‘Like’ them or not, car influencers shape the way the industry sells
INTERNATIONAL - Alan Enileev won the Need For Speed championship at the World Cyber Games in 2006.
He was one of eight Russians selected to carry his nation’s flag for the opening of the 2014 Summer Olympic games in Sochi, Russia.
Now, at 31, he has transferred his love of all things virtual onto the world of cars, waxing rhapsodic—mostly in Russian—about the inner workings of Bugattis and G-Wagens to his 2.1 million Instagram fans. He’s so popular that he got his stately, silver-haired father into it, too: Papa Enileev commands 104,000 Instagram followers of his own.
Enileev is a leader in an increasingly crowded field of high end automotive “influencers.” Tim Burton, a round-faced Brit who goes by the name of Shmee150, has 1.8 million followers on YouTube; Alex Hirschi, known online as Supercarblondie, has 2.3 million.
The Big Stories
In August, Hirschi helped unveil the Bugatti Centodieci, a $9 million, 1600-horsepower supercar at the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance in California. In October, a single Instagram post from her about an unknown car brand called DS Automobiles earned 2.6 million views—and a predictable wave of inquiries about its cars. She claims that many of her adoring fans admit they were never interested in cars before they started watching her videos.
“I feel like I’ve widened the interest in the automotive world,” says Hirschi, who prefers the term “content creator,” rather than influencer. Whatever you call it, the high profile is exactly what makes her irresistible to automakers.
Hirschi, Burton, and Enileev each make enough money from their social media content to support comfortable lifestyles in Dubai, England, and Russia, respectively—and to cover extensive travels to the most glamorous cities and Instagram photo-worthy hotels in the world. Car companies such as McLaren, Porsche, and Lamborghini vie to host them—all expenses paid, plus project rates and appearance fees—to win glowing posts featuring videos of their cars.
“We recognize that to have that contribution, we can really influence the opinion of thousands or millions of people,” says Katia Bassi, Lamborghini’s chief marketing officer.
It’s a high-stakes game set in two volatile landscapes: Both autos and media have undergone massive revolutions in recent years. The losers are those unseen by millions. The prize in last place is irrelevance.
How Do They Do It?
A car influencer—defined in modern terms—is someone who receives gifts, travel, accommodations, or cash in exchange for exposure on their social media channels for the entity that provided the gifts. That individual deliberately and systematically courts automakers as a business model while not being directly involved in the car business—unlike, say, five-time Formula 1 Champion Lewis Hamilton, who has 13 million followers on Instagram.
For many, it is their lifeblood.
In general, car influencers can charge around $10,000 per post for every million followers—more if they have exceptional engagement rates. (A good engagement rate on Instagram is around 5%.)
Seb Delanney has 226,000 Instagram followers and 142,000 YouTube subscribers. He got his first influencing gig when he was 14: He received a free hat in exchange for wearing it in a video. “That was what sparked me to think that, eventually, this may become a source of income,” he says. These days, though he declined to discuss his annual take, Delanney says he commands enough money to support a comfortable lifestyle in London.
Sometimes Delanney will approach a company with a specific idea about something they can do together, including a road trip, surprising fans, or a track day. He does a lot of work for certain clients on a long-term basis, such as Tag Heuer and McLaren. He also makes sure to keep regularly in touch with contacts he has made over the years “to pitch my ideas to their social media or communications teams and hope they take the time to read and respond,” he says. More often, the work he gets comes in response to direct requests from press officers at automotive brands and marketing agencies.
“I genuinely think the most hidden fact about this business is the work behind it,” Delanney says. “It’s very competitive, with very long hours and constant thought process required. Social media is 24/7, so you need to work constantly and love what you do accordingly.”
The Day-to-Day Grind
In the never-ending cycle of the social media world, the all-day, every day qualifier is all too real. Comments come in from all over the globe, like a water-torture drip, and engagement with fans requires round-the-clock vigilance. In this line of work, weekends and holidays aren’t exactly built-in scenarios.
“I work all the time and find it hard to switch off,” Hirschi says. “You are also at the mercy of the platforms you post on. They tend to favor content creators who post very regularly, meaning: If you take a break, the algorithms will work against you.”
What’s more, she says, it’s surprising how many people expect her to advertise their businesses for free: “They don’t realize how hard it is to grow an engaged audience of millions of people.”
For Delanney, generating new ideas is often the hardest part: “I have made over 700 videos—that’s 700 ideas, 700 edits, 700 video shoots,” he says. “It requires a lot of work.”
Then again, each influencer has a distinct style. Some bow to the algorithm chain-gang death grip more than others.
“Tim is absolutely flat-out busy with the creation of content for his YouTube channel,” Burton’s assistant wrote in reply to an interview request, noting it would take six months before Shmee had an opening in his schedule for a phone call. “It is part of the life of an influencer: never time and always lived by the algorithms of YouTube.”
What’s the Allure?
The human perspective that influencers provide forms their strongest allure, first for their audiences and consequently, for the automakers.
