Editor’s Note: We have something different today. Shashank Mehta, the founder of The Whole Truth, interviewed the most popular food influencer in India right now to understand why he does what he does. It’s a great interview. Do watch it.
But Shashank also has a deep understanding of the influencer world—how can you not if you are building a D2C brand?—and so I asked him to share his take on how to think about social media influencers in the context of this video interview. At TBT, we generally avoid endorsing extreme viewpoints: ‘this is pure’ and ‘that is evil’ — and we think similarly about information sources on the internet. And the best way is to talk about it.
I hope today’s piece nudges you to think more consciously about the information you consume and how.
Do you recognize the guy in the photo?
Yes, he’s the Bournvita guy. Who made the viral video which got him a legal notice and shot him into sudden fame. He later removed that video but went on to make many more (and get many more notices) about energy drinks, juices and other packaged food brands.
That’s Revant Himmatsingka, aka the @foodpharmer. He’s all the rage on YouTube, Instagram and family WhatsApp groups—a real food influencer.
I’ve followed Revant’s journey since the start. And I’ve been very intrigued. Why is this Wharton-educated, ex-Mckinsey consultant making ‘nutrition comedy’ videos that challenge big brands and bring him both legal trouble and stardom? What are his motivations? Where does he come from? And more importantly, where is he headed with all this?
So, I contacted him and offered a candid fireside chat to help viewers see the real Revant. He thought about it for a week. He was worried it’ll look like he was endorsing The Whole Truth. He isn’t.
And then, to his credit, he agreed. This video is a slightly edited version of the chat we had. You can watch it here.
One of the things I asked Revant in the interview, a thing I think about a lot, is why should people trust him: What are his credentials? What is his source of expertise?
In his answer, Revant asked a question: “These Bollywood celebrities, who have a hundred times more followers than me, why doesn’t anyone ask them for their degrees, their credentials, when they endorse something?”
Revant is smart. This was a diversion. But the question is important. And he is right. We’ve always been a star-struck nation. Ready to believe anything a famous person says. Proof?
👫Influence someone to read this article
Cricketers endorse tyre brands as if they know how ‘wet road grip’ works. Size zero actresses promote carbonated beverages their Pilates trainer wouldn’t let them touch with a bargepole. And every actor worth his salt endorses a pan masala brand.
We know it’s a sham. We know these folks don’t believe in or consume these brands. We know these are purely financial transactions. And yet, it works. (Why else would brands continue to spend crores to sign celebs?)
But as social media grows and literacy rises, the lure of celebrity is falling. And what’s replacing it is the lure of the ‘influencer’.
That chef who teaches you recipes on Insta. That mom who gives you pregnancy tips. That geek who compares every new phone. You’ve been following them for years. So when they say buy this cooking pan, or that pram, or this new phone, you listen.
Over the years, they earn your trust through their expertise and genuineness. In return, you grant them the power to ‘influence’ your decisions.
Or at least that’s how it started.
Unfortunately, as it stands today, influencer marketing is starting to look eerily like the problem it was born to solve. Influencers are now available on a ‘rate card’. You can buy their opinion and their influence.
Travel influencers are promoting healthy food brands. Chefs are promoting cars. The concept of expertise no longer exists.
Influencers—most, not all—are now mini-celebrities, and they are cashing in on their fame. History is very quickly repeating itself. Only this time, it’s worse.
First, because celebrities are few, influencers are many. How do you regulate them? Celebrity marketing is usually done on broadcast media like TV and print. Influencers live on social media, which is hard to police.
And then you have WhatsApp university and the mecca of all unsolicited and unverified wisdom—family WhatsApp groups. Only God and the ruling party know what’s going on there. It’s a real mess.
This raises many tough questions. How do you know if an endorsement is organic or paid? How do you know if the influencer has expertise in the area, which is especially important in subjects like food, fitness, and pregnancy? Can you trust this influencer – their judgement, their opinion, their intentions?
And, as Revant asks, if we are asking all these questions of influencers, why shouldn’t we ask the same of celebrities, too? (Remember when Pierce Brosnan endorsed Rajnigandha and later said, ‘I didn’t know what it was.’ That!)
👩💻Giveaway alert…Share it with your friends, and let them win by learning!
As a brand, we at The Whole Truth have an unequivocal stance on Influencer Marketing. We made a fun video about it. Do give it a watch.
It’s not a popular stance. Most brands don’t self-regulate how they engage with influencers. And since centralised regulation is still nascent, the onus falls on consumers to have a framework for judging whom to trust.
As a consumer, I follow many influencers, too—folks with strong opinions, and endorsements, especially in food and fitness. As we all know, the science here is ever-evolving and largely industry-funded, making it even tougher to separate truth from deceit. Sigh. So difficult to know what to believe.
As a founder trying to build a trust-worthy brand, I’ve had to think deeply about what builds—and breaks—trust. Over the years, I’ve created a simple four-point framework, and I find it applies equally well to brand-building as it does to influencer judging. Allow me to explain how.
Trust = Transparency + Expertise + Community + Consistency.
1. Transparency: Thankfully, the Advertising Standards Council of India mandates that all influencer collaborations need to be declared. But even without this, I expect nothing less than 100% transparency from my influencers. Upfront. Without asking. If I ever find out later that something that looked organic was paid for, I’m out.
2. Expertise: I differentiate between recommendation and endorsement. I listen if a travel influencer recommends using a certain trail mix as a tasty travel snack. But if the same guy tries to ‘endorse’ the health credentials of this product, I’m very cautious. Unless, of course, this fellow is also a fitness geek and has been sharing food tips for a while.
Also, whenever someone claims ‘this ingredient is carcinogenic, that new compound can help you sleep better’ — I look for linked research. The research may be nascent, but it’s far better than none.
And beware: often, people will say ‘link in comments’ and assume no one will click. Please, do click, at least on a random sample. To know he didn’t link to some random, unrelated study. It happens more than you think.
3. Community: I trust influencers my friends trust, especially those knowledgeable in that field. The chances one fellow is fooling all of us are low.
4. Consistency: The longer I’ve been following you, the longer you haven’t broken my trust, the more I trust you. Simple.
On all of the above, I have a zero-tolerance policy. Doubt kills trust. Never give me a chance to doubt you. If you do, I’m out.
That’s how I judge. It’s not foolproof, but it’s a start.
What would make it 100X better is if I could get to know the influencer—not their videos and their views, but their story. Where do they come from? Why do they do this? What are their aspirations and intentions?
Getting more data about the person, outside of the context of her being an influencer, can make judging whether I’ll trust this person so much easier.
Unfortunately, unlike celebrity interviews, this content isn’t readily available.
That’s why I did this interview with Revant. Watch it and tell me how it impacted you. Did watching it change whether (and how much) you trust him? I’d love to know!
🙋♂️In true influencer fashion: If you like this article, make sure you hit the share button