Storytelling + community = brand ambassadorship

Paolo Bicchieri
May 17, 2018 · 8 min read

I was a young brand evangelist. That sounds like the name of my potential memoir, or of a Lifetime Movie about someone who made really poor decisions. But I turned out okay. And I really loved Ben & Jerry’s.

Very thrilled youngme in 2008 decked out in Ben & Jerry’s hat, shirt, and at the factory in Burlington, Vermont.

Evangelists are not exactly what we’re talking about here, though. We’re looking at brand ambassadors and what they can do for your marketing.

Brand ambassadors have the reputational equivalency of annoying telemarketers. The grouchy old man knocking door to door collecting magazine subscription fees. Or the hapless 19-year-old who knows nothing about the service they rep. You may have seen memes, or heard of brand ambassadors as nothing more than an optimistic plea of turning consumers into evangelists.

Such as.

But they are doing the work of the zeitgeist. Shinzo Abe seems to understand that much.

Indeed, LinkedIn, and Craigslist are plastered with two key words right now: storytelling and community. From companies as large as Microsoft and Apple to start-ups and small business, one can find work as a “Narrative Strategist,” or pick from brand, digital, and even wine storyteller. One can work as a Community Associate, now, and if they work hard they can make it all the way to Community Manager. These are previously unheard of roles.

Storytelling is now one word, and community is now a career path.

It’s an important time to check in with the working world regarding these ideas. And it’s important to see where your company can use them to inspire your most readily available and underused asset: the brand ambassador.

Community as currency

San Francisco’s Royal Palace of Fine Arts. A centipede of young people dressed in concert clothes at 4:45 p.m. Inside the lights are low over a pop-up market, t-shirt printing center (with actually cool t-shirts), free headshots, a resume workshop, and a trendy job fair nestled between three or four bars serving spicy tequila and kimchi tacos. Wiz Khalifa performs under his DJ moniker, Dj Daddy Kat, and St. Vincent plays on a separate stage nearby. This is all to the tune of zero dollars and zero cents.

Case study: WeWork

The WeWork Creator Awards are an international phenomenon. Each event is a veritable party, and a few lucky winners of the awards go home with thousands of dollars.

The value offering to the company? People love it, of course. WeWork becomes their second space — a concept Starbucks took to market in the 1990s. Where do people want to be if not work or home? Sort-of-work, and sort-of-home. Familiarity, friendship, and free stuff. Even if the cost to work at a space can be $220 a month.

Few markets have grown as explosively as the co-working space. Impact Hub, Galvanize, Riveter, even San Francisco’s The Grotto are all based on a similar idea — the modern employee is starving for a sense of place. It’s a time when the floating disassociation of the internet has replaced the stapler-stealing office.

By increasing a communal feeling, while truly offering value (as a start-up fanatic might mention), WeWork and other companies in this market are driving their bottom lines enormously. WeWork is growing into further services like WeLive and WeLearn, and shows no sign of stopping with a reported growth of 7,000 members in the last four years.

WeWork is not just for Amazonians who refuse to shower or wear real clothes.

Brand Ambassadorship with WeWork

Brand ambassadorship for WeWork is easy — each member does it. One would argue that this blurs the line between evangelist and ambassador, but that’s the point. WeWork’s own staff live exciting lives flying around the world for music festivals, just like Amazonians watching Lorde at Safeco Field. But even members can sit around the spaces, drinking kombucha and playing ping pong.

And the ambassadorship for these companies is no joke. They have field marketing budgets (Creator Awards is a field marketing event, at which WeWork also has a booth at, as though they weren’t also hosting the party) and they know the power of translating their brand to people in effective, simple ways. Ways that ring of legitimate, true storytelling.

Storytelling as marketing

Telling stories evokes the idea of sitting around a fire, playing acoustic guitar and drinking cheap red wine. Maybe being read to sleep by a loved one, or swapping tales with friends from college a few years later.

But now it is perhaps the most significant word in every market. It shouldn’t be surprising to see marketing and advertising take to this idea — advertisements about activism like a rushed and offensive Pepsi commercial have always been story-based. It might be surprising, though, to see engineers, retail chains, and fast food restaurants thinking about “storytelling.” But we see Humu, Patagonia, and Chipotle all enjoying the fruits of talking about the events that brought them to where they are today.

