Sunday, October 06, 2019

Are Wine Ambassadors Worth the Time and Money?

(This one is)
Is the role of the wine ambassador in the era of social media an experiment that has yet to see its star rise or has that sun already set? With wholesale consolidation approaching event horizon and with sales force automation becoming more prevalent, how do you get the drum beat, the cheerleader, when historically that was left to the distributor’s sales force?

This commentary is directed primarily towards companies (importers, wholesale distributors, wine regions and consortiums, and well-financed wineries) but if you are a wine ambassador or are considering to become one, there are some relevant points here for you as well.

The role of the ambassador has been expanding in the last 10 years. They range from full-time jobs with all the employee benefits to part-time (gig) with no employee status (or benefits), essentially an independent gun-for-hire. But does the ambassador concept work? Let’s take a look.

If hired full-time, an ambassador affords a company the opportunity to capture all the time and the attention of the ambassador. It benefits the ambassador, too, because he or she has the advantage of full-time employment and can give their all to the project.

Needs dictate what a company can afford, and often they are just looking for someone to “jump start” a project. While it might seem more economical for a company to hire on a part-time or seasonal basis, there are some pitfalls to this.

Full disclosure – when I left my full-time position (in distribution) in March of 2018, I was contacted by an importer on behalf of a winery that hired me as their ambassador. I did not work for any other company, although I still wrote some articles for my local paper (Dallas Morning News) and kept my blog going. But I did not write about the winery or even the category of the wine during that time. That, I felt (as did the importer) was off-limits and would not appear on the up-and-up.

I discovered a couple of things about “ambassadoring.” Mainly, that the goal is to increase exposure, and sales, of the product(s). That was the bottom line. It wasn’t to grow my social media presence, to increase my status as an “influencer” or to get free junkets to other places in the world of wine. In fact, the winery I ambassadored for (Ruggeri in Valdobbiadene) was pretty hands-off about my movements. I went to the winery once, when I was already in Italy. But I didn’t spend harvest there or take people from distributors, or bloggers, to visit the winery. My role was to cover America and try and help make the winery into a more recognizable name. And, to make the name better known by increasing distribution (thereby, exposure) in fine retail shops and restaurants. It was a road-warrior position, for sure. And it worked for all of us, although I will say, there are other iterations of “ambassadorship” that also have validity.

What doesn’t work? What doesn’t work is when an ambassador sees the position as one of a handful of income streams that satisfy their need for a particular level of income. If one gets three or four of these gigs in a year, they can earn anywhere from $50,000-$150,000. But it takes a special person to have three or four masters and still maintain integrity.

It’s hard enough doing a good job for one project. It’s near impossible to do it for a handful of companies. Now, I’m talking about ambassadorships. Not someone who does p.r., writes blogs and goes about their daily business making sure the world knows about their clients. That’s more of a ballyhoo, and if done well, it’s plenty hard work. But I’m not talking about those folks.

No, I’m talking about someone who is the front-person for the company. In a full-time role, that’s much easier, because there is structure. In a part-time “ad hoc” role, there are subtle gradations. One, is to know what to do, on a regular basis and to commit oneself to those activities to achieve a certain goal. There are no ethical codes for this, except as comes from the moral backbone of individuals. It’s not like working for a newspaper and knowing one cannot take a junket. And it’s not like working for a corporation which has an HR department and guidelines (for example, a wine ambassador for Importer W could never, should never, take a trip to visit a winery from Importer X, Y or Z). That is unethical.

It can get tricky. Let’s say you are an ambassador for a consortium of producers of Napa Valley Cabernet. And let’s say you are invited, all expenses paid, to visit a consortium of Sonoma Valley Cabernet producers. On the surface, it looks ok, even beneficial. But, in reality, the two groups are competing, often for the same consumer dollars. In my view, it would be wrong to take a trip. Here’s why.

You might reason as long as the Napa Valley folks don’t mind, who gets hurt by it? Let me tell you who: You. Your reputation that would be tainted by the appearance of conflict. A black mark.

But people have different parameters in the new world of social media, you say. Influencers have leeway, because they are so influential. You might be an influencer today, but who knows about tomorrow? The wine world is a small community - if you screw up your reputation, people don’t forget.

When it’s all said and done, it gets down to how effective you can be – the metrics. It is about sales, no matter which lofty minded dreamers are out there saying, “No, it’s not about sales, it’s about the wine, man.” Ok, keep dreaming. It’s about revenue and growing the brand awareness.

If you are a winery, a consortium or an importer, and an ambassador is something you are considering, here’s a little homework before the handshake:

1) Ask or check to see if your future ambassador has previous commitments that might be in conflict with your products.

2) Before hiring someone, get all the ground rules laid out, e.g. avoidance of conflict of interest, amount of time that will be devoted to your enterprise, junkets to wine country that might appear to rival your project.

3) Lay out what exactly needs to be done, whether it is in the sales end, the education side or the cheerleader department, and make sure you are clear about how much time the future ambassador should devote to each area. The last thing you need is for someone to sit at their screen tweeting all day – that’s so 2006.

4) Give a timeline and a goal (such as, improve the sales of the brand in 12 months by 15%, etc.). Without a goal, why are you even considering such a role?

5) Never, ever, do something because your competitor is doing it. Never, ever, do something for the sake of “status” or because it appears to be the thing to do. If you have that much money lying around, invest it in a brand manager, full-time and get 100% of their time and attention.

All that said, being an ambassador - having an ambassador – is cool. And many ambassadors I have talked to are genuinely excited and motivated about their products. Yes, there are the few just looking to cash in on the latest trend, the next phase, and they move from project to project. It’s a cash grab for them (and also there’s the element of prestige). Don’t throw away your money on someone just looking to make a name for themselves at your expense. They don’t own the land; they haven’t taken the risk to start a company and make that dream come true. But an ambassador can be a great value, as long as they share the values, the vision and the work ethic of the business owner who dares to dream big.

wine blog +  Italian wine blog + Italy W

1 comment:

Carlo Pellegrini - The Circus Guy said...

Interesting take on the role of the wine ambassador. Something akin to the early tech or new media 'evangelists' of the mid-90's. Do clients expect to track a 15% increase in sales directly back to an ambassador's efforts? Just curious... I'm not in the wine business.

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