Picture: 123RF/vanatchanan
Picture: 123RF/vanatchanan

Paying people to promote brands has long been a contentious – and confusing – issue in the industry. There is confusion around the terminology, what they’re actually called, and controversy and cynicism about whether it’s an effective way to market a brand or not.

Bar the fact that the desire to change another’s copy is a natural human instinct, sorting out the terminology is relatively easy. So, feel free to change the words, it’s the meaning that matters.

Brand champions can as easily be called brand managers or even product managers: a manager responsible for forming, protecting and developing a brand by encouraging support for it – both inside and outside an organisation. They earn a salary for looking after the brand.

On the other side of the continuum between paid and unpaid is the brand advocate: a highly satisfied client or customer who endorses a brand by dint of goodwill and affinity.

The brand ambassador lies between these two. This group can be divided into external and internal brand ambassadors.

External brand ambassadors are usually celebrities who are paid to endorse or promote a brand. Increasingly however, they may not be celebrities at all, simply people with large followings on social media. They are paid for their popularity, not for their affinity with the brand.  As part of the terms of agreement with the brand owner, they support the brand by endorsing it.

This is where the cynicism comes in: does the person really believe in the brand (are they an advocate) or are they just pretending (because they are being paid to)? It is reasonably easy to work this out: if the person is highly successful, attractive or popular, he or she is probably a paid ambassador. If it’s your petrolhead buddy, you can probably believe him when he extols the virtues of a car brand at the braai.

Deciding which brand ambassador endorsements are authentic and which are not is a judgment call that most consumers are capable of making. I don’t know if George Clooney loves Nespresso, but I do know that he is paid lots to sip it. On the other hand, I absolutely believe him when he focuses global attention and resources on mass atrocities through his involvement in ‘Not on Our Watch’.

The big take-out

It doesn’t matter how much money is being spent on external brand influencers; if employees don’t support and advocate the brand’s promise, that money is being wasted.

All this aside, perhaps the most important group of brand ambassadors is the brand’s employees. Indeed, are all employees brand ambassadors? The low levels of employee engagement in most companies suggests otherwise – not only are employees generally not active brand endorsers, they may well be brand detractors.

An employee is only a brand ambassador if they are active participants and smart decision makers who live the behaviours organisations require for sustainable success, including protecting and building the brand by delivering on its promises.

On the topic of cynicism, think about who you would believe: An external brand ambassador who is paid to say how great a brand is, or an employee who says it is lousy?

Here’s the thing: if you are a brand champion spending money on external brand ambassadors to use their celebrity status to turn consumers into brand advocates you had better be investing in turning your employees into brand ambassadors too. Huge amounts are invested in building brands, but if employees aren’t brand ambassadors, ultimately much of this brand investment is wasted.

  • Johnny Johnson is a brand and communications strategist at TowerStone Leadership Centre.