On August 19th, a video appeared on the Macy’s website. It opens with a light-flooded room, in which a young woman sits in front of a mirror. “Macy’s” is spelled out on the wall in gold, glittering cardboard letters attached to a string with clothespins, like decorations at a child’s birthday party. The woman—Isabel Campbell, a digital assistant in the petites department at Macy’s—introduces herself. “I am a very relaxed type of girl—I love to just shop around, have brunch with my friends,” she says. “And this”—gesturing to her clothes—“is my go-to outfit: an oversized sweater from Free People and a Free People jean skirt.” If you like what you see, you can click the links that appear nearby to buy similar products from Macy’s.
Most people have never heard of Campbell, and that’s the point. Weary of celebrities who demand high salaries and unreliable Instagram “influencers,” Macy’s is making it possible for its own employees to serve as its brand ambassadors, through a project it calls Macy’s Style Crew. The strategy shift comes as brands are raising concerns about how many of their customers are truly being reached by digital advertising. Last year, for the first time, advertisers spent more on digital ads than on TV spots. Yet this is a season of disillusionment with social media—beyond its well-documented problems with hate speech, election malfeasance, and emotional manipulation. Instagram influencers with large followings are raising their rates to feature a company’s product in a sponsored post. Many of the influencers rarely follow federal disclosure requirements about advertising. Some wind up embarrassing brands with inappropriate comments or bad behavior. And occasionally it turns out that influencers aren’t that influential at all, and have audiences that can include fake and paid-for followers.
Consumer-products companies, which have been huge advertisers online, are becoming more careful about their spending in response. Unilever has said it will no longer work with influencers who buy followers. Procter & Gamble, one of the world’s largest advertiser, cut its digital ad spending by $200 million last year, saying much of it was a waste.
Influencers, and those who represent them, are working to rebuild trust. In the meantime, it’s cheaper and safer, Macy’s hopes, to rely on one’s own employees. Because the retailer directly employs these workers, it is better able to control their behavior; if an employee discredits the company, Macy’s can fire him or her. “It’s easier to leverage assets that exist than creating something from nothing,” Marc Mastronardi, the executive vice president of business development at Macy’s, said at a retail conference in June.
Following a pilot with 20 employees, Macy’s has expanded its Style Crew to more than 300 people across the United States. Employees hope to benefit; the retailer has promised them incentives (that amount has not been publicly specified) if they help increase sales. But given the economics of platforms such as Instagram, it’s hard to imagine many are making much money. On social media, as in much of the economy, only a small number of top performers earn a lot. A highly visible Instagram influencer can charge roughly $1,000 per 100,000 followers, for each post. But the average payment for a sponsored Instagram post is only $300.
Some members of the Style Crew have more than 10,000 followers, but having fewer than 1,000 is more typical. (Campbell has 1,416 as of this writing.) This puts them in the category of “micro-influencers,” people with smaller, but presumably more loyal, audiences. Brands have been courting micro-influencers to see if they can get similar engagement (customers who like a post, make a purchase, or take other actions) without spending a lot. Their average rate, according to IZEA, a company that makes influencer-marketing software, is $62 for a sponsored photo. (Perhaps the true appeal of micro-influencers is that they get micropayments.)
“Macy’s Style Crew comprises colleagues who are passionate about servicing the customer, participants who want to create unique, authentic content, and who want to build their social media presence and get rewarded for their impact,” Mastronardi said in an email.
Macy’s isn’t the only company asking its staff to do more. Brands such as ModCloth and Sephora have recruited employees for ad campaigns. Others call on their customers. Maker’s Mark buyers who proselytize for the company can have their names added to a bourbon barrel and later get a chance to purchase a bottle from that batch. This summer, Tommy Hilfiger sold clothes embedded with Bluetooth trackers to what it calls a “micro-community of brand ambassadors.” The company will study how much people wear the items, and where, in exchange for gift cards and other merchandise.
There are more than 6,000 Instagram posts, so far, with the #macysstylecrew hashtag. Macy’s also has a Style Crew section on its website, with each video bearing links to clothes, accessories, or makeup available for sale. A few posts have sophisticated videography and editing, and appear to have been created with more input from the company. Most are what you might expect from people trying to squeeze extra work into already-full lives. One woman shoots her short Outfit of the Day videos with her cell phone pointed into a mirror, the way people used to before society perfected the selfie. “All the girls in my office are wearing denim skirts again. They’re back. Go get one. Bye!” she says. A young man enthusiastically explains Macy’s makeup specials from the corner of a borrowed room while traveling. “Why are we here today?” he asks. “A wedding,” someone patiently answers off camera. Some of the posts are just photos of perfume ads. One is a series of images of bras dangling from hangers, presumably in a Macy’s lingerie department.
Then there’s Candace Bryant, an administrative manager at Macy’s corporate office in Cincinnati, and perhaps the best example of why the Style Crew program exists. Warm and charismatic on camera, Bryant gives her co-workers makeovers and tells them they deserve to spend time on themselves. In one self-filmed video, she invites a colleague to share a poignant anecdote about overcoming negative self-scrutiny and developing confidence. Their backdrop is a window covered with horizontal blinds that overlooks a parking lot. The merchandise is present, but Bryant—whose personal Instagram feed is otherwise populated with inspirational quotes and images of herself singing at church—is the star.
Glimpses of regular people hoping to make a few extra bucks: It’s not glamorous, but it’s certainly relatable. The most credible form of marketing is recommendations from friends and family, according to Nielsen. Macy’s Style Crew collapses the façade of traditional advertising, with its agency fees, professional stylists, skilled photography, studio lighting, and hours of editing and retouching. (It also threatens the jobs of all the people who have built careers around filling those roles; see the upheaval at major advertising agencies for details.)
Instead, Macy’s is bringing the exposure economy in-house. Dissolve the haze of marketing lingo, though, and the company is inviting a group of mostly low-paid employees, who normally are compensated for selling merchandise, to spend more of their time—possibly uncompensated—selling that same merchandise to their families and friends. It’s a high-tech Tupperware party. As corporate profits rise and wages for regular people represent a shrinking portion of the U.S. economy, the Style Crew is hustling ever harder—just like most American workers. Want to buy a purse?