Confessions of a failed brand ambassador

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Outdoor Voices broke into the saturated athleisure market by harnessing the influence of a specific type of woman on Instagram: the type who kayaks before work, runs half marathons for fun and brings oil paints to picnics. The brand was selling a lifestyle that “frees fitness from performance,” “gets the world moving” and, above all, promotes #DoingThings in slogan-clad hats.

The brand was founded in 2014 by Tyler Haney — a graduate of Parsons School of Design — when she was 25 years old, and she infused her winsome personality into the company’s ethos. It’s not gear for winning the Olympics; it’s monochrome sets to wear to go hiking with your dog. More whimsical than Nike and more down-to-earth than Lululemon, the brand quickly joined the ranks of the original digitally native cool-girl brand Glossier.

Years ago, I came across the @outdoorvoices gridlay of minimalist heathered workout clothes, employee yoga breaks and unedited models who were proud of their cellulite. I consciously crafted my identity to fit their sunny, sweaty, Instagram-square-sized mold.

When they advertised their campus ambassador program, I applied immediately in hopes of free clothes, filling out a surprisingly intensive application involving both an essay and a letter of recommendation. I soon received an email saying that they “liked my content” and wanted me on the Campus Crew, signed with “high fives.” I felt validated. I also felt vaguely disconcerted realizing that I was going to allow a brand, albeit one I loved, to purchase posts I made on a medium I had long considered a personal outlet. I succumbed to selling my personality and downloaded the required app, SocialLadder, which gave me challenges such as tagging @outdoorvoices in a grid post for a payout of the point-equivalent of $40 in-store credit. The app also had a feed of the other influencers’ social media activity; it ranked us by our posts, fostering a sense of competition.

I felt welcomed into the company. Sometimes they would hold campus crew-specific events — like virtual explainers on their corporate sustainability policy — which allowed us to learn more about the company. The corporate point-person occasionally mentioned that she, too, had been a campus ambassador before working her way up to a full-time job, hinting of advancement opportunities at our fingertips. The official account would frequently use user-generated content in its own communications, and I always hoped I would be featured.

The gig was fun for a while, especially when surprise packages arrived. But I slowly realized that I wasn’t cut out for it. Even though I identified with the brand’s mission, I remained conflicted about the inauthenticity baked into posting paid promotions, especially when the ads weren’t clearly disclosed. From a waste standpoint, I didn’t feel good about encouraging people to spend too much money on clothes they probably didn’t need, even if the company was moving in the direction of environmental sustainability. I knew in the back of my mind that I wouldn’t be shoving these products down people’s throats if I wasn’t getting them for free, and — for that reason — the whole thing felt disingenuous.

Instagram marketing mimics age-old word-of-mouth advertising, especially in cases of “nano-influencers” with fewer than 2000 followers. The biggest difference is the subtlety of the cash flow. Not only do nano-influencers make money for their posts, but Instagram also dangles the product a click away from a user’s feed. The “Checkout” feature allows for impulse buys within the app. Companies have financial incentive to turn average people into walking billboards; average people have financial incentive to promote products they might not even like.

In an effort to win over the enviable young adult demographic, companies have created campus rep programs where they enlist peppy 20-year-olds to hook their peers on products. Typical duties involve social media posts, giveaways, events, and pop-ups: a full program of guerrilla marketing. At universities, programs exist for GoPass, Coca-Cola, PINK, Red Bull and more. Boasting trips to brand headquarters, hourly wages and mounds of free stuff, influencer programs have established themselves as a vital connection to Gen Z. To help brands tap into the market, boutique marketing firms like Campus Agency and Riddle & Bloom have sprung up to maintain campus campaigns.

I called LSA senior Joyce Jeong, a campus rep for PINK, who broke down the hierarchy of influence for that particular program. There are two campus reps, who apply after writing essays and going through an interview process. Once hired, they get an hourly wage and the responsibility of planning events, like a scavenger hunt for coupons or a “panty frenzy” party. They’re in charge of an unpaid campus team that staffs and publicizes events in exchange for free apparel. “It’s an easy way to make money and it’s a flexible job,” she told me. The PINK program sounded fairly similar to the one I did, though it’s a bit more focused on in-person events than social media posts. The bottom line is the same, though: students get free clothes in order to be seen wearing them.

In response to the blurry line between Instagram users making genuine recommendations, promoting a product for compensation and posting fake sponsored content for the “influencer” status, the Federal Trade Commission Endorsement Guides have become increasingly stringent, requiring that influencers clearly disclose sponsored posts if they received compensation. Influencer territory isn’t quite the Wild West anymore, but regulation is still spotty at best. I’ve only ever seen a handful of nano-influencers follow these guidelines (one is “don’t mix your disclosure into a group of hashtags or links”). There’s no public data available about FTC compliance. Outdoor Voices never mentioned anything about disclosure to me besides requiring the use of the cryptic #OVUCrew hashtag (which stands for Outdoor Voices University).

