Influencer marketing is not a new strategy. As long as there have been ads on tv and radio, there have been celebrities pitching products.

In today’s increasingly ad-saturated world, working with influencers is often a great way to reach new audiences, and further engage your current base. Why, then, do so many brands fail miserably with influencer campaigns? Ranging from ineffective or tone-deaf to outright offensive, it is easy to find examples of influencer marketing gone wrong and think, “Why on earth did they think this was a good idea?”.

If consideration has been given to work with an influencer, how do you find who makes sense for your brand? There are a multitude of factors to consider: who is popular among your brand’s demographic, where are they most popular, and perhaps most importantly, how should they be used?

The “who” is important, yes, but just working with an influencer may not optimize their potential impact for your brand. The argument can be made the “how” is a more important decision, although it is occasionally the least considered factor. If the content isn’t engaging, then how much does it truly help your brand?

Often times, arriving at the “how” comes down to a single question, what do fans of this influencer like to see from them? Seems simple, yet celebrities regularly appear in ads doing something out of character for them, and the ad falls flat. For example, do you remember Venus and Serena Williams’ McDonald’s ad? If not, it’s probably safe to say you won’t read about it on any “Top 10 Most Effective Influencer Campaigns of All Time” lists.

We could have fun going down the rabbit hole of swing-and-miss influencer campaigns for hours. Instead, for the purposes of this blog, let’s look at an example of a campaign executed brilliantly, from a brand with plenty of influencer experience.

When you think of Pepsi, what comes to mind? The taste of cola, the sound of fizzing carbonation, the color blue? What about Michael Jackson, David Beckham, Britney Spears, or Beyoncé?

The global giant has long been a mastermind of using influencer marketing, helping pioneer the marketing technique in early Joan Crawford and Joanie Sommers ads in the 50’s and 60’s, before working with titans of entertainment and sport such as Michael Jackson’s iconic 1984 TV ads.

Influencers are typically famous for a reason, yet many brands publish content that features celebrities in a way that does not play into their popularity, with poor results. What do you remember about celebrity Pepsi ads? Likely it’s Michael Jackson dancing or Britney Spears singing, and not them telling you to drink soda.

Still not convinced influencer marketing can make an impact? Look no further than Pepsi’s current football campaign, featuring Lionel Messi and Mohammed Salah. The soda brand has used athletes for many years, including Messi, but it was how they were used this year that is worth exploring.

Focusing on Instagram for the purposes of this blog, let’s take a look at the social media followings of Messi and Salah. At the time of this writing, Messi has 111 million followers, and Salah has over 24 million. While those numbers are eye-popping, and could no doubt help any brand, it isn’t hard to scroll through their pages and find paid content with unimpressive performance, relative to their follower count. Now let’s look at the behind-the-scenes Pepsi posts from Salah on February 7th and Messi on February 8th.

The content concept is simple, football players performing football tricks. In a world where the vast majority of content feels clearly scripted, Pepsi bet on authentic, behind-the-scenes quality content standing out. The results were tremendous. Mo Salah’s trick garnered nearly 11 million views, with Messi’s exceeding 27 million; both posts quickly became the most viewed ever on their respective channels.

Why was the content so heavily viewed? Perhaps because the videos sparked spirited debate amongst fans, with some decrying the videos to be obviously fake, while others insisted they could not be more real. The posts earned Pepsi media coverage the world over, even spurring some incredible fan recreations.

The “real vs. fake” debate has been created before by Pepsi, and in many ways, creates greater engagement amongst fans. Consumers are left with one common thought at first viewing “This can’t be real…. can it?”. Fans of Messi and Salah love to believe their favorite superstars are capable of anything, and the nay-sayers love to point out all the ways they think the video cannot be real. A sliver of doubt ensures regardless of which side of the fence a commenter stands on, Pepsi wins.

So, you’ve read this article and viewed a few videos, and now you’re curious if influencer marketing could be a fit for your brand. “Which lessons should I take away from this column?”, you may wonder. Let’s quickly summarize what gave Pepsi success here:

· Authentic-looking content

· Content that showcases the skills or reasons for the influencer’s popularity

· Native posts from influencer-managed pages

Influencer marketing may not be a great fit, or affordable, for every brand. However, brands seeking to benefit from this strategy should remember an important lesson learned from Pepsi’s football campaign: consumers and fans enjoy watching their favorite people do what they do best.