With the Internet’s social networks making word-of-mouth and recommendations ever more important, brand ambassadors have become one of the key tools marketers use to get a brand name into the public consciousness.

For startups, brand ambassadors can be a great way to spread the word and build trust in your business, but finding the right brand ambassador to represent and promote you can be a challenge.

Why are brand ambassadors important?

Brand ambassadors come in many forms. From world-famous celebrities to small time bloggers, having the right people represent a brand can have a hugely positive effect.

Large brands will often use influencers with a variety of audience sizes to reach the largest amount of people possible, a tactic which sees brands like Adidas involving less well-known fitness bloggers (for example by giving away kit), as well as seeking celebrity endorsements.

Whether it’s getting a famous actress to wear a particular brand of jewellery, or sending a beauty blogger with 2,000 readers free products to review, cumulatively the effect can be striking.

The use of these ambassadors benefits brands in various ways. Firstly, it adds a human face to the company. If people are following an Instagram star and feel they have a connection with them, their recommendations are going to carry much more weight than a straightforward advert, where people know vested interests rather than genuine enthusiasm for the product are at play.

Influencers also spend years building human relationships with their audience. Bloggers chat to their readers, and social media connects people in ways that were previously unimaginable, allowing a YouTube star (for example) to really know their fans.

Those who have naturally created an audience through their charisma, enthusiasm and expertise are ultimately perceived to be more credible and trustworthy.

Other factors involved in cultivating brand ambassadors include increased social reach, positive word-of-mouth about your product or service, increased traffic to your website and further exposure of your brand to new audiences.

Why brands need to think carefully about their ambassadors

Major brands, armed with vast advertising budgets and sometimes household names, demonstrate what can be done with brand ambassadors when money’s no object (although, of course, they don’t always get it right).

Using celebrities endorsements to boost brands is a tried, tested and decades-old practice that is still used to great effect today, although companies have to be very careful that the public image of their chosen representative aligns with theirs.

Case studies: Sainsbury’s to Birchbox

Brands have to consider this carefully, and it often involves compromise. Sainsbury’s has used the audience and reputation of Jack Monroe – a “cooking on a budget” blogger – to reach out to more people.

However, they have had to distance themselves from her overtly political public persona in the past, stressing that they themselves are not a political organisation.

This kind of balance requires careful consideration and depends on individual brands. After the Tiger Woods scandal, Pepsi and Proctor & Gamble (among others) dropped the golfing star, while Nike continued to use him. This suggests they weighed his reputation for sporting prowess as more important to their brand then his personal life.

Dior’s relationship with Charlize Theron and their J’adore perfume is particularly successful, with her beauty, talent and glamour reflecting well on the brand. Another good example is the choice of Tim Henman as a brand ambassador for a property investment fund that’s defined by exclusivity, privacy and luxury; all virtues found in the former Wimbledon favourite who excelled in one of the more “gentlemanly” of sports.

Birchbox, a beauty brand who used Instagram to great effect and earned 482 thousand followers, also successfully teamed up with hugely influential lifestyle blogger Emily Schuman. Her slick and beautiful website and approachable style perfectly complimented their brand, making the partnership seem natural and unforced.

As no person – whether they are a huge sporting personality or mid-level YouTube star – will ever perfectly fit any particular brand values, all companies have to make these kind of judgements. When done well, careful thought and considered choices can result in successful partnerships that last for years.

How should you apply this to your startup?

Unless you are heading a startup that’s blessed with major financial backing, the likelihood is that you have significantly less advertising budget to spend than established brands – or even none at all. Major companies may spend a fortune on brand ambassadors, but this doesn’t mean you need to in order to use them effectively. Here’s some ways to get brand ambassadors on board with your startup.

  • Define your values

Firstly, you need to know what you stand for as a company. This may seem obvious, but defining this early on will avoid headaches and confusion later down the line. If you don’t have strong brand identity and guidelines then it will be hard to recognise who is best to represent you.

  • Reach out to those who seem to genuinely share these values.

While it’s possible to find people who will represent a product or service they perhaps wouldn’t necessarily recommend naturally in exchange for sponsorship, even the most well-paid influencers are usually very scrupulous in what they will promote.

For people to become a brand ambassador with nothing but free products and a little or no sponsorship, they will have to feel a personal connection to the brand.

Reaching out to people, perhaps by sending them free products, emailing them with an introduction, or talking to them on social media, will work much better if you only target those who will be genuinely pleased to hear from you.

You might not get this right all the time, but putting some effort into ensuring the people you contact are likely to be interested will save time and increase your success rate.

  • Find those with great content and a bright future.

Unless you are particularly lucky with your friends, landing major celebrity backing or endorsements isn’t going to be a top priority for a startup (although it can be done).

Furthermore, bloggers and personalities with tens or hundreds of thousands of followers tend to command very high prices in exchange for their recommendation.

While this is no reason not to reach out to the more established influencers (they may well just love your product), spotting a rising star is more likely to serve you well.

When you read and watch their content, ask yourself some questions. Are they funny, compelling or engaging? Do you genuinely enjoy their work? Are they rapidly gaining followers, and what’s their relationship with these followers?

Much like your startup, every success story has to start somewhere, and by engaging someone who has 600 followers now but may well have 30,000 in the next few years you will have gained a genuine and loyal partnership.

  • Turn the people you work with, your customers, and friends into brand ambassadors

When you are creating a startup, you tend to work with people who believe in your project, and have friends who support you. While you should never pressure them to do so, see if you can encourage them to represent the company positively on their social media accounts.

This also applies to the customers and clients who love your product and service – do a great job and they’ll be more than happy to sing your praises online, you simply have to remind them to do so.