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Brand Ambassadors: For Better for Worse

Brand ambassadors are everywhere – from celebrities and influencers endorsing products on Instagram, all the way up to professional athletes starring in multi-million-dollar branding campaigns for major corporations. This tactic is popular and used to cut through the clutter of traditional advertising by taking advantage of the ambassadors’ already-established credibility.

When brand ambassadors go rogue

Things are all sunshine and rainbows with brand ambassadors until they make a mistake. Remember, you made a deal to use their credibility in exchange to generate awareness for your brand, and with that, you also aligned your brand with their actions and reputation.

Cam Newton made a remark during a recent press conference that struck a nerve with the public and has been labeled as a sexist remark by media. Upon receiving a question from The Charlotte Observer reporter Jourdan Rodrigue regarding wide receiver Devin Funchess’ route running, Newton smiled and said, “It’s funny to hear a female talk about routes. It’s funny.”

Rodrigue reported the incident on Twitter and released a statement through The Charlotte Observer via email saying that Newton did not apologize when they spoke after the news conference, including that she “was dismayed by his response, which not only belittled me but countless other women before me and beside me who work in similar jobs. I sought Mr. Newton out as he left the locker room a few minutes later. He did not apologize for his comments.”

Timing is everything; don’t be too little too late

According to Forbes, Cam Newton made $26 million last year – more than half of which was earned from endorsements, including Beats Electronics, Gatorade, Electronic Arts and Under Armour, among others. The NFL, which often uses videos and photos of Newton in league advertisements, released a statement shortly after the comment from Newton.

NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy said that Newton’s comments “are just plain wrong and disrespectful to the exceptional female reporters and all journalists who cover our league. They do not reflect the thinking of the league.”

When issues like this occur, it’s important to respond immediately. This allows for the least amount of backlash to occur, communicating to the public that your organization does not support or tolerate this type of behavior or commentary.

Dannon released a statement less than 24 hours after the incident occurred, cutting its ties with Newton. “We are shocked and disheartened at the behavior and comments of Cam Newton towards Jourdan Rodrigue, which we perceive as sexist and disparaging to all women,” Neuwirth, senior director of external communications for Dannon, said in a statement. “It is entirely inconsistent with our commitment to fostering equality and inclusion in every workplace. It’s simply not OK to belittle anyone based on gender. We have shared our concerns with Cam and will no longer work with him.”

Silence is deafening

Oftentimes, organizations feel that if they do not comment, they will excuse themselves from the conversation. That is a major mistake. While not every action or issue needs a statement from a brand ambassador’s organization (only those that are considered controversial or offensive) conversations should be had quickly on whether or not to respond. In the world of social media, even waiting a day can spark controversy on social media channels.

While Newton did eventually issue a personal apology via Twitter, calling his comments “extremely degrading and disrespectful,” many viewed it as too little too late, especially since he did not refer to Rodrigue by name. Several brands, including Dannon,  had already started cutting ties with him. Following Sunday’s game in Detroit, Newton was asked about his comments to Rodrigue and said that he was trying to compliment her with “sarcasm,” admitting that it “turned in ways [he] never would have imagined.”

The biggest takeaways for brands

Understanding how brand ambassadors can impact your brand (positively and negatively) is critical. Here are a few steps you can take to make sure your brand is represented well when entering into a relationship with an influencer:

  1. Understand that brand ambassadors are not perfect
  2. Monitor media and utilize social media listening tools for controversies/potential issues
  3. Be timely and strategic in your response (if a response is needed)

In some cases, your company may have paid someone specifically to represent your brand, but it is also possible for an unendorsed celebrity to make a misstep when mentioning your brand, catching your company in the crossfire. No matter the case, it’s important to have a response plan in place in advance of an issue, to protect your brand’s image and reputation.