Ask five brand ambassadors—and the operators that they work with—what they do and you’ll get five different responses. Even Charlotte Voisey, portfolio ambassador for William Grant & Sons and the unofficial “Queen of All Brand Ambassadors,” has difficulty providing a definitive response: “I’ve even had my mother out on the road for a week watching me, and at the end of it she turns around and says, ‘So, what do you do for a living?’”
So how is a bar or restaurant operator expected to figure out how to make the best use of brand ambassadors, if these individuals defy categorization? Especially as the role continues to evolve? And how can they best use their services without having their brand mix changed significantly?
The brand ambassador, explained
“For us, a brand ambassador is someone who entertains, educates and passes on the message of the brand,” Voisey sums up. “It’s the embodiment of the brand.”
Although brand ambassadors have been around since the early 1990s, the role got a bump in 2010, when The New York Times wrote about the growing trend of bartenders making the leap from drink-slinger to spirits brand promoters. Since then, the number of brand ambassadors has surged, and many modern bartenders actively seek out opportunities to represent different brands.
However, the role remains a fluid one. “We wear so many hats,” explains Borys Saciuk, who has been the 42Below Vodka Brand Ambassador (part of the Bacardi portfolio) for the past three years. For example, he lists judging or hosting cocktail competitions, creating cocktail menus and drinks to showcase the brand, educational speaking, hosting parties, attending conventions and even the odd media appearance among his many and varied responsibilities.
The strategies also vary depending on a brand’s existing (or target) demographic and a restaurant’s specific promotional and educational needs. Almost all major supplies and brands are bringing on experienced brand ambassadors to market their portfolios. Many of the services they offer can greatly benefit a restaurant’s drinks program and help beverage directors come up with good, new ideas.
The brand ambassador, evolved
Meanwhile, the spectrum of “ambassadors” has widened, encompassing beer and wine (not just spirits); part-time and regional roles; and other creative variations.
In addition to full-time ambassadors, it’s become increasingly common for working bartenders to moonlight as brand reps, often providing their expertise within a specific region. Almost every major supplier these days has a brand ambassador, or two, who they are eager to have work the on-premise market.
Some ambassadors also work full-time in a bar or restaurant, giving them added integrity For example, brand liaison Kate Grutman retains her usual position running Sotto, a bar in Los Angeles, even as she promotes Pink Pigeon rum, a brand that debuted in the U.S. earlier this year. “We’re just getting started, so I’m able to do both,” she explains.
Grutman also notes that being a working bartender is helpful in gaining the trust and respect of peers. “It’s super important not to be a hired spokesperson, but to be part of the community,” she says emphatically.
Since Pink Pigeon is an emerging brand for U.S. drinkers, and has an unusual style—as a spiced white rum—Grutman has centered her efforts around “research and development,” tweaking classic recipes like the Daiquiri and educating bartenders how to work with the product.
The Wine Take
Spirits ambassadors have been so effective as marketing tools that wine and beer companies are adding them to their roaster. Consider Buena Vista Winery’s mold-breaking variation on the “ambassador” role. In Sonoma, CA, George Webber, a trained professional actor—not a bartender—dons historical costume and accent to morph into “The Count of Buena Vista,” conveying the winery’s history while staying in character.
Webber’s goals align perfectly with those of traditional brand ambassadors: educate, entertain, and personify a brand. For example, when Webber travels “I introduce myself to everyone,” Webber says. “People remember him. I take photos of everyone with the Count,” which he later sends, along with an invitation to visit the winery. Ultimately, “It’s about trying to break through to form a personal connection with people.”
So devoted is Webber, he even wears the costume while in transit. “The Count gets a LOT of looks as he walks through airports,” says Webber, with apparent glee.
One measure of success: after a mere six weeks, the Count is so in demand that Buena Vista is strongly considering hiring and training other “Counts” to man the winery while Webber is on the road.
What can brand ambassadors provide to operators?
“My relationship with brand ambassadors is crucial,” says Jennifer Cooke, corporate beverage director and trainer for Phillips Foods, where she oversees seven locations based from Washington D.C. to Newark. In particular, brand ambassadors are valuable for providing “the essence of the product and knowledge base I can’t get from anywhere else.”
However, that knowledge base can manifest in a variety of ways, and operators need to be vocal and communicate their establishment’s needs. “The idea of education is first and foremost,” Grant’s Voisey agrees, “but it needs to change with the audience.” In other words, a rep for Hendrick’s Gin may spend one day explaining the fine points of distillation to a group of 10 bartenders and the following day provide a broader, more light-hearted seminar for a group of 200 consumers who may not know much about gin, but are happy to talk about cocktails and taste gin neat.
Depending on an operator’s goals, brand ambassadors’ talents can be used to train staff, execute promotions or bring in consumers for special tasting and educational programs. When working with operators, Voisey usually begins by asking bar managers to describe their bar’s cocktail list using three terms, so she can assess the bar’s aspirations.
