For every Seiko, there's a Daniel Wellington; for every CoverGirl, there's a Glossier. Brands who are not developing an emotional connection with their audiences will become a thing of the past -- and the premier way to do so is through digital brand advocacy.
Though the terms “influencer,” “brand ambassador,” and “endorser” are often used interchangeably, there are important differences between these kinds of creators.
The 6 major kinds of brand advocacy are:
- Brand ambassadors
- KOLs (Key Opinion Leaders)
- Co-branded content
- Employees as brand advocates
Before social media’s ubiquity, brand ambassadors were the celebrity endorsers serving as the “face” of a brand. In 2006, George Clooney was Nespresso’s man of mystery.
From Nespresso’s website:
Why was George Clooney chosen as the Nespresso brand ambassador?
We asked Nespresso Club Members who they thought would best embody the Nespresso brand. George Clooney starred in our first celebrity campaign in 2006. Since then, he has charmed fans and coffee aficionados as the perfect personification of the understated elegance and authenticity that make Nespresso what it is today.
In 2013, Queen Latifah and her trademark hair were featured across multiple mediums as part of her brand ambassador partnership with Pantene. She was seen on billboards, in T.V. spots, and across the internet as Pantene’s longtime “Personal Style Queen.”
In the world of social media marketing, brand ambassadors are no longer just celebrities. In fact, the best ambassadors may be micro-influencers -- those without a colossal following.
The ideal way to select a brand ambassador is not by measuring clout, but instead by gauging that creator's brand affinity. If an influencer is authentic in their promotion -- if they talk about how much they use and love a product both on- and off-camera -- your campaign's creative has a much higher chance of resonating with that creator’s audience.
Casey Neistat and BOOSTED (the company behind Boosted Boards) have maintained a brand ambassador relationship for several years. The YouTube creator began championing the electric skateboards in October 2015, and to great effect: interest (search traffic) in boosted boards grew over 300% over the next year as Neistat continued to ride and promote the product.
Though a digital-first approach to brand ambassadorship may not be as highly produced, it can mean a slam dunk in terms of earned media value (EMV). Note that marketers usually need to relinquish most creative control when trusting a digital creator as a brand ambassador.
Like all brand advocacy efforts, authenticity is the deciding element in ambassadorship campaigns. An earnest ambassador will continually promote your product throughout their content by virtue of them actually using it -- day-in and day-out.
The most well-known brand advocacy channel in the last few years, influencer marketing has become an explosive channel in the last few years. Influencers can come in any size or shape -- if there’s a niche, there’s a creator who holds influence in that community.
Influencers can have celebrity-sized audiences or can be “micro-influencers” with followings of just a few thousand. The efficacy of campaigns run with an influencer is dependent on their sway over their following and the authenticity of the promoted content.
Influencers differ from brand ambassadors in that they are usually used for limited or one-off creative campaigns. In this way, influencer marketing is an ideal channel when exposing a new brand or product to a fresh audience.
Daniel Wellignton, noted as Europe's fastest-growing brand with 4700% growth between 2013 - 2015 to $182m, was built on savvy influencer marketing. The brand itself is doubles as an influencer, regularly posting co-marketed content through its popular O&O channels.
When activating influencers, Daniel Wellington also capitalizes on discount codes and link tracking, tying the the attribution knot and allowing for real-time campaign optimization.
Savvy brands discover influencers by filtering for those who represent interests similar to their target market. Digital brand ambassadors are often chosen because of their earnest affinity for a brand.
In 2012, Red Bull partnered with GoPro to produce a co-marketing effort that shocked and intrigued viewers across America. Teased in a Super Bowl XLVIII ad, Felix Baumgartner, a professional Austrian basejumper, leaped off a platform from 24 miles above the earth -- the edge of the stratosphere.
Baumgartner was plastered with Red Bull logos and with several GoPros strapped to his body. He reached over 840 miles per hour on the way down, breaking the sound barrier. Over 8 million people viewed the livestream concurrently (a record which remains unbroken today).
“Red Bull’s global scale and execution is something to be admired. This partnership is very strategic for GoPro… We share the same vision…to inspire the world to live a bigger life. While we’ve worked closely for many years, as official partners we’ll be able to more effectively help one another execute our shared vision and scale our respective businesses. GoPro and Red Bull, as a match, are as good as it gets.”
