Putting all your eggs in one basket is a rather unusual formula for business success. However, if you incubate these eggs, look after them well and help them to mature, then it is a strategy that might, just might, work. Especially if these eggs are golden.
Brand Ambassadors has been nurturing its very own golden egg since it launched in 1998.
InBev (then Interbrew) has been BA’s main (and only) client since the agency’s inception, gradually planting more of its shiny eggs into Brand Ambassador’s basket.
Having started working solely with Tennent’s, Brand Ambassadors (BA) has gradually added other big name beer brands to its basket, including Stella Artois, Hoegaarden, Leffe and Staropramen.
If you’ve given your credit card a battering at any of Scotland’s top bars, then you will have, no doubt, admired BA’s work.
From one-off art installations to font presenters; from signage to wallpapers, Brand Ambassadors’ work adorns some of the best bars in Scotland... and further afield too.
BA was launched by Colin Brough, a former venture manager for Guinness at United Distillers. The venture team at Guinness was a specialised team – “kind of like the A-Team within the on-trade.” The venture team was a collection of 12 people who looked after the very pinnacle of the on-trade.
Brough has transferred and developed these principles to BA, where he now oversees an expanding team of former bar managers, brand managers, designers and marketing staff dedicated to raising brand awareness among consumers in key bars and clubs. The aim? To challenge the consumer’s perceptions of a brand and enforce a message through communications tailored to specific bars.
However, having now worked successfully with InBev for the last five years, Brand Ambassadors has been given the nod to start filling other baskets.
And, no sooner said than done, a new golden egg has been borne from this plan – in the form of Coca-Cola, no less.
“We obviously have a great beer supplier that we work with in InBev. We now have a fantastic soft drink too.
“Coca-Cola heard about us and approached us to pitch. We’ve never had to knock on doors and ask for business. They’re a great soft drink partner to have, working throughout the UK. The next big move for us is to identify the right spirits company to work with – Diageo would be the obvious one, although Maxxium would also be interesting to work with. Because of the nature of the business, when we hang our hat on one we limit the others. So we have to be careful who we work with.”
Brand Ambassadors started in 1998 when Brough left UD. He operated from a spare bedroom in his house. Three years ago he was still in the spare bedroom... but there were five other staff working there too. A move was needed.
Now BA operates from a large unit in Livingston, with a large workshop adjacent where projects can be assembled. With the team now at 21, BA is planning an expansion again, as new clients start coming in and a push into Ireland is realised. “We’ve also been asked to look at Australia quite a few times by various companies,” said Brough. “In the past we’ve resisted that as we are big believers in sustainable growth. We have to keep a close focus on what is happening here, but now I have a strong support structure in place which will allow us to look at new avenues.”
As well as the Brand Ambassador team, Brough has introduced a brace of new divisions to continue the expansion.
An ‘Impact’ team has been launched to work in the multiple on-trade, looking after bars like Yates and Weatherspoons, while a new ‘Envoy’ team works on brands like Stella Artois and speciality beers across the on-trade in Scotland and England.
The Brand Envoy team recently helped to complete the Stella Screen tour, where they took a huge mobile bar on tour. Currently they are helping run the UK leg of the Draft Masters – a worldwide Stella pouring competition.
“The main point of all the work we undertake is to challenge consumer perception,” continued Brough. “To do that, the most important aspect of our job, at times, is the relationship that we have with the bars we work in. Our relationships are built on a common goal. It’s in our interest to have our brand there and to be portrayed in the right way, and it is in the bar owner’s interests to have the investment in his bar. There is no barrier of an order form between us.
“We don’t insist that you have to buy 20 barrels of beer before we do a project. I know my colleagues in sales might shit themselves at not equating investment to sales... but our exercise is a marketing exercise. It is to engage consumers. It will drive volume, but that’s an incremental benefit. The mainstay is to ensure that the consumers really feel at home with the brand. Sometimes it’s solely about peer acceptance.
“Ten years ago you would never have expected to have found Tennent’s Lager in a bar like Tonic (one of ‘the best bars’ in Edinburgh). But now Tennent’s is in there on the back of our relationship with the bar and the process we have gone through. The fact that people now accept Tennent’s, which 15 years ago was my dad’s pint, in some of the coolest bars in Scotland is a tick in our box. It is part of a bigger game plan.”
BA lays down a strict outlet criteria for suitable bars, however, one of the most important elements, is that the bar should have a certain ‘X factor’. But, as Brough said, at the end of the day it’s down to each individual brand’s focus.
The team has developed an in-house tool, Urban Cognition, to help identify suitable venues for investment by the brands.
“Urban Cognition has been a huge undertaking. It’s growing, but it’s slow. It’s such a big task. Bars are logged geographically and by criteria, including product mix, dÃ©cor, staff, music orientation, free pour or optic... It helps us build a mental picture of each individual bar. It allows us to cherry-pick the bars that we want to target.”
And it’s not just the new and shiny bars that are targeted by InBev’s big name brands.
Tennent’s recently invested in an eclectic Seafield-based bar in Edinburgh called The Pond. The bright yellow and green bar attracts all walks of life, from Leith’s dockers to architects and the odd creative. Tennent’s wanted to invest in its gritty, yet friendly feel. The project that BA completed was based around the community feel that the pub harbours. They, with Tennent’s, provided an area called ‘Pond Life’ for the bar to display Polaroids and provided a camera for the staff to take pictures of their regulars with.
“Each project is tailor-driven to meet the bar’s needs. We never try to shoehorn something that we want into the bar,” said Brough. “We have just completed a project with The Halt Bar in Glasgow. They wanted soundproofing for their staging system, so we worked around that.
“We design everything in-house. They [the designers] will design everything from art installations to wallpapers, and from massive mobile bars to t-shirts. We’ve even been asked recently to design the actual bars themselves.
“Sometimes we do bring in recognised artists. We brought in Bernie Reid, one of the UK’s top graffiti artists, to create the designs for Villager (for Stella), but the majority of the work is done in-house.”
BA underwent a programme of independent research two years ago. As part of that research the company looked to identify competitors.
“They [the researchers] couldn’t find anyone who did exactly what we do,” smiled Brough, “but we’ve always known that we have a fairly niche offering.
“There are agencies that do elements of what we do. There are also brands starting to copy what we are doing. We came across a rival brand’s stuff that was horrendous. There were oil paintings, classical oil paintings, cherubs and the outstretched hand of God... but with a big branded banner painted into them. But we thought that perhaps they didn’t get what it was all about. We try to integrate in our projects, so that it’s subtle. It’s not badged and slapped on. We take some solace from the fact that the competition is trying, but they are way off the mark – unless that’s what they wanted and were aiming for.
“But there is a serious consideration too. In the face of sponsorship and advertising bans for tobacco, will alcohol go down the same line? In which case, intelligent in-outlet communication becomes incredibly important –particularly if the consumer is expected to decode the communication rather that being hit by it.”