My four-month foray into nano-influencing came to an end when I failed to complete a mandatory post about new periwinkle leggings. The night before the deadline, I’d ventured outside in below-freezing weather and attempted to self-photograph my sumptuous pants, but all the photos looked weird, and I didn’t want to post any of them. Preoccupied with upcoming exams, I decided that it just wasn’t worth it. As expected, I got a stern email saying I was no longer part of the campus crew; this time the email was signed “best,” not “high fives.” I let out a sigh of relief, suddenly realizing that I never actually liked being an unpaid brand fanatic.

I like to think that I’m now more skeptical as I scroll through feeds of distorted recommendations, more aware that casual posts can be camouflaged ads. It all seems like a slippery slope, and I worry that brands can pay regular people to say just about anything: First, you’re promoting a benign product, then maybe you’re defending a company’s ethically dubious business practices. I was unaware at the time, but while I was an ambassador Outdoor Voices was silently undergoing a financial and culture crisis that led to the departure of its founder and CEO. In an era of value-driven consumerism, brands are held to moral standards, and when a company fails to be perfectly virtuous, its proponents may have to share some of the blame.

Still, I can’t deny that ambassador programs hold a number of benefits— I joined for a reason. Campus influencer programs can link like-minded people together, and I truly did meet cool people. I’m still friendly with the girls I met on OVU crew — our affinity for the lifestyle brand confers similarities beyond our taste in monochrome skort sets. We’re all interested in fitness, branding and social media— and the happy-go-lucky air of Outdoor Voices. Beyond meeting friends, ambassador programs introduce participants to business connections, offering a foot in the door for competitive jobs at places like TikTok and Apple. To be on friendly terms with staff members, to have immersion in the company’s language and policies, and to have demonstrated tangible interest in the company might make the whole thing worth it.

But high fives and all, I don’t think it’s for me.

Statement Columnist Annie Rauwerda can be reached

How do you solve a problem like… sports star ambassadors going rogue?

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Each week, we ask readers of The Drum – from brands, agencies and everything in between – for their advice on real problems facing today’s marketing practitioners.

Influencers, creators and celebrity partners veering off script is a perennial risk for brands utilizing influencer marketing. Ronaldo’s rejection of a bottle of pop and Paul Pogba removing a bottle of beer at separate Euro 2020 press conferences brought that into sharp relief again recently, with Coca-Cola and Heineken left calculating a loss.

For our Sports Marketing deep dive – a week-long series of features, comment and interviews in the middle of a summer full of football, tennis and the Olympics – we’re considering how brands and agencies can navigate or negate these kinds of snarl-ups.

How do you solve a problem like… sports star ambassadors going rogue?

Karan Gera, senior vice-president and group planning director, Deutsch NY

Now that we know Ronaldo causing Coca-Cola’s share price to drop is fake news, here’s what he really did – Ronaldo gave it a global stage. All eyes were on Coca-Cola. What will it do next?

Brands should use this spotlight to demonstrate why they are loved by fans. Put fans in the action by giving them the inspiration to show their love. In Coke’s case, the creativity of fans playfully countered Ronaldo’s bottle removal and went viral. Not only can passionate fans blunt rogue actions, but they can also create (and rekindle) new love for the brand.

Amy Bryant-Jeffries, head of partnerships, Gleam

High profile, well respected stars are hyper aware of their value when endorsing brands – they know they have the power to drive impact and, understandably, need to be mindful of that. Being filmed or pictured with a product is a hugely valuable association, which ordinarily must come at a price, align with the sport star’s own brand image and take into consideration their other personal brand sponsor relationships. However, sports stars don’t get a say in which brands will be tournament sponsors and this can be problematic.

The virality of social media means the act of having your product publicly rejected by a sports star is often more memorable and impactful than an endorsement; brands need to do their due diligence and be aware of any potential sponsorship or value conflicts to mitigate this. On a basic level, making sure there’s nothing sports stars can easily remove themselves should be standard practice. That being said, the very reason the tournaments can go ahead at scale is because they are being funded by brands, so sports stars and their agents do need to be respectful and mindful of this.

Oliver Lewis, group managing director and founder, The Fifth

Talent within any brand endorsement must be authentic to the talent’s values and brand. It must be collaborative; they should be fully briefed on the strategy and given control of the product use. And it must be contracted; there should be no surprises when it comes to roles and brand guidelines.

The Coca-Cola issue showed an inherent disregard for the impact on Ronaldo’s brand. By attempting to leverage his influence by force, the Coca-Cola brand was damaged. Unfortunately, this is often the case with inauthentic influencer marketing.

Talent selection is the most important role of the agency and the biggest challenge in this space.

Lee Gibbons, managing director, Sport Unlimited

Simple. You don’t. And if you’ve done your due diligence, you want them to.

The pandemic has necessitated the acceleration of many trends we were starting to see in sport; a greater share of sponsorship activation via individuals over more traditional rights being one.

