What does Santa Claus have in common with a Roman gladiator?
Well, before you let your mind run too wild, how about we just tell you: They have both been a part of successful influencer marketing campaigns.
Contrary to popular belief, influencer marketing didn’t start around the same time people started posting selfies on social media. It’s actually been around a lot longer—millennia longer, even.
Here’s a look at the history of influencer marketing: how influencer marketing was born and what lessons modern-day marketers learned from those who came before them.
Roman gladiator games began in 105 BCE and remained wildly popular until Emperor Honorius outlawed the events in 404 CE.
As the most well-attended organized events in ancient Rome, highly anticipated gladiator bouts were often advertised on billboards throughout the city. The ancient ads would have looked similar to modern-day combat sports promotions (albeit with much higher stakes). Popular gladiators often rose to celebrity status, even promoting the occasional product like oil or wine.
One of the oldest (and possibly most successful) examples of social proof came from a partnership with English potter Josiah Wedgwood and Queen Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz. As the queen’s favorite craftsmen and one of the most innovative of his time, Wedgwood convinced the royal family to allow him to bill himself as the “Potter to Her Majesty” and even release items depicting the king and queen’s likeness.
The royal bump catapulted Wedgwood to international success and opened the door to numerous other high-profile customers. Even today, the Wedgwood name lives on with modern branding that still stays true to the spirit and style of the 18th Century craftsman.
Lillie Langtry was an actress, producer, and the first woman to endorse a commercial product when she appeared in an advertisement for Pears Soap in 1882.
Thanks to the 19th Century Aesthetics Movement, companies began creating more affordable products formerly only accessible to the ultra-wealthy, and advertisers like Thomas Barratt—known to many as the “father of modern advertising”—needed recognizable women who could promote them. Known for her “ivory complexion,” Langry met the new demand and established an equally lucrative career in advertising as she did as an actress.
In 1890, R.T. Davis Milling Company hired Nancy Green as the face of their new pancake mix brand, Aunt Jemima, based on a popular character from a traveling minstrel show.
Green gave the Aunt Jemima brand a unique identity that helped make it into a household name that lasted more than a century. Although Green’s character and dedication to the brand helped market the company to generations of consumers, there is evidence to suggest Green saw little to no revenue for her efforts.
In 2020, Quaker Oats acknowledged Aunt Jemima as a character rooted in racial stereotypes and announced its plans to remove Aunt Jemima from its packaging and change the name of the pancake mix. However, as the Aunt Jemima image fades away, some groups are still working diligently to preserve Nancy Green’s work as one of the first Black influencers.
Another well-known instance of a celebrity promotion in the history of influencer marketing is that of Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle and his endorsement of Murad, a Turkish brand of cigarettes.
Legend has it that representatives from the Murad brand tried to convince Arbuckle to actually smoke the cigarettes on stage as part of the deal. But Arbuckle declined, saying he was worried he’d develop a cough or the cigarettes would ruin his voice. He did, however, agree to promote the cigarettes in print.
By this time, people realized that celebrities endorsing products was the next big thing. As such, it was around this time the floodgates opened on the market for celebrity influencers.
Did Coca-Cola give us the plump, friendly image of Santa? It certainly appears so.
Coke entered the influencer marketing space in 1931 when it introduced Santa Claus as the jolly grandfather figure most imagine today. Before the company’s ad campaign, Santa took many different forms—none of which you would feel good about finding in your chimney.
It wasn’t enough for Coca-Cola to simply tell people their beverage was delicious. They needed a spokesperson who people trusted—a sentiment that has only become more relevant today as 92% of consumers say they trust recommendations from people they follow on social media rather than advertising directly from brands.
Coca-Cola’s ad campaign opened the door for brands to use likable figures to generate a halo effect with influencer marketing. Santa was proof that if people love the person promoting the product, they’ll love the product (and brand) too.
There was hardly anyone cooler in the 1950s than the Marlboro Man.
Various actors portrayed the cigarette icon to help add to his celebrity status. And not only did The Marlboro man make smoking seem trendy and masculine, but he also helped shape and style a generation of men hoping to achieve a more “rugged” look.
The Marlboro Man was one of the biggest influencers of that time and endorsed the brand until 1999. Today social media influencers have taken the place of icons like The Marlboro man and help set the tone for what’s hot and not in style and fashion.
It took a while for Old Spice to get into the influencer marketing game. And until it did, many people considered them an “old man” brand. But that all changed when the “The Man Your Man Could Smell Like” campaign completely transformed its image.
The objective was to make the brand fun and relevant for a younger audience. The campaign starring Isaiah Mustafa became hugely successful and set the bar high for other brands to follow.
The original 30-second ad aired a few days before the Super Bowl and the day after the game. Because of its humor and attention-grabbing subject matter, the promotion quickly went viral.
The result? The sales of Old Spice doubled, and the traffic to its website went up by 300%. Old Spice became the #1 men’s body wash brand, making its collaboration with Mustafa undoubtedly one of the most successful campaigns in the history of influencer marketing.
By 2010, social media was making. Facebook was the new kid on the block, and everyone was getting on board.
Around the same time, Amazon came up with the idea of connecting Facebook with their brand so consumers could see what their friends and family were buying. This tactic proved highly profitable for brands—especially among the younger demographics who say friends and family are their most trusted source for product recommendations.
Amazon also started suggesting gifts for friends and family based on their interests. People could even see notifications about the upcoming birthdays of their loved ones, along with suggestions for gifts. This sort of product marketing set the tone for how brands would seek social proof from content creators as influencer marketing continued to evolve in the social media environment.
Reality TV has been around since Candid Camera hit the scene in the 1940s but didn’t start producing any notable influencers until well into the social media age.
Premiering in 2009, Jersey Shore was one of the first reality shows to fully take advantage of social media. With Instagram released less than a year later, the show proved that almost anyone could take 15 minutes of fame and turn it into a career online.
Beauty brand FabFitFun is one of many that have taken the lessons learned from influencer marketing history and applied them using modern-day tactics. The brand has teamed up with celebrities like Khloe Kardashian and other massive names to promote its trendy monthly subscription-based beauty boxes on social media.
FabFitFun leverages the extensive reach of the creators to get their name out to the masses and showcase the array of products users can receive in their monthly boxes. The continued partnership with celebrities and influencers, like Kardashian, has helped the brand reach immense success in recent years and cemented them as pioneers in a subscription box space that continues to grow in popularity.
Today, nearly every brand with a social media presence has adopted some form of influencer marketing. The strategy has proven time and time again to be the most effective way for a brand to build trust in its products and services by leveraging the genuine product endorsements of authentic, brand-aligned influencers.
But over time, influencer marketing has strayed away from exclusively celebrity endorsements, often favoring collaborations with smaller content creators. By partnering with nano and micro influencers, brands can target audiences in hyper-specific niches and capitalize on a smaller but more engaged audience who sees their favorite creator more as a friend than just a TV personality.
As brands look to stay relevant in the creator economy, they should treat creators as equal partners in their marketing endeavors—not just hired guns used transactionally. Building strong, collaborative relationships with proven influencers help them stay on the cutting edge of a rapidly evolving digital ecosystem and turn their brands into household names.
We’re not going to sit here and tell you that influencer marketing is stronger than the Roman Empire ever was … even though it has outlived it by about 2,000 years.
But what we will say is that influencer marketing is not going away any time soon. For brands who haven’t yet jumped on board, now is the perfect time to start taking full advantage of the creator economy and leveraging the social media influencers your audience already knows and trusts.
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