Consider the title of Brand Ambassador. It sounds pretty important, doesn’t it? The title evokes many things. Diplomacy. Subtlety. Deal-making. High-level intrigue. Suavity. Elegance. Smoke and Mirrors. Honour. Risk. Patriotism. Keeping Up Appearances.
It sounds somehow noble. Like they might have to secretly harbour and organise a high-risk extraction for James Bond at short notice after a lethal skirmish with some pesky foreign secret service, while at the same time hosting a glitzy Ferrero Rocher reception for the son of some dreadful dictator in order to save a multi-billion-dollar arms deal.
More noble, certainly, than ‘Travelling Salesman’, which was what they used to be called. The writing was on the wall for that job title from 1949 when Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman hit the theatres. Pathetic wasted lives ending in noble but futile suicide isn’t really a great image. By the 1970s the ‘travelling salesman’ was a cultural trope denoting a greasy chancer living out of a suitcase, shagging bored housewives in horrible hotel rooms and the inspiration for a series of lewd jokes involving the seduction of farmers’ daughters.
More noble, too, than ‘Sales Rep’, which was the next name for exactly the same role. It’s fair to say that ‘Glengarry Glen Ross’ did Sales Reps no favours but the title really hit the buffers about fifteen years ago when the repugnant figure of Finchy from ‘The Office’ hit our screens. Craven, devious, amoral misogyny isn’t what most brands are trying to project these days (with the dishonourable exceptions of the ill-advised Yorkie, Lynx and McCoy’s to name a few). After the series’ brutal Christmas Specials in 2003 when David Brent became a travelling rep himself, the job title now evokes only the desperate line “Can I ask you something? Who does your tampons?”
So, Brand Ambassador. Important-sounding. James Bond. Ferrero Rocher. No sanitary products, dodgy real estate, quiz-cheating, sexist yobbery or lengths of carpet there. Only high-level hobnobbing and cutting important deals.
But the truth, as ever, is more complex, more nuanced than a simple job title (or even a pretentious one) can really convey. In reality there are several different kinds of Brand Ambassadors. Let’s look at a few of the more common types.
The first kind of Brand Ambassador is actually the rarest. I will call them The Genuine Article. This is a person whose actual job title is not usually Brand Ambassador. The Genuine Article is someone who has worked in the industry, generally behind the scenes in distillation, warehousing or blending – you know, actually making whisky – for long enough to acquire real expertise in their field.
This expertise shines like a beacon in the sea of PR-led marketing bullshit that passes for brand engagement these days. But even the newest whisky ingenue recognises their aura. Go to any whisky festival and you will find the biggest crowds around any Genuine Articles that are present.
You know who I’m talking about here. Jim McEwan. David Stewart. Rachel Barrie. Ger Buckley, Billy Leighton & Barry Crockett from Irish Distillers. Iain Pinkie MacArthur from Lagavulin. People who have devoted their entire lives to making (not just talking about) whisk(e)y. People for whom the tedious business of having to go and waffle about whisky to the great unwashed is a necessary chore distracting them from their real job. They are the faces of whisky and they command real respect.
But, as I mentioned, these Brand Ambassadors are the rarest type, usually because they’d rather be doing something else. They are often scientists or (shudder for want of a better word) ‘artisans’ and their natural habitat is in a warehouse or a blending lab. For most Genuine Articles, public speaking is not in their natural purview. They’d rather be analysing samples than giving a Powerpoint presentation to ‘Masterclass’ ticketholders or stuck behind a six-by-two table with a black cloth thrown over it, serving single malt to drooling whisky nerds.
A much more common, and no less recognisable, type of Brand Ambassador is the Career Pro. At their best, many Career Pros are charming, fun and, in very rare instances, imbued with a real passion that transcends them towards Genuine Article status. At their worst these are sad, faceless, interchangeable individuals: an unfortunate result of the corporate culture in many of the large multinational companies that control whisky nowadays.
