Your Startup Needs Brand Ambassadors Now More than Ever — Here’s How to Get Them


How do you woo the brand ambassadors you want? Follow these four steps.

Brand ambassador strategies have lately gone mainstream, as more and more companies become eager to harness the power of referrals through effective ambassador matchmaking.

Case in point: Nissan struck a timely deal with Naomi Osaka hot on the heels of her U.S. Open victory over Serena Williams. The partnership made headlines and made perfect sense for Nissan. As the first Japanese woman to win a Grand Slam tennis title, Osaka had a persona that aligns with the Nissan brand; she could also bring in a new audience for the company.

Establishing these mutually beneficial relationships to generate positive word of mouth is the centerpiece of 21st Century marketing. According to HubSpot, 70 percent of the people surveyed said they trusted recommendations from other consumers; more importantly, 71 percent were more likely to make a purchase based on social media referrals.

Brand ambassadors offer a great way for startups to build awareness without breaking the bank. These people, when carefully selected, provide independent validation and instant credibility for a new company — without the hefty marketing budget other approaches require

The starting point for startups

As with any business strategy, success in attracting brand ambassadors depends on the amount of time a company spends defining and refining objectives and expectations ahead of time.

Every company has unique needs for its ambassador strategy. But, the good news? Companies can deploy brand ambassadors against a range of business goals, such as brand awareness, an increased market share or a boost to revenue.

Establishing an ambassador program was one of the first marketing strategies our own company, 2920 Sleep, tackled when entering the competitive direct-to-consumer mattress space. In the short term, we wanted to build trust in our brand. Longer-term, our goal was to create unique content that fit our company and each ambassador’s personal brand.

We’ve also been able to use our ambassadors to test our products and offer honest feedback. We partnered with high-performing individuals, such as climber Tommy Caldwell, skier and artist Chris Benchetler and adventurer and community activist Noel Russell, who view sleep quality as critical to their performance as athletes, parents, artists and professionals.

From our perspective, these celebrities seemed perfect, to provide input on our product design; and their goals aligned — still do — closely with our personal and company goals.

Being a startup, we did not design our ambassador program to generate revenue; we designed it to define our brand. Choosing the right brand representatives meant partnering with those who aligned with our company ideals. As our company evolves, however, so will the goals of our ambassador program. More mature companies, on the other hand, might want to build ambassador programs around sales and marketing campaigns, including specific market share or revenue metrics.

Having eestablished your objectives and metrics as the groundwork, you can next turn your focus to the fun part: building relationships. Instead of winging it, follow these four steps to woo your own brand ambassadors.

1. Be transparent about what’s required.

Treat brand ambassadors like any other critical hire. Create a job description that outlines expectations, including everything from the desired number of social posts to the brand guidelines ambassadors must follow regarding your products.

Brand ambassadors are a highly visible part of any marketing strategy. Give them the same focus as you would any other paid initiative, and you’ll avoid unpleasant surprises. A failure to establish clear guidelines can land you in the same boat as Samsung.

When a high-profile Samsung ambassador was caught using an iPhone X, Samsung found itself in the uncomfortable position of generating buzz for a competitor. As a result, the company ended up taking legal action against the ambassador, courtesy of a $1.6 million lawsuit.

2. Channel passion with creative perks.

Create a profile of an ideal ambassador by defining the qualities that best align with your brand. Specify must-have attributes for A-list ambassadors, as well as everyday fans who could also be great potential ambassadors. With those profiles in mind, get creative about the rewards. Different types of ambassadors will deliver different levels of support and exposure, and the perks should vary accordingly. Entry-level ambassadors can enjoy free products and gift certificates, while high-profile advocates might require compensation.

Startups are appealing to ambassadors who want to get on board at the beginning. Early adopters often become a company’s most passionate advocates, as has been the case with Tesla owners. Many become official ambassadors who amplify demand based on their passion for the brand. A group of Tesla owners in the U.K. organized more than 10,000 test drives in conjunction with a local event for car enthusiasts.

The only investment from Tesla? The company now offers perks like event invites, private tours and car upgrades as ambassadors achieve different levels of referrals.

3. Pitch, listen and partner.

When it’s time to approach potential ambassadors, be open to exploring new ideas. Done right, a pitch to potential brand ambassadors is a two-way interview that involves listening and collaboration on both sides.

Some of our best ambassador relationships have taken at least a year to develop and opened us up to new opportunities we never expected. Char-Broil, an outdoor grill company, plays a similar long game when choosing its brand ambassadors. The company carefully monitors various blogs about outdoor cooking, barbecuing and tailgating.

After getting to know individual bloggers through those bloggers’ content, Char-Broil reaches out with a simple email invitation to discuss collaborating. This low-key, personal approach nets results: Char-Broil’s site traffic and social followers have increased each year since it launched its ambassador program.

Nurture naturally.

With ambassadors on board, strike a careful balance between overly aggressive and painfully passive. Ambassadors choose to participate because of their affinity for your brand, and their commitment will only grow if you deliver a high-quality program. It’s human nature: Ambassadors will do their best work for the companies they genuinely like.

This is where startups have an advantage. Monetary rewards aren’t the be-all and end-all. Get to know your ambassadors, which will help you identify mutually beneficial projects and ways to expand their social reach.

Most importantly, continue to nurture your program so it produces new ambassadors. Bhakti, a Colorado-based chai company, found a natural way to expand its program while still maintaining selectivity. Whenever a fan tweets or emails about the company, it responds by inviting that individual to become a brand ambassador. While anyone can apply via the website, Bhakti determines who will be the best fit to keep its program on course.

In the end, brand ambassadors can be anyone from passionate customers to established bloggers to A-list celebrities. When those ambassadors match the unique objectives of your program, they can be your advocates, becoming, in the process, an integral part of your company and its success.

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