Brands endemic to sport have been moving this way for a while; Adidas exited its Chelsea FC partnership in 2016 replacing it with Paul Pogba. Panasonic’s recent partnership announcement with Naomi Osaka succinctly explains why, as “her values and perspectives on society deeply resonate with its own management philosophy”.

Individuals have a personality, they have beliefs and are driven by a purpose. Consumers identify with them and aspire to be like them, and in many cases they have more of a voice than the team or tournament they represent.

Ronaldo and Pogba didn’t go rogue. They’re keeping the industry honest. These are people, not just performers, and when you have one that stands for the same as your brand, don’t worry about silencing them – rather, give them a platform.

Paulina Zymon, senior manager of content strategy, Digitas Health

Influencers have greater authority on the brands they want to be associated with and sports is one category where endorsement constraints are relatively lax, especially compared to regulated industries like healthcare. Often, when a sports star goes rogue, the brand was trying to ’sneak an endorsement’ (Ronaldo’s contract with Coke was expired and Pogba is Muslim and doesn’t drink); therefore, it’s best to laugh at the situation and chalk it up to the overexcitement of the moment, the thrill of the win and the joy of the experience – and the part the brand plays in that enjoyment.

Colin Kennedy, chief executive officer, Redwood BBDO

You could argue that sporting events are a special case that will always feature multiple clashing sponsors and athletes, but recent events have highlighted that product placement and brand badging is more likely to backfire in our social media economy when individual stars have a bigger following than events or brands.

That’s why, as a general rule, we tell our clients to think of influencers and talent as real creative partners rather than paid ambassadors. That means getting talent involved from the start of an idea and having them develop it with the agency and the brand – shaping it around their own authentic experience and core beliefs. Even if commercial realities are always a factor, we approach talent-driven campaign as if they are passion projects rather than paid gigs. Real authenticity has deep, strong roots – it’s more than just a face-fit and a slick script.

Check out The Drum’s Sports Marketing hub for more on how the marketing industry can score long-term success through association with sport.

8 things to know about Lebanese superstar Nancy Ajram – Emirates Woman

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Superstar Lebanese singer Nancy Ajram has been performing since she was a child and has gone on to become a household name in the music industry. Even 10 time Grammy Award winner Billie Eilish is a huge fan.

From being the younger Arab (World Music Award) WMA winner to date to selling over 30 million records worldwide, Emirates Woman takes a look at some of the highlights from Ajram’s life and career thus far.

Her career began at a young age



Since the age of eight, Ajram has been on stage, where she made her debut as a little girl while performing on national television in Lebanon where she made an appearance on a singing contest. She eventually went on to be part of a Lebanese reality television competition entitled Stars of the Future, which led to her winning a top prize.

She’s a social media sensation

View this post on Instagram A post shared by Nancy Ajram (@nancyajram)

With over 5.5 million subscribers on YouTube, her videos have been viewed more than 2.1 billion times. She has also amassed a fan base of over 71 million followers across several platforms including Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

She’s helping discover new Arab talent

View this post on Instagram A post shared by Nancy Ajram (@nancyajram)

Keen to uncover new talent from the Arab region, Ajram was a judge on the popular talent show Arab Idol. Sitting alongside many other popular personalities, she was proud to be a part of the judging panel bringing her immaculate talent to the playground.

She was the brand ambassador for Coco-Cola

Being the first female sponsor and spokesperson for Coca-Cola in the Middle East, the popular songstress has been an ambassador for the brand for a long time. Italian director Luca Tomassini directed her first Coke commercial which also featured her hit song, Oul Tany Kida?.

She’s always keen to give back

Doing her due diligence and giving back to society, Ajram has also made an impact in other philanthropic realms. She was chosen to be the first female regional ambassador for the Middle East and North Africa for UNICEF, where the Lebanese star was also given the title for ‘Regional Goodwill Ambassador’.

Nancy recently re-entered the world of music

View this post on Instagram A post shared by Nancy Ajram (@nancyajram)

The Lebanese artist recently released her new album Nancy 10, which has been highly anticipated by fans. Gradually revealing the entire album one song at a time, her comeback went viral on social media. Her fist song was ‘Hobbak Bi Ye’wa’ which was released on May 27, where a lively mix of Egyptian pop and folk beats are incorporated into the hits.

She has three daughters

View this post on Instagram A post shared by Nancy Ajram (@nancyajram)

While she’s garnered an impressive career for herself, Ajram is a doting mother to three beautiful daughters, with whom she shares snippets of on her Instagram.

Her wax statue will soon be on display at Madame Tussauds

View this post on Instagram A post shared by Madame Tussauds Dubai (@tussaudsdubai)

With her notable contributions to the music industry on a whole, Arjam’s wax statue will be on display at the soon to open Madame Tussauds in Bluewaters, as she’s made an impact as a Lebanese singer, television judge and businesswoman as a whole.

– For more on luxury lifestyle, news, fashion and beauty follow Emirates Woman on Facebook and Instagram

Images: Instagram @nancyarjam