As it prepared to debut its new video service last winter, Cingular Wireless had a challenge: explaining and demonstrating the everyday relevance of Cingular Video to potential customers. The solution: brand ambassadors.
Field reps mingled with attendees at music events in 16 markets, holding the company’s GS phones up close and explaining in detail how to find the streaming video content and-download it and then how to view it.
“The brand ambassadors help to personify the brand and make an emotional and personal connection,” says Grace Robinson, VP for Velocity Sports & Entertainment, Norwalk, CT, which handled the campaign. “It brings the product to life.”
Brand ambassadors are a key component for a growing number of marketing programs, especially those driving consumers to experience products in the first-person. But the role definition, selection and handling of brand ambassadors is as much an art as a science. More corporations are relying “very heavily” on their agency partners to develop such programs, citing the financial strain, time pressures and headcount required to maintain a productive program, says Simon Temperley, president, USM&P, Marina del Rey, CA.
“It’s not a project-based marketing initiative anymore,” he says. “It’s as important as mass media, direct mail and everything else.”
The potential value of such programs has brands putting pressure on agencies to deliver top-notch “hired fans” who will engage consumers on their level and ensure results. Agencies are stepping up to the plate, reworking or strengthening their business models and incentive programs to hire and retain the best in the field.
Clients now mandate background checks that can go from vetting driving records to drug tests to criminal background checks. By the end of the interview and screening process, only about 20% of applicants make the cuts, says Pam Morrisroe, VP-director of client services, 141 Worldwide Boomerang, the events and field marketing division of 141 Worldwide. The agency handles brand ambassador programs for such clients as American Express, Procter & Gamble, Western Union and Motorola.
“Its not just having bodies out there,” Morrisroe says. “It’s all about measurement and results.”
Hiring field reps has evolved into an increasingly precise form of matchmaking, pairing a brand with its perfect soul mate to form a long, loyal bond. Applicants must show an affinity or passion for the brand. If the brand is dog food, only pet owners or pet lovers may apply. If beer is on tap, only those who enjoy their nightlife will be considered a good fit. New hires are sent home with the product and are routinely asked to become exclusive users.
“We are not trying to force feed a marketing message,” Temperley says. “We’re looking for these people to easily be able to converse with the consumer and fit into that category.”
Morrisroe says that about 30% of the agency’s clients now implement incentives. Clients are pushing hard for ROI and are no longer happy with just sales numbers, they want a high level of detail on the interaction and effectiveness of the effort, and are more frequently tying bonuses — and credits — into contracts to get there.
Boomerang, as well as other agencies, requires field reps — it maintains a database of 700+ active reps — to file an online, detailed report daily that is used as feedback for the client. In addition to standard questions, such as how many coupons were distributed, reps are required to offer feedback on a laundry list of criteria, including competitive activity and reaction to the product. Reps don’t get paid if the forms aren’t filled out, Morrisroe says.
“Mystery shoppers” pop in to assess the reps’ work, satisfaction surveys are conducted, retailers contacted and report cards filed. The process identifies outliers.
“This is all based on people,” Morrisroe says. “Clients need to see how well these programs have paid out, not only if they saw sales movement, but how well the people we’re interacting with are reacting to the message we’re delivering.”
Retention is also top of client’s minds as they push for using the same — proven — pool of talent over and over again, which is driving a fresh look at field rep incentive and bonus programs.
“To keep quality reps and to keep them working consistently, we’ve recognized that they need bonuses and incentives in addition to standard pay,” Morrisroe says.
Major incentives like free trips to red carpet events sponsored by a brand or travel to destination programs in places like Hawaii are being awarded to top brand ambassadors.