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The other day, a close friend of mine was browsing the website of an activewear brand she likes when she noticed an application page. “Become a Rep,” it read. If she were accepted, she’d get a lifetime discount — all she had to do was promote the brand on her social media pages (and hopefully make some sales).

Knowing she had less than a thousand Instagram followers (while this brand had 328k), she knew there was a slim chance she’d get accepted, but she applied anyway.

Two weeks later, a congratulations email showed up in her inbox.

Even better, the email had a 35% discount code for her first purchase, which she had to make in order to activate her ambassador status. Thrilled, she hurried over to the website and saw the homepage banner:

40% DISCOUNT ON ALL ITEMS FOR THE MONTH OF AUGUST!

Suddenly, she realized: She wasn’t being asked to sell. She was being sold to.

This is what brand ambassadorship looks like in the 21st century.

The Rise of the Brand Ambassador

When Brand Ambassadors first gained popularity in the early 2010’s, the approach was simple: Companies would identify their most loyal customers, ask them to showcase their loyalty in a genuine way, and then reward them with perks like free gear.

This worked, and it’s easy to see why when 76% of people say they’re more likely to trust content shared by a ‘normal’ person over a brand. In a loyal customer, prospects can identify with someone just like them: a regular consumer who happens to be enjoying a product.

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Figure 1: The number of new hires with the job title “Brand Ambassador” shows steady growth between 2010 and 2017. Source: ZoomInfo.

Accordingly, ZoomInfo’s data shows that the hiring of Brand Ambassadors steadily rose in the first three quarters of the decade, nearly quadrupling in just the first three years and, by 2017, hitting an astounding cumulative growth rate of 1294%.

Then, things took a turn.

The Fall of the Brand Ambassador

This blog post from 2017 covers a then-upcoming seminar titled “Build a Better Brand Ambassador.” The seminar, offered by the American Crafts Spirits Association, was to be centered around “creating the next generation Brand Ambassador: a sales-oriented, account-driving individual.”

But this definition — as the writer of the post points out — marks a sharp turn in the nature of brand ambassadorship overall.

“There can be no such thing as a brand ambassador who sells,” the post reads. “That person is called a salesperson. To call them brand ambassadors is disingenuous at best, dishonest at worst.”

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Figure 2: Hiring of new brand ambassadors plummets by end of decade. Source: ZoomInfo

The feeling of brand ambassadors’ declining sincerity must have been shared at large, because ZoomInfo’s data shows that, between 2017 and 2018, the hiring activity also declined by 13%, suffering a more significant drop of 48% in the following year.

Then, in that same year (2019), the New York Times published an article around the growing popularity of brand ambassador staffing agencies — aka organizations that hire professional actors and performers to work corporate events for companies of any kind.

Have brand ambassadors hurt customer loyalty?

Brand ambassadorship began as a way to motivate customers who already had existing, long-time, positive relationships with companies to showcase those relationships. Now, companies — like the one my friend came across — are using brand ambassadorship to kickstart those relationships.

As of 2020, there are 44% more brand ambassador job titles than all titles with the word “loyalty” within the ZoomInfo database.

This, as we’ve seen, cannot be due to a rise in the importance of brand ambassadorship. Instead, we may be seeing a shift in how brands engage their most loyal customers.

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Source: ZoomInfo
What Happened to Brand Ambassadors?