“They humanize what we do,” Bentley Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Adrian Hallmark told me recently in Monaco. We had sat down for an interview about the company’s new $215,000 Flying Spur; nearby, a lithe, platinum-haired young man recorded social media videos about Bentley’s latest trademark fragrance.
“If you’re 23 and you’ve not got a career yet, the thought of a Bentley or a Rolls-Royce must be so alien and irrelevant—at least, it was for me when I was that age,” Hallmark says. “But if you can get across human stories—human content—then, when you’re with Bentley, it doesn’t feel like a pompous, old-fashioned, arrogant organization.”
Most influencers are under 30 years old; many are under 25. They are natural allies for automotive brands that have, since the beginning of time, striven to reach younger buyers. Rolls-Royce, for instance, reports that its average buyer is 45 years old, a commendable figure, considering the average age of luxury car buyers is above 50.
“Automakers are smart to be using [influencers] to get the word out about their product to anyone under the age of 60,” says Spike Feresten, a screenwriter with a successful automotive podcast. “They need to—because while the over-60s are at home reading the newspaper, the rest of us are on social media.”
The numbers are undeniable: Some 88% of consumers trust online recommendations as much as face-to-face recommendations, while 70% of teens think that YouTubers are more reliable than celebrities, according to Social Media Today.
Auto companies experience varying degrees of social media engagement for car buyers, ranging from 25% to 75% and higher, depending on the numbers you read. Luxury brands, in general, outpace others when it comes to interactions per post. According to a recent report, Volvo generated $5 million worth of media exposure after two weeks of working with Aimee Song, a benign young woman based in Los Angeles hired to promote the new XC90 SUV. Song shared three Instagram posts and an Instagram story with her 5.4 million followers; Volvo declined to comment.
“Influencer” as a “Disgusting Word”
Influencers have drawn vociferous critics. Beyond the ambivalence some automakers have about merely speaking about them on the record (Ferrari and BMW, among others, declined to comment for this story), there are significant ethical ramifications to the relationship. When car companies transfer undisclosed amounts of money, products, and travel packages to private individuals, those who receive said gifts are expected to play nice. That means influencers are unlikely to say anything disparaging—ever—about products that may not, in fact, be very good.
“Influencers are easily confused with actual car critics—but they’re essentially doing advertisements,” says Jonny Lieberman, a longtime columnist and video presenter at Motor Trend. Lieberman has built a devoted following for his contrarian takes on supercars and his blunt linguistic style. “Because they’re all independent contractors, they don’t ever say anything negative, no matter what. And they would never say anything negative, because they are making income from the manufacturers.”
The scenario creates an unnatural feedback loop of automotive leaders surrounded by people professionally incapable of critiquing the products they’re shilling, Lieberman says. “I hope that in 30 years we all look back on the term ‘influencer’ as a disgusting word.”
Dan Neil, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who now works for the Wall Street Journal, shares the concerns about the “moral hazard” that influencers have introduced into the automotive industry, notwithstanding their popularity.
“I think there are a lot of fantastic young people who are doing really good stuff [on social media]—and more power to them—but it’s a confusing landscape, especially for newbies as they seek authority,” Neil says. “You don’t have to be much of an expert to have a million followers.”
In short order, the thinking goes, automakers could do away altogether with public relations departments and interacting with professional journalists. They could funnel the money they spend working with traditional media back into marketing, with no risk of even constructive criticism.
Ultimately, consumers would suffer if product performance, reliability, and safety were to decline for lack of professional feedback and critique. Since consumers vote with their wallets, the end result would be felt at under-performing car companies.
What’s the Future?
Hirschi/Supercarblondie, for her part, notes that she is “not an automotive expert”—and that’s the point: “I speak in relatable terms, without too much car lingo, so more and more people can engage with the car world,” she says. “And I’m not afraid to ask questions on behalf of a whole community of people who want to learn but are afraid they’ll be shut down.”
Many brands feel comfortable playing in this field, with caveats. Lamborghini’s Bassi says the 56-year-old Italian marque approaches influencers as an “evolution” of media to be appreciated, not feared.
“Our customers are very, very young right now; they are the same people following influencers on social media,” Bassi says. “At the same time, Lamborghini is always careful about the trends. We don’t want to swim in a big ocean of 5,000 people pretending to be influencers. We have to carefully select the right ones.”
At Mercedes-Benz, Willem Spelten says the right influencers can make the industry more “interesting and lively.” The global senior manager for brand and product communications at Mercedes-Benz sees plenty of potential for healthy growth.
“If an influencer stays true to himself or herself, and if they continue to produce their own stories, then there is certainly a potential for them to continue to grow,” Spelten says.
Indeed, London’s Delanney says his income has been “steadily increasing each year.” Hirschi says she rarely, if ever, has to approach brands for paid collaborations the way she used to. Now they reach out to her.
“There are some brands who completely ignore this movement, but I think it’s only going to hurt them in the end,” she says. “It’s unfortunate when I see brands spending a lot of time and money on creating online content that hardly anyone watches.”