Brand ambassadors: good and bad

Here’s a Charlie Brooker article in The Guardian about Brand Ambassadors.

He makes a good point or three, but this subject is wider than Mr. Brooker’s exploration.

Evidently the way we feel about pretty much anything can be altered by its association with someone who uses or doesn’t use it.

With that in mind, last month, Abercrombie and Fitch went so far as to offer to pay reality TV ‘star’ The Situation not to wear their clothes.

“We understand that the show is for entertainment purposes, but believe this association is contrary to the aspirational nature of our brand, and may be distressing to many of our fans.”

That may have been a PR stunt, but it was based in truth: when someone you don’t like uses a product, it diminishes by the association.

So brands have to be very careful about who uses them, but the problem is they have very little control over this.

Perhaps you recall the hullabaloo about ten years ago when the huge dip in Levi’s’ fortunes was attributed to the fact that they were worn by sad middle-aged men such as Jeremy Clarkson. Levi’s had no choice over Clarkson’s decision to wear them, but the damage was great, and there was nothing they could do about it (except entirely overhaul their brand and stock at enormous expense). Did they have any say in the matter? No. Did they have to pay to solve the problem? Absolutely.

Going back to the Brooker article, the decision by Weetabix to use children as brand ambassadors has resulted in a long negative article in a national newspaper. Will that damage be offset by the positive effect of the ambassadors, or will it prove overall to be a mistake by Weetabix? I suspect the effect of what Charlie Brooker says will be negligible, but when you think about all the PRs, clients, agencies etc. that are employed to protect and promote a brand, the idea that they let mistakes like that slip through their fingers is unimpressive to say the least.

Then there’s the problem of real brand ambassadors such as Tiger Woods unexpectedly going off the rails to the supposed detriment of Gillette/Nike/etc. Again, the lack of control comes into play here: do the people who shave with Gillette products really care about Tiger’s behaviour? Would they choose Wilkinson Sword on the basis of that? What about Nike? Don’t they get to bask in the reflective glow of the rebellious outlaw that they so desperately used to covet?

Brands that feature in rap music have had a particularly tricky relationship with that situation. Back in the nineties Timberland tried publicly to distance themselves from the hip-hop scene by insisting that they sold working men’s boots not intended for the feet of urban rappers. And more recently the owner of Cristal Champagne insisted that he did not want his product to be associated with ‘bling bling’ (Jay-Z claimed that this was racist and responded by name dropping Krug Rose instead).

I suppose the conclusion is that you only get to have so much say about brands that sit in the public domain. Attempts to exert control and have a positive effect might end up doing the opposite, but help might also come from unexpected quarters.