Brand ambassadors and influencers can be important parts of marketing strategies. While both seek to build trust, their roles can be confused, their motivations misunderstood and their value overlooked.
A brand ambassador is a consumer who falls in love with your product or service. An influencer is someone with a large following who recommends your product or service, sometimes for a fee.
Both are legitimate and effective strategies. Each tends to work best at a different point in brand evolution.
Influencers can jumpstart a new brand or a new brand offering by testing a product and giving it a thumbs up. Brand ambassadors can reassure fellow consumers that the brand is retaining or recommitting to its commitment to quality and responsiveness.
Recommendations from brand ambassadors tend to spread by word-of-mouth. Recommendations by influencers are typically promoted on social media.
Celebrities fall into the influencer camp. Experts can be an integral part of a brand ambassador program, such as a dentist recommending a specific brand of electronic toothbrush or a personal trainer wearing a particular brand of workout apparel. In this sense, celebrities and experts fulfill a similar role vouching for a brand. They both may receive some form of compensation in the form of payments or discounts. Brand ambassadors may be given product discounts.
Marketers directly contact influencers to explore product tests, with the understanding the influencer will produce a review. Influencers are chosen based on whether their following matches the target demographic of a brand. Some influencers accept free samples to test; others don’t. Some influencers are paid directly; others make their money on advertising on their platforms. The review by influencers is not guaranteed to be positive. Of course, a hired celebrity with a script is a sure thing.
Brand ambassadors are cultivated, sometimes by turning angry critics into brand zealots. They tend to be recruited to tell their own story about a brand. You might call them indirect spokespersons. Influencers also can tell a story about your brand that is more of a direct recommendation on why and how to use it.
Influencers come in all sizes. They can be well-known celebrities, macro-influencers with thousands of followers or micro-influencers that are connected to a network of bloggers and social media sites. A circle of friends can be an influencer starter set. In fact, many entrepreneurs have launched successful products by getting their friends jazzed up and spreading the word. This is where influencer and brand ambassador programs overlap.
They share other characteristics, too. Both can command respect from consumers and are capable of building trust in a brand. Both share content about a brand. Both exercise a level of autonomy in what they choose to tout, which gives both a sense of authenticity. Both speak with their own voice. Their recommendations don’t reek as marketing. Sometimes, a compensated influencer evolves into an unpaid brand ambassador.
There are significant differences. Influencers are chosen because of their expertise that has attracted a following that matches a target market. Brand ambassadors are like invited guests into your house. Influencers test your product and are paid to rave about it; brand ambassadors love your product and are eager to talk about it.
Employees are the most obvious source of brand ambassadors. Nike and Columbia Sportswear make sure their employees have access to their respective company stores so they wear what they design and market.
Influencers and brand ambassadors can show consumers how your brand performs. An influencer on YouTube can demonstrate how to prepare a Sunday dinner. A brand ambassador might offer to cook a Sunday dinner in your home.
For brands unable to sustain or even start a paid advertising presence, influencers and brand ambassadors represent a cost-effective marketing alternative. Because both rely on relationships and seek to build trust, they pair well with the zeal of contemporary consumers to engage with the brands they buy. Both are organic and conversational. They aren’t intended to reach masses overnight. They are aimed at creating a solid base of consumer loyalty on which to build a thriving business.
Gary Conkling is principal and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at firstname.lastname@example.org and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.