The Brand Ambassador is an advertising model that leverages the authority and credibility of online personalities to create a powerful direct marketing strategy. A respected followed authority, a blogger or small publisher targeting a specific audience niche can be a much more effective vehicle for marketing communication that the most expensive advertising campaign.
We do not trust brands anymore. We trust individuals: friendly, familiar authority figures with who we feel great affinity. These are the people we trust and those from which we would always welcome honest suggestions and tips, and when they are spontaneous or clearly disclosed even those of commercial nature.
The principals of Italian "vertical" web advertising agency Adv-it with whom I first discussed the "Brand Ambassador" idea - from left Massimiliano Flotta, Paolo Pettinato and Michele Ficara (board advisor)
People do not trust brands anymore. The bigger the brand, the larger their advertising campaign and visual presence, the less trust people place in the company behind it. Yes, it may not be every company's reality, but if you look carefully this is an increasingly familiar scenario.
Simple. Brands have squeezed us in each and every possible way. Most brands, intended as typical commercial corporations, have spent their best budgets and brains to basically sell you and me an imaginary, glamorous view of life that magically comes to life when you or I decide to buy or use that product or service.
The harsh reality, in most cases, is right there to destroy this carefully crafted picture in much less time than it took the original company to build it. Buy a defective product and get to interact to an unresponsive or unpolite customer service representative and the beautiful picture the company had created crumbles at once. Offer a service and deliver it badly and today's customers will proactively take action to not only abandon your services but if possible even to discredit them so that others don't get burned like they did. Personal media, blogs, forums, online communities, today give them ample options to satisfy such desires.
The discrepancy between promised scenario and reality is often so huge that commercial companies can commercially survive only by working on attracting systematically new customers and / or stretching the promised paradise picture further and further
This is, in my opinion, why most active, critically thinking, analytical people do not like most big brands and are very suspicious of buying in accordance with television or magazine big campaign commercials. They just prefer to use their heads to think and choose what suits them best when in need of something specific.
And since they trust less and less the big brands and the advertisements and messages they produce, where do they for marketing advice?
To their trusted, reliable, authority friends.
If I am to buy a new motorbike, and I will have to do that soon, what do you think, that I am going to check out what television ads recommend or what I may glance at by browsing through a men's magazine? Positively not.
I will seek authority, reliable friends who are passionate motorbike users and will ask them for advice and suggestions. Some of these people are going to be people I know physically and some others will be reporters, journalist or bloggers I have come to respect and rely upon when in need of advice in a specific area.
This what not only I, but many others like me and you do when in need to make a commercial decision.
We seek a trusted, reliable, authority friends that we believe is an expert on the topic and who we think has such integrity not to ever promote or favor a brand over another unless he really had good logical reasons for it.
What we look for in such a person is integrity above all: someone who has repeatedly shown to have high transparency standards, openly shared ethics, and a consistent behavior in providing always valuable verified information above his personal interests and advantages.
The "new way" is "let your product be discovered by your potential customers via whoever loves and uses it already!".
Approaching online marketing campaigns by leveraging the credibility and direct communication abilities of Brand Ambassadors seems such a natural way to do more effective marketing that you may wonder why no-one is using it already.
A few guesses:
a) We have been using traditional mass communication marketing approaches for so long, it is very hard to start thinking and acting in new ways. Most companies simply innovate their marketing approach by superimposing the facade of new direct marketing approaches to their traditional communication strategy. They open a blog, a web site, but they smell as fake or more than they did before.
b) We tend to resist to such ideas because we assume that if someone is getting paid to promote and market a service / product he/she cannot be credible. But again we make here the same mistake I just described at point a). We mix up the old and the new as we see fit and we superimpose ideas and concepts of the past on a new different paradigm.
When like on traditional mass media, you get paid to be a sponsor, you are a passive vehicle sending off a message to an audience that has no way to respond, comment or talk back to you publicly. There are no checks and balances in place to verify your claims and credibility. You just get more popular and visible by selling yourself as a testimonial while you lose little or none of your credibility as everybody knows that it is all fake, staged, unreal.
In traditional advertising you (your site, radio, etc) are placed on a podium with a sound blasting system and you scream as loud as you can whatever you get paid to scream for. Worse you need to scream with the voice, words and language your sponsor has chosen. Total fake.
But when the scenario changes and you become an active Brand Ambassador for a brand you like, and you communicate in first person to an audience that can respond, comment, suggest, complain and interact with you in multiple ways, it becomes extremely difficult for you to be a sponsor for a product or service you don't believe in or that doesn't deliver what it promises and to maintain at the same time your credibility and authority you have previously gained.
It becomes extremely difficult in this situation because now it is your own reputation and credibility that are at stake.
You may discover that just like in real life where we have trusted friends that have earned our loyalty by never giving us advice based on their personal interest but always by looking and listening to our own specific needs, so online there can exist authority figures, experts or opinion leaders who may be perfect Brand Ambassadors, that do give extra exposure to specific products / brands, without not only ever placing their credibility at risk, but by actually cross-pollinating each other's values and image.
Though my vision may prove impossible in reality, I tend to believe that it is possible to maintain one's own integrity while being an evangelist for a brand. What it takes to achieve this is to clearly choose not to be a passive vehicle for corporate messages but to act as a branding ambassador capable of finding a delicate equilibrium between providing the same honest, credible advice to your own audience and giving due extra exposure to your selected branding partner.
