Much seems to have been written in the whisky press lately about the role and usefulness of brand ambassadors. Most of it has been negative, but that is always what sells the papers. But are some of the comments fair and do people really know what the role involves? Can you really understand it if you have never been a brand ambassador?
Since leaving full time employment earlier this year, opportunities have been presented to me to carry out ambassadorial duties both with The Whisky Lounge and a selection of Scotch whisky brands. This has offered a valuable insight into a side of the whisky industry that seems little understood to the general consumer, whisky fan or industry press.
Of course, some brand ambassadors are better than others. That mirrors life in general.
But what defines the term ‘better’? Is it how the ambassador presents and talks about their whiskies? Or how passionate and knowledgeable they are about their products? Or how many bottles they sell at a whisky show? Or how they engage the consumers they are talking to? Could it be that the ‘best’ ambassadors combine all of these elements effectively?
The life of a whisky brand ambassador can seem glamorous from the outside. Comments against most of my recent Facebook posts from friends are testament to that. Of course Facebook is never the best view of anyone’s true life anyway. We all know that in most cases it is merely a positive reflection of what you wish for people to see. Come on, we all do it.
What people see is lots of traveling to nice places, nice meals, nice hotels and cocktails laid on for you by various brands at every opportunity.
What they do not see is the majority of experiences, the un-Facebook friendly ones – the not so nice and slightly less cool places that you have to travel to. The meal for one in a regrettable restaurant somewhere. The pint on your own in a pub with people looking at you a bit funny, because you are drinking on your own, or the rat hole of a room in some Fawlty Towers-esque hotel that looked so much better on Expedia.
From my experience in the last six months, the reality is that the role of a brand ambassador can be a lonely one at times. It can make you feel like nothing more than a glorified travelling salesman – you are just pulling bottles of whisky around in your wheelie suitcase, instead of Hoover parts or encyclopedias.
That is not to say that the role does not have its perks. Quite the opposite actually. And to me they outweigh any negatives. The opportunity to talk all over the country about a subject and liquid that inspires me is great. The enjoyment of seeing people at Whisky Lounge events discovering whisky for the first time or blending their own whisky to take home is almost second to none in my professional life so far.
Equally, talking to consumers at whisky festivals or in specialist whisky stores about specific brands is highly enjoyable. Showing them something that they may never have heard about or tasted before, and seeing their reactions when they first sample them.
Much of the recent criticism of brand ambassadors has been centred around their credibility for doing the job and a perceived cynical approach by some for purely wanting to shift cases of bottles to retailers or consumers. Essentially what is being said is that they do not care or know about the product, but are simply pulling in the cash for their brand and some commission for themselves.
This irritates me. Any brand ambassador is clearly at a whisky festival or doing a tasting at a retailer for a reason – to promote their particular product and to ultimately sell some. That is their job at the end of the day and how they are judged and audited by the companies that they work for. They are not there to just look cool and talk about whisky.
This again mirrors life in general – does a craft brewer just want to make good beer in small batches, talk about brewing and look cool with some tattoos or avant garde facial hair? No, they want to make money whilst doing it. Talk alone or being cool does not pay the bills, unless you have a trust fund behind you. Trust me.
To me the best ambassadors, and those that I am trying to emulate, are the ones that inspire those that they are talking to. They inspire with knowledge, a bit of fun and try not to just focus on the brand they are talking about, but also explore the whisky category in general.
Turn people on to whisky and they will naturally be turned on to your brand, unless they really dislike the taste. They will remember that whisky experience, and the brand with which they had it, above many others.
Of course, the best are those that do this while keeping in mind that they have to shift some bottles and report back positively to their bosses. Tip it too far the other way and you will look like a desperate salesman. That turns the majority of people off a product instantly, no matter how good it may be. If anything, they will remember the experience for the wrong reasons and negative feelings will be associated with the brand as a result.
I guess, my point is this – it is easy to criticise or comment on something, much as a back seat driver or armchair sports fan would, from the outside. I do it in everyday life – I watch Match of the Day and question how a highly paid footballer cannot pass to someone on his own team or misses an open goal. But I am not a professional sportsman (very far from it, actually) nor am I out there on the pitch. I like football but was never any good at it, so who am I to criticise?
Ultimately, everyone has an opinion and is entitled to it. That is what makes the world go round after all. It can be easy to jump on a bandwagon sometimes as a writer and write a topical piece, but in this case you need to think about this – every brand ambassador is just doing his or her job, the same as you are.
At the end of the day each ambassador, including myself, is there for one thing -to get you to experience and enjoy their whisky and ultimately get you to buy a bottle, rather than one from a competitor brand. How they do it will vary. The same goes at The Whisky Lounge, again including myself – we want you to enjoy the experience of one of the shows or tasting events and buy another ticket for another event soon.
The criticism will no doubt rumble on, especially as the market gets increasingly more competitive, as more new brands appear and existing brands widen their ranges. As mentioned before, and the thought going forwards is this – some brand ambassadors will be better at their job than others. Some will never be as good as others. That’s life. Get over it.
Brand ambassadorship is not easy – it involves long hours, considerable amounts of traveling and lengthy time away from home. However, all are compensated for by one thing in my view – getting paid to talk about whisky for a living to people who are interested in it. That beats almost everything in my professional career to date. Those ambassadors that do not embrace that and are simply interested in their numbers are missing out. So are the brands they represent.