Brand ambassadors are similar to brand evangelists in that they also have a vested interest in seeing their favorite brand succeed. It's not so much that they attempt to influence other customers to buy a product, but that they share their passion for a brand with their fellow customers.

Whereas a company markets to customers in order to sell more products, brand ambassadors attempt to relay their passion for a brand to other customers, because they honestly believe that product will satisfy the wants and needs of their fellow customer.

Brand evangelists are everywhere. They are passionate customers who sing the praises of their favorite brands to other customers. But brand ambassadors have contact with the brand, and that contact comes from a brand ambassador program.

These steps can help you design your brand ambassador program:

1. Understand up front that creating a brand ambassador program means losing control

The very heart of a brand ambassador program is the concept of empowering the ambassadors to spread the message about your brand, in their space. Think of this as a shift from your brand's sending marketing signals to the customers to giving the customers the ability to market to each other.

Such a program can be an extremely effective marketing tool, but only if your company is willing to accept that it cannot have complete control over the marketing message that its ambassadors will transmit in their communities. If your company is not willing to relinquish the control necessary to begin a brand ambassador program, then the process needs to end here.

Key action point: A successful brand ambassador program requires a long-term commitment to the program itself, as well as to empowering the ambassadors to spread your message on their terms and in their space. Give your ambassadors the freedom to take your message and make it their own. A brand ambassador program takes time to build momentum and create results, so be willing to give it the time to reach its full potential.

2. Identify potential brand ambassadors

A great starting point is to examine customers who are already giving your brand feedback. Check letters, emails, phone calls, etc. Customers who take the time to communicate with you about your brand are already exhibiting the key quality that a successful brand ambassador needs: passion. After feedback, simply tracking buying patterns can give your company a great idea of which customers are likely passionate about your brand. But if at all possible, choose potential brand ambassadors from a pool of customers who have initiated contact with your company.

Key action point: Look for passion. Customers who take the time to directly contact your company are passionate about your brand. And don't automatically assume that negative feedback from a customer should remove that person from consideration. Sometimes the best evangelist for a brand is a customer who had a negative experience that was addressed positively by the company. Also keep in mind that customers who take the time to communicate to your company will be more likely to talk to fellow customers about your brand.

3. Design your program and its goals

The heart of any good brand ambassador program is the ability to give ambassadors a greater sense of ownership in the brand. For example, Maker's Mark created its brand ambassador program around the idea of sending its ambassadors out into their communities and strengthening the distribution channels for Maker's Mark. Ambassadors not only try to convince retailers and bars to stock the product but also create a network to let other customers know where they can find the product. In return, every ambassador has a barrel of Maker's Mark bourbon stamped at the distillery with his/her name on it. Decide on the goals for the program and how to measure them.

Key action point: Above all else, find a way to give ambassadors a greater sense of ownership in your brand. Doing so will motivate them to continue to evangelize your brand within their community. Determine goals for the program, such as membership level, online traffic, or increased sales.

4. Build a community around your brand ambassadors

Find a way to establish a central touch point for your ambassadors, a place where they can have access to brand materials and exchange ideas. This touch point can be an online or offline community; either way, it is a wonderful way for ambassadors to compare and contrast how their particular efforts are working from different parts of the country—or the world. Make every effort to foster a sense of community and kinship in your brand ambassadors.

Key action point: Consider establishing a blog and/or message boards for your brand ambassadors, and carefully select which brand ambassadors will monitor and oversee them. This will give your brand ambassadors a place to meet, share ideas, and get to know each other. Also, encourage ambassadors to meet offline, by developing a network; part of your online community could be set aside for members to set up meetings offline. Such community-building efforts will help grow the sense of pride that members have in being a brand ambassador for your company.

5. Communicate with your ambassadors

Let them know what key branding points to stress to customers, but try to give them as much freedom as possible to market for your brand. Remember: When the message comes from a friend or fellow customer, it's a trusted recommendation; when it comes from the brand, it's marketing. People don't respond well to marketing.

Let your brand ambassador know what themes to stress to fellow customers, but also give them the freedom to make the message their own, and to put it in terms that the community will respond to. Make sure they understand that they should disclose to other customers that they are an ambassador for your brand at all times, and let them share your brand in terms that they are comfortable with.

Key action point: Remind, but don't restrict. Give your ambassadors guidelines, but not rules. Stress to them that they must disclose their relationship with your brand, but should never engage in activities that they are uncomfortable with. Encourage them to not view their job as selling the brand to other customers, but rather as explaining the brand's benefits. At all times, let your ambassadors have the freedom to take your message and make it their own, so they can communicate it on their terms, in their space.

