all the more important to go through the above steps, from establishing clear brand guidelines to sending a written brief, robustly with the influencer.
Also weighing in on the conversation was Partipost's head of marketing, Hillary Tam, who told MARKETING-INTERACTIVE that having a clear timeline allows the influencer to know if he/she is able to commit to the campaign as they usually work with multiple clients. Content creation takes time and different influencers have different turnaround times. According to Tam, a rough estimate would be up to a week to get back on a content angle and likely up to another week for content creation.
"A good tip would be to have the influencer on WhatsApp or Telegram so that while they shoot the content, they can quickly send it over for a quick quality check. It also allows for the marketer to give immediate feedback versus having them send across a fully completed draft that may require changes and the influencer would have to reshoot on a separate day," she explained.
Another aspect to take note of is payment terms. Without a doubt, money is always a touchy subject and brands should always be upfront about the payment terms before officially engaging the influencer. "This ensures that both parties are in agreement on the timeline before work commences. According to Tam, the usual payment term is 30 days however, some brands do take longer and influencers do appreciate being paid on time, similar to how marketers appreciate receiving content deliverables on time," Tam said, adding that overall, it is crucial to have open communication and not make assumptions.
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