Welcome to another edition of UNFILTERED, a series where we interview influencers and marketers that are shaping the future of e-commerce. Curalate Marketing Director Brendan Lowry contributed to this report.
I met Kelly Smith in Old City, Philadelphia, just a few blocks away from the Liberty Bell. She’s got the millennial look so typical of Philly — slouchy winter hat, denim jacket, T-shirt, jeans, tattoos. But unlike many people just two years out of college, Kelly is living her dream of being a professional photographer — and she’s quickly transforming into a digital marketing and branding expert poised to change the outdoor industry.
Kelly is the staff photographer and social media manager for United By Blue, an outdoor apparel and retail startup with a serious environmental mission. For every product sold, UBB removes one pound of trash from the earth’s oceans and waterways. It’s more than just a slogan, Kelly and company literally round up volunteers and head out on trash-cleaning adventures. To date, they’ve cleaned up 358,000 pounds of trash.
We sat down to talk at the Philly flagship store, which also doubles as a coffee shop and company HQ. Kelly spoke frequently about one of her favorite obsessions: “the psychology of advertising.” She loves getting into her customers’ heads to figure out what makes them feel a personal connection with a brand.
“I almost think I’m friends with these people because I get to connect with them on that level every day,” said Kelly.
If you think her job is as easy as taking pretty pictures, think again. Kelly finds herself marketing in an outdoor industry that’s evolved a lot in the past 20 or 30 years. Nowadays it’s trendy to hike. It’s cool to wear flannel. Americans are finally starting to realize that being among trees and grass is good for the body and good for the soul. But while she’s marketing to the trendy outdoor loving millennial, she also has to appeal to the traditional outdoorsman who’s made hiking and climbing a way of life.
For Kelly that means making some interesting decisions about imagery: “How active should our models be? Should we be getting models or should be getting people who are actually climbers, hikers and professional kayakers? How much personal style or activity should we be incorporating into things? It’s a constant search for the right balance.”
The key is creating beautiful lifestyle imagery rather than taking boring product photos against a white background. For a fall 2016 campaign, the team traveled to Olympic National Park in Seattle and the Catskill Mountain in New York to get foliage and mountain shots.
“For a brand, lifestyle imagery can really communicate to that person that this brand gets you. This brand really is how you see yourself,” she said.
But she can’t do it all herself, so she partners with budding social media influencers — but authenticity is crucial.
“We want it to be natural,” said Kelly. “A lot of people reach out to us asking to do collaborations because they want to get into lifestyle, adventure photography.” United by Blue has a program where budding influencers can apply to become brand ambassadors and get some free product in exchange for some social posts. That gives Kelly visual fuel for the company’s social media pages.
“When it comes to our social, it’s important to have it feel very authentic — like a natural conversation,” she said. “If you’re using all photos from my photo shoots, it’s all going to feel the same, like an advertisement.”
Kelly has 24,000 Instagram followers, is she an influencer? What will influencer marketing look like in five years?
“I don’t identify myself as an influencer, I identify myself as a photographer,” she said. “I think influencer marketing is going to move into a more legitimate realm where influencers are higher paid and there are higher qualifications,” she said. “Brands won’t really pay good money until you are in the several hundred thousand follower range, with a lot of engagement and proven ROI.”
Another big task is conveying the company’s environmental mission. But how can Kelly convey that message on social without being repetitive — or even worse preachy?
“We found that people really react much stronger to the cleanup message and education on Twitter and Facebook because those are more treated as news sources,” she said. “On Instagram, it’s very visually driven, so no matter how pretty I try to make the photos they’re never going to get the same reaction as a cool mountain scene. But it is definitely important to have that thread through everything we do.”
Kelly went into photography because she’s an artist. Does working at a retail company hinder her creativity? Not a chance.
“When doing my personal work, I get really excited about a well-composed medium-format image of a girl naked in the woods,” she said. “At the same time I get really excited when that pair of boots looks great online and sells.”
But at the end of the day, her role at UBB is still a job — and days can get long and hard. When they do, Kelly realizes how lucky she is: “I take a second to step back and think of sophomore year of high school Kelly, thinking that she can never be a photographer. Ok you had a tough day at work but you’re doing what you love and that’s priceless.”
Like the UNFILTERED series? Read more interviews:
- From Politics to Fashion: Kelechi Kalu’s Journey to Lucky Brand
- Meet Mario Moreno, Social Strategy Builder for Forever 21
- Eric Toda, Airbnb’s Head of Social Marketing: “Stories Are Everything”