Wednesday, February 27, 2008

The New Brand Ambassadors

Consumer generated advertising is still making a buzz— read the latest.
-By Joan Voight

SAN FRANCISCO Remember when citizen journalism was a novel idea? Now, average people armed with video cameras, laptops and mobile phones routinely cover everything from flood and fires to violence on the streets of Myanmar. Combine this do-it-yourself movement with the idea that every thought and personal event is Facebook-worthy, and it makes sense that citizen marketing is the newest form of consumer activism -- one looked at by marketers as a potential holy grail.

Overall spending on citizen marketing is growing and is expected to top $1 billion in 2007, up from $980 million in 2006, according to PQ Media's word-of-mouth marketing forecast. That number is expected to swell to almost $4 billion by 2011.

"Technology has leveled the marketing playing field for brands," write Ben McConnell and Jackie Huba in their book, Creating Customer Evangelists. "In the new world of marketing, customer evangelists are the key influence on what consumers buy."

People, of course, have always acted as brand ambassadors by sharing recommendations with friends and associates. And for decades, marketers have built buzz with preview parties and product samplings, albeit aimed mostly at influential, often celebrity, customers. (In today's world, this has translated to junkets and freebies for popular bloggers.)

Now, however, these interactions have become supercharged thanks to a new breed of brand ambassadorship programs that formalize the relationship between marketers and average consumers passionate about their products. These programs "hire" consumers, via incentives and rewards, to act as part PR agents, part sales reps and part evangelists. They mix the spontaneity of buzz building with technology to instigate, guide and measure what repeat customers are saying to each other about their brands. Sony, Unilever, Microsoft, McDonald's and JetBlue, among others, are incorporating such programs into their marketing mixes.

Consumers are selected based on their devotion to a product and the size of their social circles. They are expected to tap into friends, family, groups and resources through conversations, blogs, live events and online social media. These programs, which also provide marketing materials, sometimes ask these consumers to drum up local press coverage and coordinate brand sponsorships of community or charity events. Their activities are measured by things such as online traffic, number of blog posts, reader comments and e-mail responses, and how many people participate in real-world events.

Often, these reps create their own branding gimmicks. For instance, a Sony camera ambassador used the camera to film what was in her parent's pantry at Thanksgiving as a way to explain her upbringing in her Sony blog, prompting others to take cameras along on their holiday trips home.

Ambassador rewards include product samples, gifts, discounts and token cash payments -- anything from $700 worth of free electronics equipment to discounts at local golf courses. Plus, they get insider access to company information, such as new products or services in the works.

To avoid charges of deception, ambassadors are advised by marketers to openly reveal that they're representatives. Also, ambassadors' online conversations and activities are often branded. The Word of Mouth Marketing Association, a trade group of agencies and marketers who use word-of-mouth marketing, has instituted an informal, but largely unenforced, industry policy that brand reps must always disclose their relationship to the product or service when promoting it.

Ambassadors need not be 18 or over. Unilever's "Go Green and Small With All," which used in-classroom magazine and Web ads to recruit participants, targeted elementary school kids via a contest held in October and November that looked for the greenest grade school in the country. Its ambassadors were encouraged to get their families to make small, green changes at home (like using concentrated All detergent) and to spread branded, eco-friendly messages. The ambassadors and their parents submitted report cards on their progress, and the school with the highest percentage of report cards (not yet announced) will receive a $50,000 grant for eco-friendly school improvements, a solar-powered iPod Shuffle MP3 player for every student, a one-year supply of All and an appearance on The Ellen DeGeneres Show in January. More than 3,000 elementary schools entered.

Using young students as ambassadors "reaches our target audience of mothers of school-age children," says Helayna Minsk, marketing director for All. Incorporating it into a contest "encourages ... word of mouth and got kids involved collectively," she adds.

Sony decided that selecting brand ambassadors who like to travel, take pictures and blog would jump-start the launch of its news GPS camera. "This is a product with emerging technology and we really need to let consumers see people using it," says Koba Kobayashi, director of digital imaging accessories at Sony.

At least 2,000 applicants each filled out a detailed online form in August and September, and 25 ambassadors were picked based, among other things, on how much they planned on traveling and participating in sporting events in the fall, says a Sony rep. The winners were given a free camera and other equipment in October along with lessons on how to use them. Applicants who didn't make the cut got a thank-you note and a 20 percent discount coupon for the camera. (Any sore losers? "No complaints that we know of," says Sara Katz, Sony marketing manager for digital imaging.)

