From left: Emma Watson, Jessica Ennis-Hill, Sali Hughes, Michelle Phan
© Getty

Consumer brands have long understood the power of a celebrity endorsement. The appearance of a much-loved film or sports star in a print or broadcast advertising campaign can do much to boost sales and build brand loyalty among target audiences.

These days, so-called brand ambassadors are also expected to spread their sponsors’ messages among fans and followers on social media. This online influencer trend is particularly relevant to companies targeting females, and below we give some examples of the most popular and powerful advocates at work today.

Women, after all, dominate many social networks. US research company Pew Internet Research said in a recent update that 77 per cent of female internet users are on Facebook, compared with 66 per cent of their male counterparts. Twenty-nine per cent use Instagram, against 22 per cent of men. And, while male internet users edge ahead on Twitter (24 per cent, compared with 21 per cent of women), Pinterest is an overwhelmingly female domain, used by 42 per cent of female internet users and just 13 per cent of men.

“Buying influence is not a new thing, but the evolution of social technology means that the rules have changed,” says Mark Sinnock, chief strategy officer at advertising company M&C Saatchi. “Today, if you have a social network, you have the power to influence — and the potential to make a lot of money. Brands have been quick to pick this up,” he says.

In particular, this female domination of social media sites spells a potential cash bonanza for companies that can get their celebrity marketing right because a star’s opinion of a brand, even if that opinion is paid for and costs megabucks to achieve, means far more to many customers than what the brand says about itself and its products.

That is causing many companies marketing to women to work not only with well-known stars, but also with rising female celebrities who derive their fame from internet channels, says Kate Cooper, managing director of social media agency Bloom Worldwide.

“But whether they’re celebrities or online stars, what successful influencers tend to have in common is that they have a large number of followers who are genuine targets for a particular brand and are regularly active on social media sites in their own right,” says Ms Cooper.

There are risks, not least that of a celebrity scandal or public meltdown. And, regardless of what demographic a brand may wish to attract, it is forced to walk a tricky line between keeping control over its messages and allowing its brand ambassadors to convey an “authentic” message that tallies with their personal views and public image.

“Trying to maintain too much control can result in forced content that could ignite a backlash from influencers and their audiences,” says Mr Sinnock.

Today’s online audiences are not stupid, says Jason Hartley, chief strategy officer at The Partners, a consultancy. “They can tell the difference between someone promoting something they genuinely believe in, versus simply selling out their followers for a pay cheque.”

Brand ambassadors: Celebrities whose endorsements count with female followers

Emma Watson, actor

Emma Watson attends the British Fashion Awards at London Coliseum on December 1, 2014 in London, England
Emma Watson © Getty

When the British actor, best known as Hermione in the Harry Potter films and as a UN goodwill ambassador, was cast to play Belle in Disney’s forthcoming live-action remake of Beauty and the Beast, she chose Facebook as the venue to share the news with her fans.

Ms Watson has almost 29.5m fans on Facebook. At the time of writing, that post had attracted more than 1.2m likes and been shared almost 64,500 times. Ms Watson has also used her Facebook page this year to host an online question-and-answer session about the gender equality campaign she fronts on behalf of the UN, HeForShe.

Jessica Ennis-Hill. athlete

Jessica Ennis-Hill attends the BBC Sports Personality of the Year Awards at First Direct Arena on December 15, 2013 in Leeds, England
Jessica Ennis-Hill © Getty

The UK Olympic heptathlon champion is the public face of a number of brands, including bank Santander, sportswear company Adidas and insurer PruHealth.

She tweets about her activities with these companies to 1.43m Twitter followers and her YouTube channel shows adverts she has made for them.

Announcing her link with PruHealth in 2013, she said: “Everything I stand for is echoed in the values of [the] Vitality [campaign] and I hope I can make people see that achieving your personal health goals is really a matter of planning the journey and sticking with it.”

Sali Hughes, journalist and blogger

Sali Hughes attends a celebration for the publication of 'Not That Kind Of Girl': A Young Woman Tells You What She's "Learned"' by Lena Dunham at the Secret Garden, Shoreditch House on October 29, 2014 in London, England
Sali Hughes © Getty

Ms Hughes is one of eight women chosen by British lingerie company Triumph UK to promote its Find the One campaign, which aims to help women buy a better-fitting bra.

Before the March launch, Ms Hughes posted a teaser to 68,000 Twitter followers: “Excited to be working with iconic lingerie brand Triumph. All revealed next week.”

However, she is mindful her audience appreciates her frank approach to beauty advice. As she wrote in a blog on her website about the campaign: “We will never say we love something unless we really, truly do. Not now, not ever.”

Michelle Phan, entrepreneur

Beauty blogger Michelle Phan speaks during Teen Vogue's 10th Annual Fashion University on March 14, 2015 in New York City
Michelle Phan © Getty

Michelle Phan from the US was one of the first to post make-up tutorials to YouTube and more than 7.5m people subscribe to her online channel.

She has been “liked” by almost 3m people on Facebook and followed by about 1.8m on Instagram. In 2013, Ms Phan launched her own make-up range with cosmetics giant L’Oréal, Em by Michelle Phan.

Last month, she teamed with Dutch TV production company Endemol to launch Icon, an online platform for video content on beauty, fashion and lifestyle issues, created by Ms Phan and a host of other female online influencers.

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