Wedged between images of brunch selfies from your cousin and the beach trip of a girl you don’t actually know, you’ll find a post from someone you barely know endorsing a brand you’ve probably never heard of before.
It’s not hard to find a low–commitment brand ambassador gig. Brand ambassadors are given the job of endorsing the company through regular social media posts, and in exchange, they receive free samples and discount codes from that brand.
Diana Nguyen (C '22) is a university brand ambassador for the Philly–based coffee company, La Colombe Coffee Roasters. She learned of the opportunity to work with La Colombe through an Instagram ad last summer. After a brief application and interview process, Diana became one of the two university brand ambassadors for La Colombe at Penn.
Now in her second semester as a Penn La Colombe brand ambassador, Diana regularly posts pictures and stories on her Instagram account, often featuring herself and always featuring the brand’s iconic canned coffee. In exchange for her work, she receives two boxes of La Colombe coffee each month.
Despite having little interest in the fields of communications and marketing, Diana continues to represent La Colombe because it’s fun. "I just think it's a fun thing to do on the side, [and] you get to meet new people and get free products. I definitely would recommend [it],” she says.
But the growing use of brand ambassadors by companies can have real implications for the future of social media advertisement and the so–called endorsers themselves.
Ron Berman, an assistant professor of Marketing at the Wharton School, discusses the developing relationship between businesses and their brand ambassadors in an era of social media advertisement.
Berman refers to these brand ambassadors as influencers. Though names such as James Charles and the Hadid sisters are the first come to mind when we think of influencers, any brand ambassador can be considered an influencer in the sense that they can sway—or influence—consumers towards brands through the way they represent the products.
For these influencers, they gain a regular flow of free samples and discount codes, as well as opportunities with companies, which can be—especially for college students—an opening in the fields of marketing and communications.
But brand ambassadors’ enthusiasm to work with brands and earn more money, Berman says, compared to what they receive for their endorsement is “probably not worth the time.” Berman explains that influencers hope to expand their profiles and make a significant income from their social media alone, but “the majority of them never do.”
But brands’ diversion of money from traditional paid advertisements to this newer—and cheaper—type of influencer–based marketing may result in long–term repercussions for the future of social media advertisement, Berman says.
Social media platforms, such as Facebook and Instagram, primarily make money by selling advertising. But now that companies decide to go a different route and pay brand ambassadors to advertise for them instead, Berman suspects these platforms “will want a cut of this money.”
This growing prevalence will eventually result in more regulations, Berman suspects. There have been court cases due to influencers using their platforms to scam consumers into purchasing counterfeit products. Small businesses also receive requests from influencers for free food in exchange for their endorsement on social media.
As the role of influencers and brand ambassadors develops, more consequences of their presence will emerge. But are brand ambassadors effective in drawing in more consumers?
They certainly are more cost effective for companies, and these influencers do seem to have fun taking pictures with their free samples. Companies will say yes; they are the better alternative to costly ads. But of course, “marketing managers in brands always want to say that the marketing works,” says Berman, who is skeptical of the real effectiveness of brand ambassadors when there is still lacking conclusive research that confirms the effectiveness of this new marketing strategy.
When discussing the effectiveness of these brand ambassadors in the long run, Berman doesn’t seem convinced. “I think consumers are going to be getting better and better at recognizing this type of thing, and at some point, it will stop working,” says Berman skeptically.
Until then, we will continue to see posts advertising coffee, makeup, and all kinds of stuff as we scroll through social media. Brand ambassadors, such as Diana, will continue to regularly appear on our feeds, but we cannot help but wonder what’s in the future of brand ambassador marketing.