It is one of the modern mysteries of the digital age, and technically no correct answer to the question. In fact, there are many correct answers depending on how one would define the question and venue.
History of The First Influencer
Influencer marketing platform and consulting company Grin offered two candidates. They say “in advertising folklore, it is said that long ago the Queen and Pope used to endorse medicine-for the benefit of common people.” Their rationale is that both promoted the use of medicine to the public who hadn’t yet accepted its merits.
One might also argue for Nancy Green who became the face of the popular ready-made pancake mix Aunt Jemima in 1890.
She remained the face of the brand until 1923 when she died unexpectedly in an auto accident. Social Media Today, a social media industry publication, would likely nominate Josiah Wedgwood who designed, crafted and gave a tea set to the Queen Charlotte of England back in 1760. The publication submits that the queen was an influencer and that Wedgwood’s gesture positioned his brand to be royalty-approved and in a luxury class of its own. Wedgwood appears to enjoy that same reputation today some 260 years later.
Although they certainly were the first, other influencers in the last century included French fashion designer Coco Chanel as far back as 1920. Her product lines included fragrance and jewelry and Time Magazine named her one of the 100 most influential people of the 20th century. Santa even entered the influencer picture in 1931 holding a bottle and endorsing Coca-Cola. Marketers had experimented before then with other holiday figures, including elves, and theorized that if people embraced the person making the endorsement they would also love the product.
Another old favorite is Tony the Tiger, Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes mascot. Originally designed in 1952 for the cereal box, Tony also became animated and was used for commercials. He withstood copycats and a variation of him is still used today on cereal boxes. Such is the foundation of influencer marketing that marketers know today. Consumers don’t trust brand ads as much as recommendations according to ExpertVoice. The product advocacy platform said 92% of consumers trust those of folks they follow on social media.
For nearly 50 years, at a time when smoking was still acceptable to many and advertising permitted, the Marlboro Man was familiar and popular. Between 1950 and 1999, his face represented masculinity and toughness.
Moving forward to 1984, NBA star Michael Jordan made history and helped Nike sell $70 million worth of Air Jordans the first year they came out.
By 2010, Facebook and social media began showing its face and rise in popularity. One of the first to take advantage early on was Amazon who encouraged their customers to use Facebook to display not only their joy, but their gifts. Recommendations from friends and family and Facebook notifications about upcoming events like birthdays and anniversaries woke up the rest of the marketing community to the power of social media influencers.
No matter one’s choice for first social media influencer, one thing is clear. The future is bright. According to U.S. business and finance website Business Insider, the market for influencers is forecast to reach $15 billion by 2022.
Ronn Torossian: Insights from a Native New Yorker and CEO of 5WPR
Ronn Torossian is the founder and CEO of 5W Public Relations, one of the largest independently-owned PR firms in the United States. With over 20 years of experience crafting and executing powerful narratives, Torossian is one of America's most prolific and well-respected Public Relations professionals.
Since founding 5WPR in 2003, he has led the company's growth, overseeing more than 250 professionals in the company's headquarters in midtown Manhattan. With clients spanning corporate, technology, consumer and crisis, in addition to digital marketing and public affairs capabilities, 5WPR is regularly recognized as an industry leader and has been named "PR Agency of the Year" by the American Business Awards on multiple occasions.
Throughout his career, Torossian has worked with some of the world's most visible companies, brands and organizations. His strategic, resourceful approach has been recognized with numerous awards including being named the Stevie American Business Awards 2020 Entrepreneur of the Year, the American Business Awards PR Executive of the Year, twice over, an Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year semi-finalist, Metropolitan Magazine's Most Influential New Yorker, a 2020 Top Crisis Communications Professional by Business Insider, and a recipient of Crain’s New York 2021 Most Notable in Marketing & PR.
Torossian is known as one of the country's foremost experts on crisis communications, and is called on to counsel blue chip companies, top business executives and entrepreneurs both in the United States and worldwide. Torossian has lectured on crisis PR at Harvard Business School, appears regularly on CNN & CNBC, is a contributing columnist for Forbes and the New York Observer, and has authored two editions of his book, "For Immediate Release: Shape Minds, Build Brands, and Deliver Results With Game-Changing Public Relations," which is an industry best-seller.
A NYC native, Torossian lives in Manhattan with his children. He is a member of Young Presidents Organization (YPO), and active in numerous charities