The Sony ambassadors are encouraged to hand out discount coupons, show the camera to anyone who asks and blog weekly about their adventures on a dedicated Sony microsite, which runs through Jan. 31.

Sony ambassador and blogger Cheryl Gillet, for instance, described a recent trip to Australia, adding a map of the journey juxtaposed with photos of beach scenes and tanned friends in swimsuits.

A traditionally fertile ground for ambassadors is the college campus, so it's no surprise that colleges are giving brands a place to refine their citizen-marketing strategies. Marketing agency RepNation has jumped into the fray to facilitate such programs by identifying student ambassadors for companies including JetBlue, Microsoft and Macy's. It then manages the ambassadors' activities. (Students do not "work" for the brand, but for RepNation.)

The RepNation Web site is used to solicit people and to swap students' marketing ideas. (RepNation also posts classifieds on sites like Craigslist.) Ambassadors are encouraged to create their own events and to build a campus-wide reputation as spokespeople for the brand, says Brandon Evans, managing director at RepNation. Cost to the marketer per program ranges from $300,000 to more than $1 million, he adds, and compensation for the student comes to about $10 an hour in free goods and gift cards, he says. (A program often includes several colleges with one or two ambassadors per campus.)

JetBlue's BlueDay, now in its third year, is one of the more established college-style ambassador events. Held in the fall on 21 campuses on the East Coast and in Northern California, students wear blue costumes (and, on occasion, blue skin and hair) and those with the best costumes are each given a pair of free airline tickets. (See sidebar on previous page for more about RepNation and JetBlue.)

Tracy Sanford, director of advertising and promotions for JetBlue, says, "Students know what kinds of activities are important to other kids, what we should say to them in our marketing and how we should say it. The other side is that we have to not be surprised when they do something we would not have done, like put an amateur-looking version of our logo on a sheet cake. We have to give up some control of our image."

Sanford adds that the ambassador program doubled in size in 2007 and has "made a big difference" in the brand's strength in the young-adult demo.

On a smaller scale, Ocean City, Md., began a pilot brand ambassador program with marketing agency MGH in early 2007. More than 15 ambassadors from around the touristy town serve as PR representatives, pass out promotional materials to visitors and talk up the town online. As a thank you, they get previews of town events, gift packs with golf discounts and local goodies.

Visits to the city have gone up since the program started and attendance is higher at events the ambassadors have promoted, says Donna Abbott, Ocean City's public relations director. In 2008, the program will expand to include an online social network for ambassadors.

While brand ambassadors are a good, inexpensive way to extend a brand's reach, "ambassador programs require a good deal of supervision to ensure that the brand is being represented properly," says Lara Bass, vp of client services at Renegade, an experiential marketing agency. To find appropriate ambassadors, she feels, marketers should search blogs and identify individuals who are already functioning as brand advocates. "Once selected they must be trained and well versed on the brand so they don't come across as paid endorsers who lack real brand knowledge," she adds.

The ambassador approach has its critics. Robert Kesten, a media activist and executive director of the Center for Screen-Time Awareness, which seeks to limit the time children spend with electronic screens, says these programs "reduce every relationship to a consumer transaction. It's taking advantage of people, usually younger people, by teaching them that friendship is worth a compromise when something free is involved. It cheapens everything."

Do brands privately worry their reps will be perceived as hucksters who promote products because they get free stuff -- or, worse, as annoying evangelists best avoided?

RepNation's Evans, for one, says, "To the contrary. Our brand ambassadors are seen by their college friends as entrepreneurial, creative people." What they aren't, he adds, are the super cool kids on campus. "We used to assume the best reps would be the cool kids in any given group. But we learned that most kids are not cool. If marketers want consumers to feel a connection to their ambassadors and to feel that an ambassador is accessible, they have to look beyond the cool customers" who are typical influentials. The best ambassadors, he says, are "friendly, everyday brand loyalists who love to talk to people."

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

The New Tool in the Tool Box

Look what else you can do with a blog— Get a Job!

Okay. Guess how many guest bloggers I got from my Valentine’s Day blog. If you guessed zero, then you are correct. So I guess I’ll just keep blogging myself. Lucky me--  According to the WSJ, blogs are the new resume database and the best way to catch a passive candidate.

Ryan Loken, a Wal-Mart Stores Inc. recruitment manager, says he spends one to two hours a week searching through blogs for new talent or additional information about the candidates he has interviewed. "Blogs are a tool in the tool kit," he says. Since he joined the Bentonville, Ark., retail giant three years ago, Mr. Logen estimates that Web journals have helped him fill 125 corporate jobs. Most of the recruits were referred to him by bloggers and blog contributors, and some were the writers themselves.

