A while back I wrote about Belvedere’s search for their new Global Brand Ambassador
, and this week I was lucky enough to spend a few days in New York meeting the finalists and seeing the conclusion of the competition. Belvedere have gone to great lengths to find just the right person to represent them and I’m sure they’ve made a great choice in Ali Dedianko, but it got me thinking about why brands feel the need to have a Brand Ambassador and what value these people bring to the industry?
Belvedere went to a lot of effort to find candidates who would reflect their brand, as the competition spanned several continents and took in various challenges. There was a lot of money spent flying people from around the world to the semi finals in the UK and then again over to New York for the final. So why exactly did they feel the need to go to these extreme efforts? The simple answer is that having the right person as the face of your brand can be an incredibly valuable asset, getting it wrong can be disastrous!
Earlier this year Nick Wykes wrote a pretty damning article about Brand Ambassadors in Imbibe magazine. The article certainly ruffled a few feathers but for most good Brand Ambassadors they laughed it off, knowing full well that there is a value to what they do and a need for them in this industry. Conversely there are plenty of bad Brand Ambassadors who do little to promote the drinks industry so I can see Nick’s point too.
I should probably mention at this point that my part-time day job is as UK Brand Ambassador for Four Roses Bourbon, so I may be slightly biased on this subject, but over the years I have been lucky enough to meet many other Ambassadors and have got a pretty clear idea of what value they can and should have both for the brands they work on and for the industry as a whole.
SO WHO EXACTLY ARE THESE PEOPLE?
The majority of Brand Ambassadors are ex-bartenders who have sought a way of earning a good living without having to leave the industry they love. The role of Brand Ambassador is a relatively new one and was originally a rare job to be able to get into. Over the years however more and more brands have seen the value of taking on someone to represent their products, and what was originally basically a training role has developed into something much bigger and more important.
By appointing a Brand Ambassador a company finds themselves with someone who is the face of the brand, and this is where you see the difference between the good ones and the bad ones. A good Brand Ambassador embodies the brand, gives it a tangible personality that bartenders and consumers alike can relate to. They live the brand, conduct themselves in a way that reflects well on the brand and embody it 24 hours a day no matter where they are and what they are doing.
It’s rare to find a Brand Ambassador who wasn’t originally a bartender and I suppose there are a couple of reasons for that. Firstly it’s important to be able to relate to bartenders as you will be spending a good amount of your time training them, doing events with them or being in their bars, if you haven’t been there yourself it can be hard to connect with them. Also I think that there are a set of skills that a good bartender has that are essential for the Brand Ambassador role too; you have to be good with people, know how to be a great host, you have to be confident and have a good sense of humour and obviously it helps to be able to make good drinks and have a reasonable level of knowledge about spirits.
On the flip side of that coin, not every bartender would make a good Brand Ambassador. Bartenders are notorious for liking to party pretty hard, sleep late, be a bit flakey and generally cut loose more than in most other professions. While being able to go out drinking, have a good time and stay out ‘til the small hours of the morning, does come into the role from time to time, Brand Ambassadors have to show a little self-restraint as well. Often times you’ll be in the position of playing host, so you need your wits about you and to be the responsible one in any group. I’m not saying that good Brand Ambassadors don’t know how to have fun, but the best ones also know when to order a tactical tonic water, while pretending it’s a G&T, or when to bow out and head home before getting sucked in to an all nighter!
In Belvedere’s search for their new Global Brand Ambassador this was definitely part of the evaluation process. By taking the finalists out on a bar safari across New York, Claire Smith (Belvedere’s Head of Spirit Development) had a chance to see first hand how each of them conducted themselves over the course of the evening. How comfortable were they socialising and meeting new people, were they outgoing? Loud? Shy? Confident? Did they stay sharp and in control or did they drink too much and start getting a bit too loose? How people conduct themselves in a social environment is pretty important in this role.
HOW DO YOU FIND AN AMBASSADOR?
I guess the usual way of finding the new face of your spirit brand is simply to put the word out to the bartending community that you are looking. These days bartenders seem to be falling over themselves to get out from behind the bar and into what they see as being an easy and glamorous job. There are a few downsides to this if I’m honest.
Firstly it means that we are losing a lot of talent from our bars and it seems to be happening earlier in their career than used to be the case. This of course means that there are less really good, experienced bartenders helping raise the standard of younger bartenders. It’s a sad fact that in the UK it is difficult to make a reasonable living making cocktails, which leads to passionate bartenders having to find another way of making money. In an ideal world our good bartenders would be able to stay behind the bar as long as they like before moving into a brand role when they are ready for a challenge, not simply because they need more money.
