It seems to be the season for requests, for no sooner had I hit “post” on my last request-inspired piece about brand stewardship that another popped into my in-tray.  “What do you think are the attributes to look for in a brand ambassador?” it asked.  Who could resist…?

As before, let’s get the terminology straight first.  The take I have on “brand ambassador” is someone who represents a brand personally to the public.  This could mean a chairman – Richard Branson comes to mind as someone who fulfills the role admirably – or a celebrity who has no executive responsibility, for instance Lewis Hamilton plays the role for Mercedes, Tag Heuer and other exotic, speed-orientated brands.

A brand ambassador can play a powerful role in the development of a brand and will definitely help emerging brands establish themselves far quicker that they otherwise might.  But, be warned, as with all communications, the wrong person could do your business and your brand more harm than good.

The brand ambassador relationship is, to some extent, symbiotic.  It relies on PR – that’s press relations rather than public relations.  Basically your ambassador should be a darling of the press, the kind of person who is followed around by paparazzi or featured in Sunday supplements … but only for the right reasons.  I suspect that the queue of brands for Peter Doherty, for instance, would be quite a bit shorter than that for Pete Townshend! However, don’t make the mistake of thinking that it’s all one-way traffic, because events that your organisation arranges will often provide the kind of press opportunity that some celebrities consider of benefit to them, so negotiate.

The brand ambassador gig is a kind of extreme form of sponsorship and to get your money’s worth (and this is never a cheap option) your subject has to relate to and enhance features of your business.  For example a few years back I was involved when Skoda Auto first looked at sponsorship as a way to take their Central European brand to the West and beyond.  The brief was to find a subject that would reinforce the speed, skill and excitement of their revitalised (courtesy of the Volkswagen Group) brand and appeal primarily to European and American markets.  We eventually matched them up with the Ice Hockey World Championships and the relationship was so successful they extended their involvement in the sport to national leagues, the Czech national team and national league teams in other countries.  However, the relationship with individual personalities can be deeper and more valuable that the broader benefits of events or teams and that’s waht I see to be the biggest difference between sponsorship and brand ambassadorship.

If you want to get the best out of the relationship, before you go out shopping for a brand ambassador you simply must have a clear understanding of your brand and what it stands for.  That might sound straightforward enough but there are a lot of businesses out there art aren’t as clear as they should be on this issue and there’s no better way of achieving this than with my Brand Discovery programme.  This is a series of workshops, analyses and presentations that culminate in an eleven-point Brand Model that clearly defines your brand.  The next step is to identify the kinds of people who are likely to represent those elements – the core values and beliefs upon which the relationships with stakeholders (that’s internal and external) are founded.  I call these Brandships.

The brand ambassador you eventually partner with is, in effect, a shorthand communication for your brand.  His or her relationship with your target market gives you an instant audience and the kind of credibility you will never achieve from other conventional communications forms.  You can build all manner of constraints into the deal you strike with your eventual ambassador – You’ll notice for example that Lewis Hamilton always puts a Tag watch on before press conferences and like most other sportspeople, Hamilton probably gets bonuses from his sponsors for winning races or in relation to his position in the rankings (because success generates positive press coverage) but when your ambassador is caught behaving contrary to your brands values and beliefs the relationship can become a liability, so a conduct clause is a vital part of any contract of this kind.  The publicity from a celebrity gone off the rails is always bigger short-term than anything they could generate from positive actions and the fall-out for the brand can be momentous – think

Fame or notoriety is always an important factor in your choice of ambassador because its like the readership figures of a newspaper – they define it’s value, but there’s more to the ambassadorial role.  For instance, the values and beliefs of your ambassador are just as important as the exposure he or she gets.

If you are getting the idea that the brand ambassador idea is beyond you just now don’t throw the idea out entirely. Just because your budget doesn’t stretch to the kind of numbers a big name celeb would command doesn’t count you out of he game.  Give me fifty low profile individuals who’ll accurately and reliably represent everything that’s good about a brand for free any day and every organisation has that resource at its disposal already. I’m talking, of course, about harnessing the ambassadorial value of your own brand community, Your employees and customers. I’ve seen organisations pouring millions into sponsorship while their greatest and cheapest resource goes untapped.   Any business that understands brand development, of course, will be running an internal marketing strategy and nurturing this group with a really good internal marketing strategy will cost you the tiniest part of a regular sponsorship package and give you a great return on your investment.  Organisations that are good at this are John Lewis in the UK and SouthWest Airlines in the US, but there are probably hundreds around.

With the world becoming ever-more competitive and the squeeze firmly on, no business can afford to underutilise its resource and Brandships are probably as valuable as assets can get.  If you are brand conscious you’ll know that already and be developing and leveraging your Brandships, so re-adjusting your focus to include the brand ambassador remit isn’t going to add much to your effort or investment.  Its worth the consideration of any business these days.

Michael Weaver
July 11, 2010

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