How Adidas is using smaller-scale influencers

While the influencer boom has created virtually unlimited options for brands to reach fans, it also created a serious problem for Adidas: consumer fatigue.

Adidas instead is looking to create its own influencers, driven by the insight that a large part of its target audience wants to create their own fame but couldn’t because they lack the global reach a business like Adidas does. What started as a low-key network of micro-influencers who promoted Adidas on dark social platforms like WhatsApp in 2015 has evolved into a collective of brand ambassadors at a global level. Still, chances are you won’t recognize the star of Adidas’ recent global ads.

Four years ago, Ehsan Abassi was one of 70,000 people who took part in a series of street football events run by Adidas. Shortly after, he was recruited to join the brand’s network of micro-influencers and eventually became a fully fledged member of its Tango Squad FC football team of influencers. Somewhere along the way, Abassi went from a local influencer to a bona fide brand ambassador. Now, he can be found alongside footballers Lionel Messi and Paul Pogba, the stars of Adidas’ football business, in a series of global ads.

Abassi’s emergence as one of the faces of Adidas is emblematic of how crucial influencers like him are to the brand’s ongoing attempts to mine shifting cultures around sports, particularly football.

The most recent example of the strategy was the Tango Squad FC show. For the last two seasons, Adidas has featured some of the best street footballers from its network of micro-influencers in a series that charts their journey as the brand’s first social media football team. There were 12 episodes for the first season and 11 for the second. Some episodes were as short as eight minutes, while others were as long as 40, for example. Not having predefined times meant each episode was as long as it needed to be without unnecessary padding, said Gareth Leeding, group creative director at We Are Social, who worked on the campaign.

When it came to charting the structure of each episode, the Adidas took inspiration from Netflix’s use of viewing data to commission content. Adidas’ marketers used data from YouTube to help decide what players to focus on and the frequency of scene change as well as spot where in each episode viewers replayed repeatedly to watch certain skills. Reviews of the data were done at the start of each season, at the midway point, and after each episode. The conclusions were then used to steer the production team’s choices when it came to the content commissioned and direction of the season.

Instagram’s video channel IGTV was also featured on the broadcast cycle for the show. Some episodes had behind-the-scenes content that was posted to IGTV throughout the series. For now, IGTV is still in the test-and-learn pot when it comes to how much Adidas creates for it.

“Whether it’s through paid media or on Stories on either Snapchat or Instagram, there’s a place for six-second ads to promote your latest product,” said Stephen Cleary, social media manager at Adidas Football Global. “We needed the longer format to tell stories with these kids who are at the start of an amazing journey. The challenge is how we sell this content in a way that we know our consumers will want to watch.”

The episodes racked up 41 million views across YouTube, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter over two seasons, nearly half of which happened on YouTube where there were 17 million unique viewers, according to Adidas. Those views amounted to over 100 million minutes on the video site over the same period. Subscriptions to Adidas’ football-focused YouTube channel were also boosted by the show, said Cleary, who declined to say by exactly how much but acknowledged it played a role in getting the number up to 1.4 million over the last 18 months.

Beyond reach, softer, brand-oriented metrics were prioritized when evaluating the micro-influencer-led show. When it came to tracking engagement across influencer Jack Downer’s profile, Cleary said the advertiser focused on its branded presence on his Instagram account and how well his fans responded to those posts versus others.

“It’s a different approach to working with someone purely based on the very large following they have and the reach that offers,” said Cleary. “Someone like Messi has his own ranges and footwear that we can track against, so it’s quite hard to compare metrics we’d use for those posts with what Downer does, for example.”

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