Career Pros are professional salespeople, no more, no less. The (comparatively few) women are often very attractive and almost always extremely determined. The (many, many) men are often very tall and almost always extremely affable and blokey.
They wear grandiose titles and cheap suits. Some of the low-level ones have trendy haircuts. Their eyes are red. They are always tired because all they ever do is sales meetings in the morning and whisky tastings in the afternoons and evenings. Same four whiskies every day. They work silly hours. They live on keywords. Tasting characteristics. Brand message. They get home very late. One day they could be pouring at an international whisky festival for hundreds of dedicated whisky nerds. The next night they could be in some desperate regional Rat and Ferret hawking their wares to half a dozen old gits and a bored barmaid.
Career Pros often don’t particularly like whisky. They don’t need to. They don’t need to know anything about whisky except for what the marketing department told them about the brand they’re representing this year, and the price chart for each ‘expression’. But you can bet that they know their pallet quantity case margin to the penny. They don’t have to drink the stuff because they have their tasting keywords. Anyway, they’re driving. Long way home.
They negotiate sales-driven kickbacks, known as ‘listing fees’ with bars and hotels or ‘retro discounts’ with retailers. They wheel and deal in incentives – Sorry, if you want the same allocation of 25 year old next year, you need to take at least an extra pallet of this innovative new recharred American Oak NAS. Orders from upstairs, my hands are tied, sadface.
They are contractually obliged to gladhand their corporate clients in the pub after whisky events. If there’s more than one of them at the bar with the same clients they fight each other to buy the first round so that they can get away as quickly as possible. They’re driving, you see. Long way home, big meeting in the morning. Sadface, see you soon.
Last year many of these people were selling wallpaper or cutlery, then they got a lucky break. They’ve got six more months on blended whisky, then they might get a year in single malt, cognac or, if they’re really good, vodka. Their clients are cash and carrys, on-trade or online retail. If they play their cards right they could be doing posh watches or luxury handbags in a few years. Get it and wrong and, well, no-one’s ever going to stop needing bog roll, are they?
Any rate, company policy is not to keep them too long in one category. If they get too friendly with the customers they might get outmaneouvered on discretionary discounts while chasing a big deal. So they get fired, promoted or moved sideways. They do handover meetings to introduce the next guy or gal on the production line. Then they’re gone and it’s like they never existed.
In my time at the whisky industry coalface I met (briefly) and had (mercifully little) meaningful contact with literally dozens of Career Pros. Most have merged in my mind into a blur of Burton Menswear and Issey Miyake but one or two characters and anecdotes do stand out. There was the (very tall, affable) former carpet salesman who was briefly our rep for a hugely prestigious couple of brands. When not chatting sales forecasts with the boss, he would ingratiate with the frontline grunts, making a virtue of his total and utter ignorance of what he was selling (“hey, I’m just a numbers guy – you guys are the real experts!”). At any tasting event he would latch onto my colleagues and I and shamelessly crib our notes for his own tastings.
This very likeable chancer / enormously canny sales pro was once given a bottle of long-sold-out single cask malt from my birth year at a whisky festival to give to well-heeled punters as an under-the-counter dram. I asked him to keep me a nip for the end of the Show and tracked him down after we’d chased the punters away, my black token at the ready, only to find the precious nectar all finished. “Sorry old bean, don’t worry I’ll make sure you get some next time!”. He nearly fainted when I told him the bottle had been sold out for years and now went for over a grand at retail – he spent his days punting the 10 year old and had literally no idea anything his brand had produced could ever be so expensive.
I forgave him. Anyway, he was a charming guy, we all respected his upfront refusal to hide his cluelessness and soon after he got the coveted move to luxury vodka: Career Pro success story.
Another hard-working ambassador for a very well-respected single malt did his time overseas entertaining clients at the casino, with the company account at Spearmint Rhino and the corporate platinum Amex for expenses. After recovering from this almost transcendentally cliched experience he came home to a fat promotion – overseeing a team of UK Brand Ambassadors. I recall him once having to reprimand one of his underlings, a (very tall) former IT manager who had somehow landed the job of representing one of the world’s most famous single malt whiskies.