Storytelling as a verb is not the same as telling stories. The popularity of the concept may be attributed to podcasting, which is as popular with millennials as early radio; we can find friends and authenticity in our earbuds. Some point toward ad agencies that took this direct approach, citing Derek Jeter and his work with The Player’s Tribune, as bringing that style of truth into the marketplace.

“The Moth” and “Risk!” are hubs for locals who blend spoken word and journaling, telling crowds of strangers some of their most intimate moments. “How I Built This” has become an impossibly popular phenomenon with an American Express-sponsored summit.

Case study: Barnana and KIND

Barnana and KIND are two important case studies for storytelling as marketing. The tales these two companies tell differentiate them in an organic snack market that now demands about $50 billion Americans dollars each year. Barnana is literally dried bananas. But when one hears about Joao Suplicy, the Brazillian architecht, and the way he dried the bananas with a broken skylight, fruit becomes a bit more exciting. It’s engaging.

Daniel Lubetzky is a Mexican-Jewish former magician who started one of the world’s most recognizable snack brands. KIND was recently backed by Mars, and has grown all the way into markets like Israel. Lubetzky’s book, “Do the KIND Thing,” which is akin to Howard Schulz’ “Pour Your Heart Into It,” is a New York Times Best Seller. His power to communicate his struggle into digestible words for potential consumers has bolstered his place in the market hugely.

Daniel Lubetzky: storyteller extraordinaire

That’s why KIND’s field marketing budget has exploded in about ten years. One of the best field marketing teams in the game (I’m biased) holds that place because of how well versed in the SKU specialization and company ethos each ambassador is — the staff is not contract, which is the norm for many brand ambassadors. In 2017 the company sent dozens of the brand ambassadors to “training camps” to strengthen their position in the company and field, doubling down on their foot soldiers’ talent to translate the story of Mr. Lubetzky to soon-to-be evangelists.

Community + storytelling = ambassadorship

Star Wars might be the first place the mind goes when “ambassador” gets brought up (Coruscant, anyone?) Maybe the United Nations, if you’re a little more terrestrial. Ambassadors, in the geopolitical sense, are the faces and voices behind global policy, trade embargos, and intergalactic warfare.

The world of field marketing or brand ambassadors is nothing to scoff at, either. In the data-driven world of 2018, it’s appealing to ignore the “soft skill” concepts like “community” and “storytelling.” Except that in this same data-driven world of 2018, those concepts are driving the data, and the bottom line.

What that means for your company

Brand ambassadors are your faces at trade shows. They are the ones in grocery stores cutting up snack bars and handing out cups of some new aloe drink. For Hampton Creek it became such a driving force to live the company and drive sales that they were willing to drink the vegan Kool-Aid and do some dastardly things. (This is too far, by the way.)

Nope nope.

More importantly, they are the ones who go home to their friends, family, and partners. What do they say about their job? How do they feel about the product? For contracted brand ambassadors who work with a company for maybe three hours ever, it’s just a gig. But for some, like “Flavor Gurus” at Ben & Jerry’s, the oft-mentioned and little understood role, it’s easy to think that the closest twenty people to these crafty folk love the hell out of this ice cream.

That’s the key. Giving brand ambassadors the keys to the Cadillac that is your company’s story and internal teams. Inclusion, authenticity, identity, and purpose. These four words are all major aspects to community and storytelling, and they are represented by effective brand ambassadors every day.

When companies are selling their identities and their stories as much as they are selling sales software, it’s important to have confident and informed delegates. Adding brand ambassadors to your utility belt means adding storytellers and community representatives. People want to like your product before they even try it — that’s the social media, podcasting world of 2018. Understanding how to add community and stories to your arsenals will no doubt increase loyalty in an authentic, supportive way.

It’s a sweet shirt — what up WeWork.

Don’t think of brand ambassadors as a cheap gimmick or wasted effort. Think of them as foot soldiers in a war they not only are willing to fight, but would love to fight and rally around. Give them a cause to shout about.

And it won’t hurt if you bring Dj Daddy Kat to the next company BBQ either.

Paolo Bicchieri

Written by

Novelist. Journalist. Actor. Poet. Brand dude. Coffee + wine enthusiast (Kenyan and Spanish pls)

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