Virtual Influencers, Why Libra Won’t Fail, and How a Parents’ Benefits Company Became Unfriendly for Parents

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MARKETING

The newest trend for Instagram influencers? They don’t have to be human: “Why hire a celebrity, a supermodel or even a social media influencer to market your product when you can create the ideal brand ambassador from scratch? That’s what the fashion label Balmain did last year when it commissioned the British artist Cameron-James Wilson to design a ‘diverse mix’ of digital models, including a white woman, a black woman and an Asian woman. Other companies have followed Balmain’s lead. …

“In a way, virtual influencers are not so far removed from their real-life predecessors. It’s no secret that the humans who promote brands on social media often project a version of daily life that is shinier and happier than the real thing. But when a brand ambassador’s very existence is questionable—especially in an environment studded with deceptive deepfakes, bots and fraud—what happens to the old virtue of truth in advertising? Bryan Gold, the chief executive of #Paid, which connects influencers to companies, said virtual influencers could lead companies into ‘a dangerous area,’ adding, ‘How can consumers trust the message being put out there?’”

STARTUPS

Here’s a look inside the turmoil at a parents’ benefits startup, Cleo, that became the “antithesis” of a parent-friendly environment: “In three years, it had signed up companies from Uber and LinkedIn to law firm Cooley and dairy farm Straus Family Creamery, for Cleo’s benefits program, which assigned ‘guides,’ typically registered nurses or lactation counselors, to coach employees through their pregnancy and subsequent return to work. The plan to sell employers a benefit that could prevent new parents from quitting was paying off. Cleo says it signed $10 million in contracts in a 13-month period from January 2018 through January 2019, widening access to Cleo’s products to 500,000 people. …

But then: “Values rooted in building a better workplace for parents started to clash with the realities of being a cash-strapped startup in pursuit of growth, according to over half a dozen current and former employees. Some of the employees who went on parental leave said they felt pressured to return early. (A Cleo spokeswoman said the company was unaware of any cases where the employees were encouraged to come back early.) … ‘[CEO Shannon Spanhake] is a dreamer, which is what got the company off the ground,’ one former employee said, calling her ‘invincible’ following the latest funding. ‘There was always a tension between what we were selling and what we could deliver.’”

The founders of all-natural deodorant brand Schmidt’s Naturals, Jaime Schmidt and Chris Cantino, who sold their business to Unilever, are launching an editorial platform to help other founders: “[Supermaker] is a new media site founded by Schmidt and Cantino focused on telling the stories of entrepreneurs, particularly women and people of color who are launching consumer brands with a ‘conscious agenda’ according to Cantino, as well as sharing career and business advice around topics like raising investment funding and commanding successful social campaigns. The site currently features spotlights on brands like Bippy, a sustainable toilet paper company, and Anna Robertson, the founder of Ghana-based apparel brand Yevu.

“The site is Schmidt and Cantino’s second post-Schmidt’s venture: In December of last year, the two founded Color, an investment firm that funds companies led by women and minorities. With Supermaker, the goal is to help boost brands even if they’re not ready for a financial investment from Color.”

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CRYPTOCURRENCY

Recode’s Theodore Schleifer argues that Facebook’s Libra won’t fail because of the sheer number of Facebook users: “Some crypto investors and executives are deeply skeptical that a company as rapacious as Facebook could ever seriously commit itself to the value of decentralization that’s at the core of the crypto industry. But most people I’ve spoken with in recent days believe Libra can be successful, largely because of Facebook’s enormous scale. They’ve posited that the platform’s unprecedented user base is the only global population that’s big enough to organize around a single currency. In addition, Libra’s initial list of backers is impressive. Some think it might be an on-ramp to widespread consumer adoption of other digital currencies like bitcoin.”

RETAIL

In part because they want to sell direct to consumers, shoe manufacturers are refusing to sell to small stores like this one in Maine: “Colburn Shoe Store, established in 1832, advertises itself as the oldest shoe store in the country. It has occupied the same small storefront on Belfast’s Main Street since 1905. It’s a place where the owner, Colby Horne, and his father, Brian, remember the brand and size their customers like, and those of their children, their partners and probably their siblings, too. They know the shoe business.