“You find out, do they want to be accessible, pioneering, classic, hyper-local—you just get the overall impression,” Voisey explains. “And then you dig deeper to find out if there are any roadblocks, what’s the level of skill of the bartenders—and most importantly—how much time and access will you give me to come in and work with bartenders.”
That time with bartenders is a precious commodity,
she continues: “That’s not just to pass on skills, but also to win their hearts.”
Saciuk similarly tailors his services depending on the account. For example, he might spend time at a single freestanding account working with bartenders to hone drink-making techniques. Meanwhile, for a chain or national account, he might work with a beverage director to fine-tune the cocktail menu, and then would “train the trainer.”
In some cases, the brand ambassadors also provide more general spirits education. For example, Glenfiddich brand ambassador and whiskey specialist Heather Greene (part of the William Grant’s 16-member team) frequently holds tasting sessions for restaurant staffs to demonstrate how Scotch differs from Bourbon, or will review a bar’s whiskey collection to identify gaps.
“When I work with restaurants, I take it on as my responsibility to help them communicate the spirit and thus help them to move bottles,” Greene explains.
Although it is difficult to quantify specific sales increases linked directly to ambassador outreach (many note that the role is not to sell, but to support sales efforts; others lump ambassadors under “integrated marketing efforts,”) results certainly are evident. Lindsay Prociw, the senior brand manager of Glenfiddich in the USA, points to “extremely positive trends not only in terms of pure sales increases, but perhaps most noticeably, in trading consumers up through the range to more profitable vintages.”
For example, Prociw notes retail accounts visited in Philadelphia, where data shows that “not only are all accounts now stocking our higher marques for the first time, but they are selling to their customers and regularly reordering, showing long-term benefits for us as well as for their businesses.” Meanwhile, another retail account located in Miami relayed that “in a two-hour period with an Ambassador tasting, his store sold 13 bottles of Glenfiddich 15 and 18 Year Old, versus the typical one or two bottles 12 Year Old that might follow a promo staff demonstration,” Prociw says. “We attribute this to the expertise of our Ambassadors, as well as their ability to communicate the very real attributes of Glenfiddich in a compelling and authentic fashion.”
Avoiding brand domination
One risk operators face is the potential for brand-washing: everyone has been to bars now and then that seem to be aggressively stamped with a single brand, or portfolio, from signage to menus to what’s available behind the bar. Although the new breed of bar-trained ambassadors are aware that exclusivity is not a desirable outcome from a bar’s point of view and don’t generally force the issue, operators too need to strive for balance.
Cooke, for example, monitors all her specs by brands as well as percentage carried by distributor, and aims for a balance in both. “I do this by offering some proven winners of big brands that are most popular with guests, as well as providing smaller boutique brands,” Cooke outlines. “I feel this gives the ‘little guy’ exposure, while offering guests other options that we can introduce to them to broaden their experience.”
Thinking outside the box
To Cooke, brand ambassadors are particularly useful when they can provide unusual, “outside of the box” promotion ideas.
“In this business, I can get my blinders on,” she admits. “I want ideas for how I can market myself, but I don’t always have time to research that. I want brand ambassadors to say: this is what’s coming down the pike, this is what’s hot and new and this is how you can use it.”
Among the ideas proposed by brands that Cooke considers most successful: a cotton candy-themed happy hour proposed by Pinnacle Vodka to showcase their cotton candy vodka flavor, including cotton candy machines and Pinnacle Cotton Candy Martinis. The event was so successful; she plans to repeat the event in the Spring of this year.
Meanwhile, for the Washington D.C. location, which tends toward a heavily professional male clientele and has strong Cognac sales, Rémy Martin’s brand reps are organizing a “business man’s happy hour,” complete with a speakeasy theme, jazz, shoe shining stations and “cigarillo girls.”
But it’s not all about spirits. Another winner was a mini beer festival proposed by Evolution Beer Company, a local Maryland brand. The event included beer tasting stations, live music and casino wheels that awarded beer-related prizes. “It was like a little Rock-toberfest.” It worked, Cooke says, because the brand ambassador focused on what could be brought to the bar. “They said not only how can we be a better brand ourselves, but how can be make things more exciting for your guests?”
Like the Pinnacle event, Cooke says the mini beer festival was successful enough to repeat it in 2012. “We found that some of the guests that participated were not our normal repeat diners,” she explains. “Experiencing an event like this brings them back through our doors, as it created a memorable experience and a wow factor. They had a good time and they tasted new brands and flavors they didn’t realize we had.” Further, the event showcased Phillips’ ability to host a dynamic group event—opening the door for future group business from customers, an important segment for the operator.
After that success, Cooke found it easy to open to door to a monthly beer “hoppy hour” across several locations, a project proposed by several beer ambassadors. Each month, “beer geeks and bloggers” will be welcomed to taste local microbrew beers and blog about the experience, building momentum toward the annual Baltimore Beer Festival in October.
In the end, operators say, it’s not about understanding what
a brand ambassador does—rather, it’s about understanding what that brand ambassador can do for you and your restaurant or bar.