6. Implement your brand ambassador program

After you've selected your ambassadors and designed a program for them, let them run with it. The heart of a good ambassador program is a company that's willing to cede control to its community of ambassadors. Give these special customers the slack to run with the program, and see what they can make of it.

Key action point: Freedom is empowering. A brand that gives its ambassadors the ability to evangelize that brand in their community fosters a sense of brand ownership for the ambassadors. And that sense of brand ownership will stoke the fires of passion in your ambassadors. Allowing brand ambassadors as much freedom as possible will also reflect positively on your brand to other customers, and make them more likely to consider becoming brand ambassadors as well.

7. Collect feedback—early and often

Your brand ambassadors are collecting marketing information about your customers as they communicate with them in their space. This is key, because the ambassadors are reaching fellow customers in their space, and in a setting where they are comfortable. Since the interaction is happening in familiar settings for the customers, they will be much more likely to give the ambassadors their true feelings about the brand.

Key action point: Feedback that brand ambassadors collect is far more valuable than any market research that a company could collect. This is because the brand ambassadors are speaking to customers in their terms and in their space. As a result, they are far more likely to receive better and more accurate information. Take this information and let the lessons learned from your ambassadors shape your future marketing messages to your customers. By having a more accurate assessment of the customers' true wants and needs, you can alter your marketing to increase its effectiveness.

8. Transfer ownership of the program to the ambassadors

This may be the most important step in the entire process. The idea is to have the brand ambassador program grow to the point where your company has as little interaction with the ambassadors as possible regarding the program itself. Let the ambassadors themselves control almost all of the program's dynamics. This is significant because it means shifting your marketing to the community, where it is more effective; and you will be receiving community-based feedback from your ambassadors, which is likely to be much more accurate than marketing research conducted at the company level.

Key action point: One of the main ideas running through your brand ambassador program should be transferring control of the program to the ambassadors. Give them the freedom to run the program as they see fit. Perhaps they would like to start an online community built around promoting your brand. Or maybe your ambassadors would like to create a network of members that attempt to persuade local retailers to carry your product.

9. Give existing ambassadors a framework for recruiting additional members

Once you have brand ambassadors go out into their communities, they become your best recruiters for adding new ambassadors. Because they are at home in their communities, whether online or offline, they can tell which customers are passionate about spreading the message about a particular brand.

Key action point: Supply every brand ambassador with the necessary materials about how someone can become a brand ambassador or how to contact the company to become one. Encourage potential ambassadors to either check out your program's online blog/message boards or attend an offline meeting for the group.

10. Give brand ambassadors a way to stay in constant contact with your company's leadership

Your brand ambassadors are going to discover some amazing ideas for growing your brand by simply interacting with fellow customers. Also stay in constant touch with them through their online communities, and if possible by meeting them in person. The feedback that brand ambassadors collect from fellow customers is invaluable for crafting your marketing messages, and it is almost always superior to information collected from market research studies.

Key action point: Invite brand ambassadors to contact your company's management whenever they want. This will allow them to relay feedback from the community as soon as possible. Do everything possible to keep the communication channels open between your company and the brand ambassadors. Bring brand ambassadors in regularly to your company to make presentations of the ideas that they have collected from interacting with fellow customers.

Don't be afraid to apply the lessons that brand ambassadors have learned to your marketing at the corporate level. Remember that your brand ambassadors have the advantage of being in constant contact with your customers and have a better idea of their true wants and needs, as well as how they respond to your company's existing marketing messages.

Lessons to consider

A brand ambassador program is an incredibly powerful tool for not only expanding your customer base but also increasing your brand equity and improving your marketing. Think of your brand ambassadors as a bridge to your customers, or a volunteer army willingly spreading your brand's message among their fellow customers.

The biggest obstacle to creating and implementing a brand ambassador program is the unwillingness to cede some control of your marketing message to your brand ambassadors. For this reason, brand ambassador programs work best for companies that have a culture of reaching out to their customers, and so can use a brand ambassador program as an extension of that philosophy.

A brand ambassador program allows the brand to communicate with its customers on their level, in their space. And that's an extremely powerful and valuable advantage that companies with a brand ambassador program enjoy.

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image of Mack Collier

Mack Collier is a social-media strategist based in Alabama. He helps companies build programs and initiatives that let them better connect with their customers and advocates. His podcast, The Fan-Damn-Tastic Marketing Show, discusses ways that brands can turn customers into fans. His first book, Think Like a Rock Star: How to Create Social Media and Marketing Strategies That Turn Customers Into Fans, was published in April 2013 by McGraw-Hill.

Twitter: @MackCollier

LinkedIn: Mack Collier