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Fast fashion e-retailer Shein is at the center of immense online backlash after a recent influencer marketing campaign failed to accomplish the one thing it sought to do: Improve the public perception of its brand. 

Shein recently flew a group of U.S.-based influencers to China for a behind-the-scenes tour of their Innovation Factory, where the brand creates and tests new clothing designs. The brand’s goal was to prove, once and for all, that there was no sweatshop labor behind their garment production.

The world's largest ecommerce retailer has previously been accused of human rights abuses in its Chinese factories in addition to growing environmental concerns surrounding fast fashion.

Videos produced by influencers on the trip, which included creators Dani Carbonari, Kenya Freeman, and Destene Sudduth, promoted Shein’s labor practices and stated the allegations of abuse were only rumors.

Unfortunately for Shein, the public wasn’t convinced by the rosy narrative the influencers presented.

With a staggering 81% of consumers placing their trust in the recommendations of friends, family, and peers over those of a brand, the impact of influencers on ecommerce cannot be understated. However, it’s crucial to earn and respect that trust.

Let’s look closely at what happened and what your brand can learn from the Shein backlash.

What Went Wrong: Shein’s Big Influencer Marketing Mistakes (And How To Avoid Them)

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1. Lack of authenticity and transparency

One of the most troubling aspects of Shein's campaign was its lack of authenticity and transparency—instead, it felt like propaganda. 

Videos from the campaign introduced us to the Shein Innovation Factory, a state-of-the-art facility in Guangzhou, China. Influencers on the trip were seen touring the factory and interviewing factory workers about their treatment and day-to-day work. 

While this sounds innocent, Shein was attempting to improve a tarnished image following allegations of 18-hour workdays and forced labor in their factories, as revealed in a recent documentary by Britain's Channel 4.

In a now-deleted video, Dani Carbonari, known as @DaniDMC online, condoned Shein’s labor practices, explaining that she was initially skeptical but had her “eyes opened” during her factory tour.

However, it's important to note that Shein bought and paid for her positive perspective, which she openly shared on social media. In a separate video by Destene Sudduth, the influencer proudly stated, “They weren’t even sweating”—a tone-deaf statement amid concerns about sweatshop labor.

@itsdestene_ Replying to @Melanin 👸🏿 Codi👑 im thoroughly enjoying this experience and seeing things with my own eyes 🫶🏾 @SHEINUS #SHEIN101 #SHEINOnTheRoad #desteneandbrandon ♬ original sound - Destene and Brandon

 In this video of the Shein factory tour, Destene Sudduth stated, “They weren’t even sweating,” in response to Shein’s allegations of sweatshop labor.

2. No quality control

Granting influencers creative control is valuable for authenticity and genuine engagement. However, brands and retailers must review the final content to ensure it aligns with their brand voice and values.

You want to be proactive in catching any potentially harmful statements or misrepresentations that could arise. Take, for instance, the scenario where an influencer argues that a factory isn't a sweatshop because nobody is sweating. That's not the kind of association you want for your brand.

By implementing quality control measures, you can effectively identify and address these slip-ups, protecting your brand's reputation and preserving a consistent message. It also helps avoid any misunderstandings or misinterpretations that create a disconnect with your audience.

3. Underestimating consumers

Shein’s ultimate failure was underestimating consumers’ intelligence and skepticism. Consumer trust in brands is at an all-time low, and according to a 2021 report, only 34% of consumers trust the brands they use

It’s essential to gauge consumer sentiment prior to launching a campaign and structure your strategy and messaging accordingly. Whether the allegations against Shein prove to be true, opting for the “nothing to see here” approach was doomed to fail from the start.

Conscious consumerism is in, rose-colored glasses are out. Your customers are more likely than ever to weigh your business's social and environmental impacts before making a purchase. It’s critical that your marketing campaigns reflect your brand values, but they should also support your customers' values.

underestimating consumers screenshot
TikTokers were quick to question Shein’s intentions and the campaign's credibility in the comments on a video posted by Destene Sudduth. 

4. Influencers vs. public relations

Shein’s campaign may have been an attempt at damage control, but matters were only made worse by how their influencers responded to the backlash.

Remember: Influencers are not trained to handle the intricacies of navigating media controversy. Influencers are entertainers first and marketers second. Their strength lies in creating and inspiring, not public relations.

In her original follow-up video, Dani Carbonari stated, “You would’ve done it too,” in response to the comments questioning her support and promotion of Shein. Naturally, this response prompted more backlash, and the video has since been removed. 

While it's important to hold influencers accountable for their actions and messages, it's equally necessary to take proactive measures to vet, brief, and prepare influencers for potential mishaps or unforeseen circumstances.

5 Best Practices for Influencer Marketing Campaigns

To better understand how Shein missed the mark with their controversial campaign, let’s quickly review the best practices for influencer marketing:

  1. Research and understand your audience: Conduct thorough research to understand your target audience's preferences, values, and interests to select influencers who resonate with them.
  2. Establish clear brand guidelines: Provide influencers with comprehensive guidelines that define your brand's voice, values, and desired messaging for consistent and aligned content.
  3. Foster genuine authenticity: You’ve got to be real. Encourage influencers to be genuine and true to themselves while promoting your brand, building trust and stronger connections with the audience.
  4. Review and approve content: Set up a system for reviewing influencer content to ensure it aligns with your brand's messaging, values, and quality standards. 
  5. Measure campaign performance: Define key performance indicators (KPIs) for your campaign to track its effectiveness and ensure a positive return on investment.

Remember: Be Real Or Be Gone

Shein dropped the ball this time, but that doesn’t mean influencer marketing can’t provide significant value to ecommerce brands. With a proper campaign strategy and management, an influencer campaign can help improve brand awareness, loyalty, and revenue.

Social media presents a lucrative opportunity for ecommerce marketers, especially with TikTok’s push to grow global ecommerce sales from $4 billion to $20 billion. Just be careful to balance impactful sales messaging and preserving authenticity. 

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Michelle Leighton
By Michelle Leighton

Michelle Leighton is a seasoned content writer and social media specialist with a remarkable track record in building thriving online communities. Michelle excels at translating customer insights and market trends into compelling content strategies that spark engagement and foster meaningful discussions. Michelle's work has been featured by The Indie Media Club, The CMO, The Ecomm Manager, Narcity Canada, Input Magazine and more.