The other downside is that Brand Ambassadors are becoming less and less experienced. Even just a few years ago most Brand Ambassadors had served their time making cocktails in some of the top bars, before moving into management and learning the financial side of things too. Many of them had spent 10 years or more in the industry before being picked up by a brand. Now that any middle-sized brand seems to want an Ambassador there seem to be fewer and fewer bartenders with long-term experience. This also means that many Ambassadors don’t have the depth of experience that used to go with being in that role. I’m not saying you have to be long in the tooth to do the job, or that there aren’t exceptional younger bartenders who could do a great job as a Brand Ambassador. I simply feel that having been around the industry for a while in a number of roles probably helps.
Belvedere certainly seem to have thought that it was important to find just the right person to represent them. Their decision to run a competition to find them was an unusual one, but looking at all the elements of the comp it makes a lot of sense. They threw the doors open for anyone to apply and made it easy. Simply make a one-minute video demonstrating why you should get the job, post it on their facebook page and wait to see if you made it through to the next stage.
Once the deadline had passed the entrants were whittled down to those who best reflected the attributes of the brand. They were then invited to make a three-minute video of themselves presenting their signature serve cocktail and talking about Belvedere. After that, the numbers were thinned out again and the semi finalists were selected to compete in a competition in London.
The semi finals consisted of two rounds, one presenting your signature serve to a panel of judges and the second a speed round where you had to make 10 drinks in 5 minutes. From this round only three finalists were selected and flown off to NY to join the other finalists from the US and Canada. The shortlist of 8 competitors were all strong candidates and any one of them was certainly in with a good shot.
Up until this point the candidates had only shown that they could present and make drinks, but since there is more to being a Brand Ambassador, the guys from Belvedere decided to step it up a notch. The finalists were put through a series of tasks including a 45-minute formal interview; where, as well as being questioned they were also asked to present something they were passionate about, other than alcohol. They also had to go through a mock press interview, during which they faced ruthless questioning from freelance journalist Jenny Adams as well as having a TV camera pointed at them for extra pressure. On the final day competitors had to do two presentations to the judges; the first was their signature serve, which they were given 5 minutes to present, the second was the ‘bring it’ round, where they were given 15 minutes to present Belvedere in an eye-catching way.
Of course during their time in New York there was also the chance for Claire and the team at Belvedere to observe how they behaved in various social situations and to get a feel for their characters. All I can say is having met them all and seen them present it can’t have been an easy choice, and Ali Dedianko should feel especially proud to have won against such fierce competition.
ARE BRAND AMBASSADORS REALLY THAT IMPORTANT?
The simple answer to that question is that they can be. The good ones are worth their weight in gold, and of course the bad ones can damage your brand. The reasons I believe that our industry is better off for having them are numerous. But before I go into that I do have this warning to all young bartenders who sit in on trainings by Brand Ambassadors. As with all things in life we should be taken in context (this goes for me in my day job too!). We are paid by a brand to present our products in the best light possible. Take the information we give you, but don’t forget where it has come from and that it is being presented by someone biased. The best Brand Ambassadors I know will never talk down a competitor and they present their spirit category as they see it, but it will always be from a slightly biased point of view. We can’t help it, it’s what we’re paid to do and most of us do honestly love our brand and want you too love it as well.
So the reasons for having Brand Ambassadors… well for a start they help bring both the brand and the spirit category to life. For a bartender to have a person whom they can ask about a certain product or category is a huge benefit. Also the best Ambassadors do become experts in their spirits, they know their competitors' products, they learn the history and various production methods, they know the laws and regulations, in other words they are a fountain of knowledge. Having these experts in our industry to help guide young bartenders into categories and to help them find out more about a favourite spirit can only be a good thing.
It isn’t just limited to bartenders either! There are lots of Brand Ambassadors who spend plenty of time doing consumer tasting events and the like. Having a person who you can send out to represent your brand and who will engage with consumers is a great thing. As far as I’m concerned anything that helps bridge the gap between the knowledge we hold in the drinks industry and the general consumer, can only benefit everyone.
Of course the bad Ambassadors out there may do just as much damage as good. I have sat through trainings where the information given about a spirit category was completely wrong and even one in which the ingredients of the brand were listed incorrectly. As I said you can’t just blindly trust that because this person has the job title ‘Brand Ambassador’ that they are full of valuable information, it still pays to do your own research, but most Ambassadors I know are good, it’s the rare exception that, as Nick suggested in his article, they should be 'thrown out of a plane!'
As for Ali and her new role as Global Brand Ambassador for Belvedere Vodka, I suspect she is going to have a lot to learn and some daunting new experiences over the next few months. But having fought her way to victory, and with a great mentor like Claire Smith to help guide her, I have a feeling that the industry just gained another good Ambassador! We’ll raise a glass of super premium Polish vodka and wish her luck!