But I think there can be ways around this too. here a couple of initial ideas:
a) The sponsoring brand could simply "fund" a selected Brand Ambassador and let him/her decide the ways and venues by which to provide credible extra exposure to their advertising partner. Candidate Brand Ambassadors could offer a free test period to selected brands as to let advertisers evaluate and compare results before committing any serious budget.
b) Would be Brand Ambassadors could pre-opt publicly on a specific section their sites or blogs the brands / products and services they fully endorse and would happily take up as a Brand Ambassador.
The Brand Ambassador is a new type of advertising model / format which I have come up while in search for my ideal advertising scenario. These its key characteristics:
1) The Brand Ambassador is someone willing to be the paladin, the flag, the evangelist for a specific company or product which the ambassador personally endorses, uses, likes.
2) The Brand Ambassador acts as a direct communication channel between the company and his target audience. That is: if company X wants to promote its line of products and Brand Ambassador Y is a potential match (being him an already an active and enthusiastic user of company X products), the company Y will pass on to the Brand Ambassador all of the information and promotions that it wants to deliver to its select targets, but it will be the Brand Ambassador himself who will decide which ones to pass onto its community of followers.
3) The Brand Ambassador is the one that chooses how to deliver informative, marketing or promotional messages coming from company Y. If it is true that the Brand Ambassador has lots of affinity with its audience it would seem certainly more logical that it should be him and not company Y to design all marketing communications going to his audience rather than, as it happens today, having company Y design a set of visual ads that will need to address a thousand very different communities.
4) The Brand Ambassador is the perfect marketing communication vehicle for a marketplace made up of many highly different niche groups, characterized by very different traits, aspirations, habits. Which if you look at it with open eyes, is each and every market. Addressing marketing communications while still utilizing traditional mass communication approaches, it is positively going to deliver less and less results and an increasingly lower return on such marketing investments.
5) The Brand Ambassador (generally) marries only one at any one time. Unlike motorbike and car racing drivers who wear for marketing reasons logos from many different and often unrelated companies, the Brand Ambassador marries only one brand at a time, and one that he / she would have promoted, talked and said interesting things about even without a formal Brand Ambassador agreement (I understand this is difficult to verify, but what matters here is the "spirit" of the idea) - pay attention also to the fact that unlike what happens on traditional mass media like television, if someone decided to repeatedly be Brand Ambassador for a specific line of products out only of financial interests, he would have a much tougher time keeping his figure credible and consistent in the eyes of his audience. In other words, for a trusted friend who is also a respected, authority figure it is much more difficult to fake in front of his community, than it is for a public celebrity for an anonymous invisible audience he really never interacts with.
6) The Brand Ambassador realizes his / her role of marketing and communication vehicle in multiple ways:
a) by having his wear directly sponsored.
b) by participating as a performing guest at events organized by brand sponsoring company.
c) by branding in some exclusive way his site with the sponsoring brand (and it should be the Brand Ambassador to design such messages so that they use the language and visuals that his specific audience find affinity for).
d) by promoting specific publications, events or other information-based products that are relevant to his specific audience-community.
e) by branding his video clips with a logo from the sponsoring brand
f) by creating a series of video clips that showcase best effective uses and applications for the sponsoring brand product/service.
g) by physically branding objects and tools the Brand Ambassador typically uses such as his portable computer, work bag, motorbike, car, and more.
h) by authoring one or more newsradars (thematic newsfeeds edited by hand on a specific topic).
As you have probably guessed by now, I think this model can work, just as much as I think that advertising as it still done by most agencies distributing ads on the Internet needs to change a lot.
I also am curious to hear your irated or scornful comments, and even better your rational and analytical critiques. I can learn a lot from them.
I don't think the issue is being a "shill" or not. I see the issue as looking at innovative and more effective, natural ways to make relevant information flow from product makers to end users and potential customers.
It looks to me that allowing a few companies to scream from multiple podiums I place on my site real estate isn't that much less "shillful" than saying out right why I honestly think a certain product is great and endorsing it in multiple ways.
Yes, you say, but you are going to be influenced by those who pay you. Yes, I answer. But so do you with the people that spend big money on your site with traditional advertising. And if that is not so, how in any case can people tell? How can they find out whether the new review, article or link you did was a consequence of a return favor you are doing to an advertising agency or to a past direct advertiser who would want to come back? Unless you have some very strict, and public disclosure policy about this info, it is going only through your actions over time that people will be able to tell whether you have your own integrity or whether you are simply a marketing puppet at the service of whoever pays you more.
In essence: I see a possibility for highly credible and authoritative bloggers that target specific audiences and niches to become Brand Ambassadors of product or services they really like.
In the spirit, it should be bottom-up advertising with publishers selecting the favorite brands they would want to endorse. In reality bloggers or other similar online authority figures could publicly pre-elect companies and brands that they would want to be Brand Ambassadors for. They could this directly on their sites and/or via their representative advertising agencies.
This advertising model would provide companies embracing it with a communication vehicle with much higher impact and effectiveness that anything they have done so far via traditional advertising. It is likely that such brands would need multiple such Brand Ambassadors addressing the many different target audiences making up their potential customer base.
To independent publishers and online bloggers this advertising model would offer the opportunity to re-synch communication with marketing, instead of keeping them tightly separate, while guaranteeing also a longer and more stable revenue stream. It would also offer the opportunity for individual publishers to leverage their authority and influence to convey messages and promotions for products and companies they truly believe in.
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