With the creator economy rapidly growing, more and more companies are looking to unique artists to engage consumers and grow their businesses. In my role as the Instagram business marketing lead for North America, companies often ask me for best practices in working with creators and brand influencers, and to deliver practical, hands-on advice, I went straight to the source: filmmaker Karen X. Cheng, one of the biggest names in the world of branded content.
Cheng’s work—produced under her professional moniker Karen X—has been viewed more than 500 million times, and her innovative video campaigns for brands such as Beats by Dre, Instagram and Adobe have earned her spots on Inc.’s 30 Under 30 and Adweek’s Creative 100. Cheng recently sat down with me to share advice on how brands can get the most out of creator partnerships.
Karen, first off, what’s the single most important piece of advice brands should consider when partnering with creators?
Cheng: When you’re a brand hiring a creator, you’re hiring an artist first. It helps to think of it as, “I’m going to commission artwork,” instead of, “I’m going to hire a marketer.” You’re giving them freedom to create their interpretation of your thing. Understandably, it can be very difficult for brands to let go of creative control, but in my experience it’s so important. That’s a big mindset shift.
As a creator, how do you maintain your artistic credibility while still managing to connect your audience with the brands you work with?
Cheng: Authenticity—it’s an overused word, but it’s true! There’s power in brands letting creators be their authentic selves. Remember, creators have developed their own followings based on who they are and what they do. You need them to stay true to themselves, even when they’re marketing your brand.
Also, brands should be open to creators pitching their own ideas. If I was a brand, I’d ask, “Is there a personal project you’ve wanted to do for some time? If so, pitch us, and let’s see if it makes sense for both of us.”
If creators feels like they’re making the projects for themselves instead of for money, that’s when you get the best result. My most successful campaign ever is a video series I pitched to Adobe, and it now has more than 50 million views. It’s incredibly rare for an artist’s most successful piece to be branded content, but that shows you the value of letting a creator be authentic.
You’ve built many successful brand partnerships. What’s the secret behind finding the right fit between brand and creator?
Cheng: Both sides have to be aligned on the objective. A brand needs to determine what it wants to hire an artist for—is it to drive sales or drive awareness?
I’m a creative professional whose job is to build branded content. For me, my Instagram account is like a portfolio or resume. If you’re a fashion brand, you probably won’t hire someone like me unless you’re looking to grow awareness. My approach works for a company like Lego or Adobe, because these brands are hiring me to create something cool that’s associated with their brands. They want that “it” factor.
Hiring diverse creators helps ensure more equal representation in marketing. Do you have any tips for how brands and agencies can enable greater diversity?
Cheng: There are clearly many benefits to hiring diverse creators besides just ticking a box. You’re going to get so many different creative perspectives on your product—ideas you wouldn’t have generated on your own. I think every company knows it’s a bad look if you hire 20 white men as your only creators.
You’re someone who fearlessly embraces new features and products to tell stories. I’d like your insight on how you stay on top of what’s new.
Cheng: I’m a novelty-seeking personality type. Showing off new products genuinely gives me energy. I like working with brands who’ve just launched because I know I’m going to have a huge advantage if I go first. A lot of the recognizable brands I’ve worked with, we built those relationships because I hopped on their products early and they noticed me early too.
I also love the novelty of new creative tools. When Reels launched, it was definitely big for me. Reels made it possible for videos to go viral naturally within the world of Instagram. It was a big old flag in the ground that Instagram was elevating video creators.
Let’s close on a forward-thinking note. How do you see brand-creator partnerships evolving in the future?
Cheng: For me, the best strategy has always been to find what’s interesting and just lean into that. If I do that, I’m much more likely to do a good job and be excited about it. When I think about the coolest projects I’ve worked on, there’s no way I could’ve anticipated them a year or six months in advance.
That said, I’ve already started developing projects for the metaverse. One company told me it was the first metaverse pitch they’ve received. I was like, “Yes! Early adopter!”