Social media is lambasting fast-fashion brand Shein with accusations of propaganda after it sent six U.S. influencers to tour its “innovation factory” in Guangzhou, China. The tour was meant to polish its image after investigations late last year revealed unsafe and unsustainable working conditions in some of its factories.
The influencer tour revealed anything but. Fashion-focused creators with millions of followers walked around a well-lit, high-tech facility expressing shock that workers smiled and answered questions about working conditions by talking about their relatively average hours and commutes.
“I expected the facility to be so filled with people just slaving away, but I was actually pleasantly surprised that most of these things were robotic,” said TikToker Destine in a video about her tour. “Everyone was working like normal — chill, sitting down — they weren’t even sweating.
@itsdestene_ Replying to @Melanin Codi im thoroughly enjoying this experience and seeing things with my own eyes @SHEINUS #SHEIN101 #SHEINOnTheRoad #desteneandbrandon ♬ original sound – Destene and Brandon
Shein’s efforts have undoubtedly backfired, as comments on now-deleted posts point out that a trip to one factory as part of a paid marketing endeavor likely isn’t reflective of its operations across 6,000 factories.
Shein has stated that the influencers’ videos were “authentic.”
“Shein is committed to transparency and this trip reflects one way in which we are listening to feedback, providing an opportunity to show a group of influencers how Shein works through a visit to our innovation center and enabling them to share their own insights with their followers,” a company spokesperson said via email. “Their social media videos and commentary are authentic, and we respect and stand by each influencer’s perspective and voice on their experience. We look forward to continuing to provide more transparency around our on-demand business model and operations.”
The company is seeking $3 billion in funding as its valuation has dipped from $100 billion in April to $64 billion, according to the Financial Times, meaning the ill-advised influencer tour came at a critical time for the company.
Some influencer marketing experts say any attempt to combat allegations as severe as forced labor with a bright, cheery TikTok is doomed from the start. Consumers are adept at finding controversies and don’t let go when a brand tries to cover them up, says Natalie Silverstein, chief innovation officer at influencer marketing agency Collectively.
“The best influencer tours are ones where they’re oriented around what customers are interested in and focus on what they want, not as much on furnishing the image of the brand,” she says. “What we saw in this case, which was a company that has had a lot of scrutiny around the way that it operates, trying to counter that with a creator experience, which was a mistake.”
Silverstein added that successful influencer tours highlight products that excite people instead of covering skeletons in the closet. When a brand is connected to a prolonged controversy, there’s no avoiding criticism, but focusing on products can reduce it.
“We may have seen a really different reaction if the Shein tour had been something more focused on the clothes and far away from the factories and supply chain conditions,” she says.
Of course, fixing the problem that’s causing the controversy works, too, said Krishna Subramanian, cofounder of influencer marketing platform Captiv8. He imagines Shein having a more successful influencer activation if it were honest about its shortcomings and areas of improvement.
“If you want to change perception, you have to be super-transparent,” he says. “Perhaps it’s a stepping stone of ‘here’s where we are today, here’s where we want to go and here are all of the steps that we’re taking to get there, and these influencers are going to tell that story of a period of 12 months.”
He adds that this process doubles as an immersive learning experience for influencers to get to know a brand and better serve as its ambassadors.
Shein’s influencers have been criticized for not only unduly presenting the brand in a positive light, but also doing so with seemingly minimal information about the company. Influencer Dani Carbonari, who has deleted her tour video on TikTok, doubled down on the marketing stunt while also acknowledging that its purpose was to “debunk rumors” about Shein.
this influencer is being dragged for her recent Shein brand trip to China, so I translated her explanation Tiktok pic.twitter.com/xjHbX7QMOn
— Franchesca Ramsey (@chescaleigh) June 25, 2023
Carbonari has also been criticized for calling herself an investigative journalist after interviewing one of the workers about her working conditions.
Many on social media speculated that Shein intentionally worked with micro-influencers with minimal experience who would be too excited about their first brand trip to question its intent or reject the offer.
Shein would have been better served by working with influencers that know the brand well after a long-term partnership, as they’re better positioned to respond to criticism, says Ben Jeffries, CEO of Influencer. He adds that those kinds of partnerships have become a standard in influencer marketing.