When guests attended Instagram influencer Melissa Celestine Koh’s wedding dinner last month, many were initially wowed by the unique touches at the event.
The 28-year-old has some 234,000 followers on her main Instagram account. She has another Instagram account with 16,700 followers.
Beyond a photo booth, which has now become de rigueur at wedding celebrations, there was a flower bar where guests could design their own hand bouquets; a styling counter with make-up artists on hand to give guests a makeover using Dior cosmetics; and instead of servers offering Coke or punch, guests could help themselves to gin and tonic.
Upon entering the glitzy RitzCarlton Millenia Singapore hotel ballroom, guests were further treated to wedding favours in the form of TWG tea, macarons and artisanal soap.
Some guests wondered if all that they were being treated to were sponsored products.
Curiosity turned to suspicion, then anger, when some of the guests examined the wedding dinner menu, on a TWG Tea letterhead, which offered tea pairings with each course.
It seemed to them that the wedding dinner was heavily sponsored.
Other guests were further incensed when Ms Koh began giving shoutouts to various brands involved in the wedding on Instagram in the days following the event.
Her thank-you posts, which included big names such as crystal brand Swarovski and luxury jeweller Tiffany & Co, served to fuel guests’ ire that the couple had not needed to pay much for their wedding.
What was the point of giving a hongbao, or red packet, if virtually everything was paid for?
“I felt cheated,” says a guest at the dinner, who wanted to be known only as Min, 27. She has known Ms Koh since university.
“The sponsorships cheapened the wedding, made it insincere, and I felt as though she had made money off me through her wedding.”
Another university friend, who also attended the dinner and wanted to be known only as Tim, 32, felt that Ms Koh had “created an ethical problem” by not declaring the various sponsorships to guests prior to the wedding.
“I would have given her an ang pow in any case, but changed the amount I put in it,” he says.
While it is common knowledge that celebrities and other well known personalities are frequently dressed by various brands for their weddings, at red-carpet events and other personal engagements, sponsorship has found its way into the weddings of influencers – ordinary individuals who are able to amass a substantial following and reach on social media platforms.
Several sponsors for Ms Koh’s wedding told The Straits Times that while they are used to dressing celebrities and loaning them items, her wedding was the first time they accorded such privileges to an influencer.
The Ritz-Carlton Millenia Singapore confirmed that it had a “partnership” with Ms Koh which showcased the planning milestones in a wedding couple’s journey, including a food tasting, bridal spa party, and the actual wedding banquet.
The hotel declined to give further details, citing respect for their guests’ privacy.
Ms Koh’s nine bridesmaids had 27 dresses made for them by designer dress brand Juillet, which amounted to some $5,000.
The 27 dresses were worn across three occasions during the celebrations and did not include another eight dresses, which the brand created for Ms Koh’s engagement party in Bali.
One of Juillet’s co-founders, Ms Sonia Ayu Lestari, 23, says: “This was our first time doing something of this scale for a bride. We love her photos and her follower demographic fits the population we are looking to target.”
Influencers are seen as trendsetters who can shape the opinions and behaviour of many.
Retail marketing expert Lynda Wee says the concept of sponsoring a person with “high aspirational value” is not new.
“People can accept the inequality when a celebrity is sponsored. But it is unsettling when a girl-next- door gets this sort of treatment. People feel jealous,” says Dr Wee, who runs her own consultancy and is also an adjunct associate professor at Nanyang Technological University’s Nanyang Business School.
This trend attests to the power of technology, she says.
“Technology empowers anyone to be an entrepreneur. In the past, you will need to find an agency to represent you. But today, all you need is a mobile phone and you can create a community. Build the community up to become sizeable, monetise it, and then it can feed you.”
She feels that there is therefore “nothing wrong” with what Ms Koh did for her wedding, because she had put in the “hard work” to build up a community over time.
“In fact, I give her credit. It’s a smart business move. Instead of posing for a wedding, she goes through an actual wedding with her business partners and followers, which is very authentic.”
“If she overdid it, followers will vote with their eyeballs and drop out of following her. In this social media age, today you can be hot, but tomorrow you are not.”
Fitness blogger Cheryl Tay, 30, who attended Ms Koh’s wedding dinner, says she enjoyed herself at the wedding, and that whether anything in the wedding was sponsored would not have had an impact on her hongbao-giving.
“The objective of giving a hongbao is not to help the person getting married recoup their spending. It’s about celebrating with them and wishing them well,” she says.
One of the earliest individuals who was able to harness the power of her reach for her wedding was blogger Xiaxue, whose real name is Wendy Cheng. The sponsorships for her wedding in 2010 included venue, food, photography and outfits.
Other influencers, however, choose to do away with sponsorships at their weddings.
They believe it will lead to an insincere experience for their guests, and because it also requires more work for them.
Events host Sara-Ann Krishnamoorthy, 38, got married in July and decided against accepting sponsorships.
She says: “Weddings are stressful enough. Why would I want to also worry about making sure I thank all my sponsors, and having to put up social media posts for them?”
“A wedding is supposed to be intimate and special. Sponsored things are great, but can lead to a wedding feeling really ‘jia’ (Mandarin for fake).”
Entrepreneur Cheryl Wee, 30, wed in July and accepted sponsorships for her wedding.
Because she doesn’t want to be seen as “taking things for free”, she gave her various sponsors hongbao after the wedding and also engaged some of them for her own events later on.
“The relationship between sponsor and receiver must be kept honest, fair and comfortable,” she says.
When contacted, Ms Koh and her husband James Chen, 28, both of whom are full-time influencers, say that they sought sponsorships, although “most came to us”. They also did not consider the option of not getting any sponsors.
“From our point of view, there is nothing wrong with working with the vendors the way we did, providing them with online exposure in exchange for their services.”
They had hoped that all they did would make their guests feel “special” and “pampered”.
The couple add: “The naysayers will be very comforted to know that we did not profit from the wedding. We did receive sponsorships, which gave us the means to celebrate in the way we did, but there were still large costs involved in the wedding.”
They declined, however, to disclose the amount they paid for their wedding.
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This story was first published in The Straits Times.