This well-meaning newcomer was rubbing important clients the wrong way due to an unfortunate deficit of affability and a surfeit of over-aggressive blokeishness. The afore-mentioned boss said to me with a sigh, “I told him: the job’s not hard. It’s just ball-fondling! That’s all it is! I told him, go back in there and fondle some balls!” Sadly, not enough balls were fondled sufficiently satisfactorily and the dilettante was eventually edged out.
The next type of Brand Ambassador is the Zealot. These are the people who used to be bloggers / twitterati or bar managers, with the former being more prevalent in whisky and the latter generally gravitating more towards rum, gin and the like.
Most Zealots who are former bloggers / twitterati have graduated from being Wannabe Influencers to actual Influencers (see my previous blogs on Fake Whisky News for more details) and have made such a decent fist of Influencing (without losing too much credibility or pissing too many people off) that they have now earned the chance to live the Influencer’s dream as a bona fide Brand Ambassador. They may end up as Career Pros, but in the early days at least they differ from them: they actually like whisky and they actively LOVE doing tastings. They’d do more if they could. They also keep a close eye on Facebook and Twitter, looking to recruit the next generation of Wannabe Influencers.
The other sub-species of Zealots, the former bar managers, are most often found repping to other bars. They do this by negotiating ‘listing fees’ with their friends and former colleagues; and by organising and judging cocktail competitions for their brands, where they have to pretend to like dozens of mostly terrible new cocktails. This is why most former bar manager Zealots who end up repping whisky are actually repping whiskEy. American and Irish whiskeys, being less pretentious as a category, lend themselves better to mostly terrible new cocktails. It feels less sacreligious, especially to the young and youngish people who actually enter these competitions. In any event, single malt whisky or quality blends are now just too expensive to be included even in decent cocktails at bars outside the very centre of London.
Finally, we come to the most important, and by far the most prevalent, kind of Brand Ambassadors: Joe and Josephine Public. That’s right – you and I and all the other millions of people who actually love to drink whisky and talk about it with our whisky friends. We’re the Real Brand Ambassadors. We don’t have the title, and we don’t get paid. But we always tell the truth, and when we talk people – nay, target markets – listen. That’s why we’re so valuable, and why the industry fears us so much.
Think about it. How many Brand Ambassadors can you actually name? What about your friends? Thought not. And yet You, gentle reader, are the most powerful Brand Ambassador in your social circle. Seize your power. Spread your honest bonhomie, drop your truthbombs. You’ve paid your money, you’ve earned your right to a say. Your opinion on that new whisky you just took a punt on is more valuable to your friends than any number of Brand Characteristic keywords from bullshitting sales reps or target-driven commercial travellers.
You get the idea. There’s an old marketing adage: if someone has a good experience they tell an average of three friends, but if they have a bad experience they tell an average of ten friends. This may not be strictly accurate, but it’s indicative of the fact that unhappy customers make more noise and do tell more people about their experience.
Again, that’s why Joe and Josephine Public are the most valuable Brand Ambassadors, and why the industry fears us so much. Unvarnished Truth-Telling Left, Right and Centre! Credible Primary Sources Influencing Their Friends! Actual Whisky Fans Telling It Like It Is On Social Media! People Who Haven’t Read the Press Release Giving Their Opinion! These are the spectres that keep the marketing types awake at night.
What if they had to actually deliver on their promises? What if all the Real Brand Ambassadors all stood up at once? You have the power. Use it wisely. Have YOU bought a new whisky recently? Was it any good? Tell us about it. Praise the great stuff and call out the crap. Spread the honest word and we really can make whisky better.
Tim Forbes is a beloved friend and guilty pleasure of TWL and many in the UK (and global) industry. Of course we have to disclaim his views as his own, but that doesn’t stop us having a wry grin during certain passages and nodding along guiltily…