Brand ambassadors have become a big thing in marketing. Companies have invested heavily in creating brand ambassadors who will go forth and spread the word about how great a particular product is or the benefits of one brand over another. Brand ambassadors are not new. In many ways, these people are simply consumers who have good things to say about a product or company. In one fashion or another, such people have been around since marketing began. But who makes a good brand ambassador? More specifically, who makes a good brand ambassador for university presses?
Bud Light has their Whatever, USA, campaign running again this summer. People are encouraged to submit videos, pictures, etc., indicating why they or their town should become Bud Light’s official playground of the summer. There are big marketing dollars being lavished on this campaign, but there’s also absolutely nothing being spent on all the incredible “word-of-mouth” marketing that these people are doing for Bud Light for free. Through social media accounts, in particular, Bud Light’s brand ambassadors are spreading the good word on Bud Light, while also, presumably, drinking a significant amount of beer. These people don’t even realize they are brand ambassadors and yet they are marketing with gusto for a brand they have decided they love.
What does this have to do with university presses? Not much in the specifics. University presses, even the biggest, don’t have a marketing budget that can reach the dizzying heights of Bud Light’s Whatever, USA campaign. But we do have the potential to develop brand ambassadors who will spread our word with gusto, even if it isn’t beer-fueled. The brand ambassadors that Bud Light has tapped into (I know, sorry) are different to those that UPs might cultivate, but they are built on the same premise: they like the product. In the case of Bud Light, they like the beer; in the case of UPs, they like the books.
While this may sound crazy, UPs have a slight advantage over Bud Light when it comes to developing brand ambassadors. Bud Light relies on its drinkers, its end-consumers, to spread the word. There are not many craft or home brewers who would happily tell people how great Bud Light is. UPs, on the other hand, have both the supplier—authors—and the consumer—readers—as potential brand ambassadors.
An author chooses a particular UP over another publisher because he or she likes the brand or the books that the UP has published in the past. Each and every author published by a UP has the potential to be an immediate and natural brand ambassador. Assuming a positive experience with that UP, these authors will spread the word that the publishing experience was good and that they are pleased with the end product. Authors will tell other authors; they will tell readers, family, friends; they will, if they are semi-competent self-promoters, tell anyone they possibly can that publishing a book with UP X was a great experience. Authors should be a marketing team’s greatest asset because of their affinity to the brand; we don’t even have to manipulate them.
Readers (end consumers) are a slightly tougher hop to brew. In theory, these people should make the best brand ambassadors because they are buying our books. The problem, as anyone in publishing knows, is that most readers are not publisher-loyal, and, therefore, they do not make obvious and instant brand ambassadors. At the same time, readers have numerous channels through which they can speak their minds. As a group, readers have the potential to be brand-ambassador-extraordinaires.
As a marketer, I’m not even worried if readers mention the brand. I realize that’s close to sacrilege, but think about it. If readers are sharing positive things about a particular book, do you really care that they’re not writing/saying how wonderful the overall brand is?
I’ll take brand ambassadors who push individual books over the publisher every time. The brand will benefit through association and there will be residual brand development because these ambassadors will likely mention the publisher even if it’s just in passing.
We’re not likely to use the Bud Light model, but we can learn lessons from big companies like Anheuser-Busch in that the individual “spokesman” (reader/author in our case) is valuable and should be cultivated. We won’t be buying large-scale, national television, print, and online advertising campaigns but we don’t need to. There is already an effective system in place. Social media offers us platforms for conversations and provides outlets for our brand ambassadors to spread the word. Social media isn’t the only tool available to university presses, though. Reviewers, media, conferences, scholarly organizations, book festivals, Goodreads, Amazon, and so on all provide ways in which our authors and readers can be, and are, brand ambassadors.
Each of these tools is a point of contact with our brand ambassadors in which we can direct the narrative just as Bud Light does through its national advertising campaigns. We must leverage these resources while also looking to develop new methods for guiding the message that brand ambassadors spread about our books.
In the meantime, let’s put the message in the hands of those people best placed to speak highly of our books. Let’s give them the story we wish them to tell by producing the best possible books and providing the best service regardless of whether they are authors or readers. If we do that well, we may find that our brand ambassadors tell people how great we are on even more occasions and in ways that others can see and share. And we won’t even have to buy them a beer to do it!