Some companies encourage employees to blog because they can use them to recruit others. When recruiter Harry Joiner was hired to fill two positions at Musician's Friend Inc. in November, he used an employee's personal blog to help sell his client's rural location of Medford, Ore., to job seekers. "Candidates were using Medford as a reason not to consider the jobs," he says. "As a marketer, I thought, if you can't change it, promote it."

7 Tips for Making Your Blog Recruiter-Friendly
1. Clearly identify your specialty. Include a tagline in your blog's banner so its theme can be quickly recognized. Also, write a concise "about me" blurb that readers can easily find.
2. Show you're current on hot topics. For example, relate a recent news item about your area of expertise to a project you completed and link to tangible evidence of your work, such as a press clipping or PowerPoint presentation.
3. Provide more information. Include a downloadable resume and if you have a profile on a networking site such as, link to it.
4. Exercise common sense. Never write about anything negative or proprietary concerning current or former employers.
5. Omit personal information. Unless it's relevant to the job you want, avoid writing about how much you love Fido or the cute things your kids do.
6. Keep it polished and current. Post new entries at least three times a month to show that you're committed.
7. Contribute to other blogs. Insert an inbound link to your blog to draw more traffic and boost its search-engine rankings.

Once again, I urge you to email me if you have any blog tendencies you’d like to expand upon.

The door is always open.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Happy Valentines Day

To Readers and Friends

My Valentine to you is an opportunity to let your voice be heard.
If you have enjoyed the blog, and would like to contribute this month, you can email your blog posting and be a guest publisher.

Simply send an email with your post of interest to
Include any pictures as attachments.

After passing our QC for G-rated content, you can feel what its like to be part of the greater BRANDEMiX community of readers.

We heart you.


Saturday, February 9, 2008

College Recruiiting Gets an MBA (More Buzz Available)

On January 14th, HRNY’s Staffing SIG was pleased to host Deanne Holzer, Vice President, Group Director for Alloy Media + Marketing, one of the country's largest providers of targeted media programs. Our objectives were to learn more about what companies how companies are attracting college students, and passive job seekers in innovative, exciting and unexpected ways.

Anyone with responsibility for staffing knows full well the challenges presented by recent demographic workforce statistics:

  • Over the next 10 years, for every 2 experienced workers who exit the workforce, only 1 person will be coming in.

  • Healthcare, energy, green energy, technology, and business and professional services will be hot industries in 2008, and diverse candidates are always in demand.

· According to recent research from the National Association of Colleges and Employers, 235 members surveyed expect to increase college hiring by 16 percent. This is the fifth consecutive year in which employers have projected double-digit increases.

Alloy Marketing and Media, with an arsenol of assets at their disposal, including more than 100,000 media displays nationally in clubs, fitness centers, restaurants, laundries, salons, schools and campus movie theatres, presented us with many ways to make a buzz. That’s good news for recruiters, since when it comes to interacting with a digital generation, it’s all about capturing attention and creating content that people will use and hopefully interact with.

If you were a human resources recruiter when it was called personnel, you may remember
· when cell phones only came installed in cars
· when Atari Space Invaders was cool
· when Michael Jackson’s hair caught on fire while filming a Pepsi commecial

You may also remember when cutting-edge campus recruiting involved posters, flyers and recruitment ads in the campus newspaper. And while that type of messaging is still in play, today’s students might also

· be invited to a private, on-campus movie screening with pre-event promotions
· find hidden flyers in their required class textbooks when they buy them at their campus bookstore
· see branded napkins and table tents or bathroom mirror clings when out at their favorite hangout
· find ads and signs in their laundry room or barber shop!

From floor clings, coffee cozies, texting, digital signage or actual Buzz Squads dressed as chefs to deliver pizza to your target audience, anything is possible with an open budget and an open mind.

Sounds easy but here’s the catch.

If attention is the currency of the new economy, the message is the mint.

According to a Ypulse College Survey, the Number 1 thing college students look for in advertising: honesty.

Once you get someone’s attention, its critical to make sure they don’t regret it. Be sure to align your message and media with your business goals, and build interest the old fashioned way- with honest information about your company’s culture, goals, vision and business strategy.

A brand gets built one buzz at a time.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

5 "BRANDates" to Building a Successful Brand

I'm not in the habit of showing other agency's work but this was too good. (Just don't read the last slide.) Message is enhanced by great graphics.

Basically, there are 5 "BRANDates" to building a successful brand: cultivate, validate, innovate, collaborate and differentiate.