Once brands are able to identify their target audience, they can work to discover the other products or services that that same audience loves. The partnership and the co-branded content that result from a relationship in which there is a strong audience overlap can be especially effective.
Walmart partnered with Welch's to run a co-branded digital influencer campaign in which they identified food bloggers who had an affinity for both brands. In a smart move, the brands allowed select creators to retain creative control throughout the campaign. The micro-finfluencers were asked to concoct and publish their own recipes using Welch’s chia seed jam.
Co-branded content, produced tactfully, can reinforce or even raise the profile of a brand. Working with a partner that is perceived well can “spread” that rapport among the partners brand’s audience. Similarly, a brand should be wary of working with a partner that is regarded more negatively, as it can seem like a “step down.”
Co-branded content can also be a great way reach fresh audiences. A product may find new enthusiasts among a partner brand’s audience who did not already hold a strong level of awareness or affinity.
Lastly, co-branding usually represents resources split between two companies. With this comes double half the budget responsibility for double the creative manpower.
KOLs (Key Opinion Leaders)
Another type of brand advocate that especially excelled in Asian markets like China and Korea is the Key Opinion Leader (KOL). This refers to creators that have expert product knowledge and influence in a respective field -- think doctors, historians, or handbag experts.
In the West, "key opinion leaders" exist primarily as a marketing device within the pharmaceutical industry. KOLs range from influential researchers to doctors-for-hire, and are generally activated as speakers at scientific events.
In the East, KOLs mean something a little different.
Influencer marketing campaigns are built on authenticity, aspiration, and vulnerability -- all advertising qualities that resonate in the West. KOLs, on the other hand, are known for their ability to drive immediate bottom-of-funnel conversion, leverage the integrated nature of eCommerce-enabled social media platforms like Renren or Taobao.
KOLs, similar to K-pop groups, are raised from the start of their careers to be "talent." They generally have a media company backing their growth, and consumers are not turned off by stream of content more advertorial than not.
Word-of-mouth is the original form of brand advocacy, and should not be overlooked. 92% of consumers trust recommendations from people they know, making word-of-mouth recommendations the strongest brand advocacy channel. Websites looking to facilitate substitute relationships with trust signals like ratings or voting.
Online, word-of-mouth marketing exists in a few different ways. First-hand recommendations from real-life friends and family are made through messaging apps like WeChat or Messenger. Semi-private polling is done through Facebook or Twitter feeds. Recommendations from “vetted” strangers on sites like Reddit or Steemit can also have a powerful marketing impact.
Most other forms of digital-marketing involve reaching out to an audience that may or may not have customer intent at the time of ad impression. With word-of-mouth brand advocacy, the onus of “reaching out” is flipped and passed along to the customer. As a result, evergreen word-of-mouth content will be available and referenced whenever that person is ready to convert.
Employees as Brand Advocates
Often overlooked, a brand’s employees are those with the most intimate and earnest understanding of that brand’s products. The willingness of a brand’s employees to promote to their own audiences can be taken as a measure of both 1) the underlying quality of a product and 2) the loyalty that that company fosters through its culture.
Like all kinds of brand advocacy, authenticity matters most. When forced to post on a company’s behalf, the content produced by an employee brand advocate can backfire. There is no worse PR than a company whose leadership oversteps its boundaries with its employees.
In the same way that a brand can encourage its employees to share their network of leads, establishing a robust incentivization program is an effective way to spark employee advocacy.
Zappos encourages its employees to share their shared employee experience by posting moments tagged with #eyezapp, creating an authentic scrapbook for talent and morale team members to use to promote Zappos' culture. Every time a happy Zappos employee posts, the company wins some free social clout.
Company culture and perception are also important drivers of employee advocacy. If an employer is perceived well by their peers, an employee will not feel awkward posting and sharing product announcements and corporate updates. Earnest enthusiasm for the greater success of a brand or product is a powerful driver.
Building a strong and exciting culture is easier said than done, and must be an intentional and constant effort. Company leaders who are demonstrably dedicated can inspire employees -- and those who are inspired, share.
A successful brand advocacy program can start from the inside out. Finding employees and partners that believe in a brand’s mission and their own role in building toward it can do wonders as a distribution channel.