Opinion: Michael Butt on brand ambassadoring

Michael Butt

12 January 2017

Think brand ambassadoring is your way out of the grind? Think again

Like a prickle in a sock or the pea under the proverbial mattress, there has been an issue that has continually concerned and annoyed me, particularly as it runs so contrary to my end-spectrum logical sensitivities.
That issue is with that as yet un-collectively nouned group (maybe 'expense claim' would suit): brand ambassadors.

In negative moments, I have questioned their representation as a category in bar awards. Not because the nominees are not worthy of recognition for being the best at what they do, but because the lauding of proponents of an idea that exacerbates the gulf in resources between large and small brands does not help the perceived integrity of the industry or, in the end, customer choice.

After spending years flying all over the world representing a brand, I know that the upgrade-demonstrating foot-selfie can be the most glamourous part of your week, and genuine success can be measured by how well you learn to wrap trousers around bottles in a wheelie bag so as to preclude the need for ironing.

But this reality seems far removed from the expectations of the current crop of great bartenders, who see becoming an ambassador as the best way to progress.

Although ostensibly an 'educator and advocate', the job is actually a frustratingly emasculated sales position, shorn of the ability to individually make immediate sales and long-term agreements. This wastes the opportunity that a charismatic presentation affords, and makes commercial success hard to measure.

Although ostensibly an 'educator and advocate', the job is actually an emasculated sales position

This uncertainty transfers into the longevity of a career. After all, how successfully can a person 'live' the brand before becoming pigeonholed? As the job (just about) fulfils the specifications for a self-employed contractor, companies have been loathe to offer full-time internal positions to ambassadors, meaning opportunities for advancement are limited, while the likely lack of degree-level marketing qualifications creates a ceiling for promotion.

Even the 'plum assignments' can be terrible. Organising travel, accommodation and bail for a group of unruly bartenders is a hell matched only by having to oversee toddlers, cordial and soft-play. Ironically, it is often a desire for the latter that causes ambassadors to quit bartending.

The chance to implement that wonderful idea that you have been maturing like the finest whiskey – that new combo-shaker or ice-ball maker – can seem like a dream come true, but far too often it ends up as a branded bar caddy.

Unfortunately, development projects are more successful when the innovation comes from the end user. Ensuring the required continued skill investment, a brand ambassador has to supervise too many activities to provide this and, too often, great programmes are mothballed.

There is a solution, though, and it is right in front of our faces – and always in front of us on the plane as well. Tomas Estes and Ian Burrell have pioneered the role of category ambassador, representing the panoply of brands under their umbrella from a fairer and more credible position; the lack of direct sales access due to local market purchasing no longer a hindrance but a help, cementing their impartiality through the divorce from commercial ties.

Bartenders would be far more receptive to training delivered by teams of more honest category ambassadors, with material based on real back bar comparisons. Increasingly savvy consumers who dislike the advertorial nature of brand events will respond to this kind of education and multi-brand events with gusto, increasing sales for everybody in the category.

How this is paid for and how many people could be employed are moot questions, but each category ambassador would have a fantastic job that contributed hugely to the industry, spreading knowledge and helping to train the next generation of Jedi. Now surely that is the job to aspire to…

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