Outside voice burst into the saturated athleisure market by harnessing the influence of a specific type of woman on Instagram: the guy who kayakes before work, runs half-marathons for fun and brings Oil painting at picnics. The brand was selling a lifestyle that “unleashes fitness from performance”, “moves the world” and, most importantly, promotes #DoingThings with hats adorned with slogans.
The brand was founded in 2014 by Tyler Haney – a graduate of the Parsons School of Design – when she was 25, and has infused her attractive personality into the company’s ethics. It is not a piece of equipment to win the Olympic Games; these are monochrome sets to wear when going on a hike with your dog. Whimsical than Nike and more down-to-earth than Lululemon, the brand quickly joined the ranks of the original, native-digital cool-girl brand. More shiny.
Years ago, I stumbled across the @outdoorvoices grid of minimalist heather workout clothes, yoga breaks for employees, and brand new models who were proud of their cellulite. I consciously designed my identity to fit their sunny, sweaty, Instagram square-sized mold.
When they announced their Campus Ambassador program, I immediately applied in the hopes of receiving free clothing, filling out a surprisingly intensive application that included both an essay and a letter of recommendation. I quickly got an email saying they “liked my content” and wanted me in the Campus Crew, signed up with “high fives”. I felt validated. I also felt vaguely bewildered upon realizing that I was going to allow a brand, no matter how much I liked, to buy posts that I had made in a medium that I had long viewed as a personal outlet. I succumbed to the sale of my personality and downloaded the required app, SocialLadder, which gave me challenges such as tagging @outdoorvoices in a grid message for a point equivalent payout. $ 40 store credit. The app also contained a feed of activity from other influencers on social media; he ranked us by our positions, fostering a sense of competition.
I felt welcome in the company. Sometimes they organized events specific to the campus team – such as virtual explanations of their sustainable development policy – which allowed us to learn more about the company. The company contact has mentioned on occasion that she too had served as a campus ambassador before advancing through the ranks to full-time employment, alluding to the advancement opportunities at hand. The official account frequently used user-generated content in its own communications, and I always hoped that I would be featured.
The concert was fun for a while, especially when surprise packages arrived. But I slowly realized that I was not meant for this. Even though I identified with the brand’s mission, I still conflicted with the inherent inauthenticity of posting paid promotions, especially when the ads were not clearly disclosed. From a waste perspective, I didn’t feel good about encouraging people to spend too much money on clothes they probably didn’t need, even if the business moved to the environmental sustainability department. I knew deep down that I wouldn’t push these products down people’s throats if I didn’t have them for free, and – for that reason – it all seemed spurious.
Instagram marketing mimics age-old word of mouth advertising, especially in the case of “nano-influencers” with less than 2,000 followers. The biggest difference is the subtlety of the cash flow. Not only do nano-influencers make money for their posts, Instagram also swings the product one click away from a user’s feed. The “Order” function allows impulse purchases within the application. Businesses have financial incentives to turn ordinary people into traveling billboards; average people have a financial incentive to promote products that they might not even like.
In an effort to capture the enviable young adult demographic, companies have created campus advocacy programs where they recruit spirited 20-year-olds to attract their peers to the products. Typical tasks involve social media posts, giveaways, events, and pop-ups: a comprehensive guerrilla marketing program. At universities, programs exist for GoPass, Coca-Cola, PINK, Red Bull and more. Benefiting from trips to brand headquarters, hourly wages and loads of free stuff, influencer programs have established themselves as a vital link with Gen Z. To help brands tap into the market, marketing companies like Campus Agency and Riddle and flowering emerged to keep campaigns on campus.
I called LSA Senior Joyce Jeong, a campus rep for PINK, who broke the hierarchy of influence for this particular program. There are two campus representatives, who apply after writing essays and going through an interview process. Once hired, they are paid an hourly wage and the responsibility of planning events, such as a scavenger hunt for coupons or a “panty frenzy” party. They are in charge of an unpaid campus team that mentors and publishes events in exchange for free clothing. “It’s an easy way to make money and it’s flexible work,” she told me. The PINK program seemed quite similar to the one I did, although it was a bit more focused on in-person events than social media posts. The result is the same, however: students are given free clothes to be seen wearing them.
In response to the blurry line between Instagram users who make real recommendations, promote a product for a fee, and publication of fake sponsored content For “influencer” status, Federal Trade Commission approval guides have become increasingly stringent, requiring influencers to clearly disclose sponsored posts if they receive compensation. The territory of influencers is no longer quite the Wild West, but regulation is still patchy at best. I’ve only ever seen a handful of nano-influencers follow these guidelines (one is ‘don’t mix your disclosure into a bunch of hashtags or links’). There is no public data available on FTC compliance. Outdoor Voices never mentioned anything to me about disclosure other than the requirement to use the cryptic hashtag #OVUCrew (which stands for Outdoor Voices University).
My four-month foray into nano-influence came to an end when I failed to complete a required article on new periwinkle leggings. The day before the deadline, I had ventured outside in the freezing weather and attempted to photograph my plush pants myself, but all the photos looked weird and I didn’t want to post any. Concerned about the upcoming exams, I decided it just wasn’t worth it. As expected, I received a stern email saying that I was no longer part of the campus team; this time the email was signed “best” and not “best five”. I sighed in relief, suddenly realizing that I had never really enjoyed being an unpaid brand fanatic.
I like to think that I’m now more skeptical when scrolling through feeds of distorted recommendations, more aware that occasional posts can be disguised ads. It all seems like a slippery slope, and I’m afraid brands could pay ordinary people to say just about anything: first you promote a benign product, then maybe you defend them. ethically questionable business practices of a company. I didn’t know about it at the time, but while I was an ambassador, Outdoor Voices was silently going through a financial and cultural crisis that led to the Departure of its founder and CEO. In an age of value-driven consumerism, brands are held to moral standards, and when a company fails to be perfectly virtuous, its supporters may have to share some of the blame.
Still, I can’t deny that Ambassador programs have a number of benefits – I joined for a reason. The influencer programs on campus can connect like-minded people, and I’ve met some really cool people. I’m always friendly with the girls I’ve met on the OVU team – our affinity for the lifestyle brand gives similarities beyond our liking for monochrome skort sets. We’re all interested in fitness, branding and social media, as well as the cheerful look of Outdoor Voices. Beyond meeting friends, Ambassador programs introduce participants to business connections, providing a foot in the door for competitive jobs in places like TikTok and Apple. Being on good terms with staff members, immersing yourself in the language and company policies, and having demonstrated a tangible interest in the company might be worth it.
But high fives and all, I don’t think that’s for me.
Columnist Annie Rauwerda can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.