“But they can no longer sell some of the most popular brands, like Nike and Adidas. The Hornes are among a number of independent retailers who have been cut off in recent years by giant shoe manufacturers adjusting their retail strategies. In some cases, small businesses are required to make large yearly purchases of $20,000 or more. That outlay can amount to at least 500 pairs of shoes, far too many for a one-room shop to carry and sell in a year in addition to its other brands.”

OXFORD STRATEGIC ADVISORY DEAL OF THE DAY  

Bebo, a social networking company, was acquired by Twitch Interactive, a provider of a live video platform and community video game players, for $25 million.

TECHNOLOGY

Scientists are working to developspeed breeding” so farmers can keep up with the demands of a changing climate and growing global population. “Their technique was inspired by NASA research into how to grow food on space stations. They trick the crops into flowering early by blasting blue and red LED lights for 22 hours a day and keeping temperatures between 62 and 72 degrees Fahrenheit. Last November, in a paper in Nature, they showed that they can grow up to six generations of wheat, barley, chickpeas and canola in a year, whereas traditional methods would only yield one or two. …  Breeders and breeding companies have always tried to minimize the time it takes to develop a new variety of crops, but with new technologies like speed breeding, ‘we can do it better now than we could in the past,’ said [Charlie Brummer, director of Plant Breeding Center at UC-Davis.”

INNOVATION

Activewear giant Lululemon wants to eliminate the need to shower between the gym and the office with its new skincare line, Self Care: “The new line consists of only four products, all designed to help you freshen up quickly so you can get on with your life. There’s a $34 dry shampoo that promises to clean sweat, dirt, and oil from your hair without any white residue, a common complaint with dry shampoos on the market. There’s a $48 face moisturizer that will help reduce the flushing and redness on your face after a workout, while also cleaning, calming, and hydrating your skin. There’s a $12 anti-stink spray deodorant that comes in two scents (aloe lotus and black pepper sandalwood), and a $14 lip balm that will restore moisture to your lips after a big sweat. … Even the packaging is carefully designed to meet the needs of gym-goers, with bottles with special seals and lock-tops to prevent leakage in gym bags and soft coating so they don’t clink.”

POLICY

Kim Kardashian West is teaming up with Lyft to tackle the high unemployment rate among former inmates. “Sources with knowledge of Kim’s partnership with rideshare giant Lyft tell us the company has committed services to get up to 5,000 soon-to-be released inmates to job interviews. We’re told the biggest group of prisoners who have been granted release will get out of prison July 19. … Kimin a partnership with #Cut50—has worked tirelessly on both federal and local levels to ensure inmates will be provided housing and employment opportunities. We’re told there’s also a long-term plan in place to make sure those released from prison will continue to get opportunities for years to come.”

TECHNOLOGY

Lyrics site Genius came up with a clever way to expose Google for allegedly lifting its content: “The company said it used a watermarking system in its lyrics that embedded patterns in the formatting of apostrophes. Genius said it found more than 100 examples of songs on Google that came from its site. Starting around 2016, Genius said, the company made a subtle change to some of the songs on its website, alternating the lyrics’ apostrophes between straight and curly single-quote marks in exactly the same sequence for every song. When the two types of apostrophes were converted to the dots and dashes used in Morse code, they spelled out the words ‘Red Handed.’”

CRIME

That Cal Ripken Jr. rookie card may worth a lot less than you think, according to reports that PWCC, a card-selling service “allows corrupt sellers on its platform. Now, the collectible world is in full lockdown mode, leaving the legitimacy of a prominent marketplace and its long-standing grading system in question. …The scandal started when collectors had reason to believe that a 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle card had been altered by a seller through PWCC and asked that it be removed for sale. But PWCC cried semantics, arguing the card had gone through a ‘conservation process,’ NOT an alteration—and you better believe purists went into a collective tizzy.”

And that’s what’s ahead.

Please send comments and suggestions to mattg@oxfordcenter.com and lfeldman@oxfordcenter.com.

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