There is nothing stealthy about the way most marketers are going at it, unlike Sony Ericsson Mobile Communications' controversial "Fake Tourist" summer promotion, in which marketing representatives posed as tourists to pique interest in a combination cellphone-camera. The consumer group Commercial Alert has called that effort misleading because some people may have felt duped.
The vast majority of one-to-one marketing efforts are overt, using teams of young adults who appear in conspicuous locations clad in outfits announcing the brand, trying to wow the public and possibly land on the local TV news.
One example is AT&T Corp., whose brand ambassadors began roving high-traffic areas of California and New Jersey this month, doing random favors for locals such as handing dog biscuits to people walking Fido and providing binoculars to concertgoers to promote its new AT&T Local Service. Artists also created "graffiti" of the brand's logo outdoors.
These tactics were made famous by many dot-coms in the late 1990s looking to gain immediate impact with small budgets, but were criticized because they lacked lasting, brand-building impact.
Mainstream marketers argue that the newest round of brand ambassador-style promotions are not isolated stunts, but are linked to broader brand-building efforts and therefore reinforce advertising while generating short-term awareness boosts.
"What we're doing with brand ambassadors actually reinforces advertising by translating the general message to the street level, helping to make a connection between people and media," said John Palumbo, president of DVC Worldwide's DVCX, New York, the experiential marketing agency coordinating AT&T's brand ambassador effort. WPP Group's Y&R Advertising, New York, handles the broader general media campaign for AT&T's local telephone efforts, themed "Right Now."
Hyatt Hotels recently used brand ambassadors for the first time ever, unleashing 100 bellhops in Manhattan, who spent the day opening doors, carrying packages and handing out pillow mints to thousands of consumers. Each mint promoted "HyattPalooza," the chain's season-long promotion offering travel discounts. The bellhops also carried collateral marketing material about travel deals; the effort includes national print ads and direct mail.
Elsewhere in Manhattan and also in Los Angeles and Chicago, teams of brand ambassadors in cars wrapped in the HyattPalooza logo stopped on corners in high-traffic areas to dispense mints and marketing materials.
Pickup by local press
"This was our first big guerrilla marketing effort, and the bellhops got a lot of attention for the promotion and pickups on local TV and radio news and talk shows," said Wendy Falk, vice president of marketing programs for Chicago-based Hyatt, which had assistance in executing the promotion from Hill & Knowlton, Chicago and New York. Hyatt's agency is Cramer-Krasselt, Chicago.
Getting free publicity by making its brands prominent at hot restaurants and Hollywood parties is a key strategy for Dewar's Scotch, marketed by Bacardi USA, said Marshall Dawson, VP-group marketing director of Dewar's.
Over the last three years, Dewar's has been increasing the ranks of a squad of men hired to play the role of the "Dewar Highlander."
Now numbering 16 in as many markets nationwide, the men undergo regular training in Dewar's lore and traditions, so they can roam the bars and restaurants of major cities year-round, offering advice to patrons and bartenders on how to enjoy whiskey and mix cocktails with Dewar's. Team Enterprise USA, Boston, handles. Dewar's agency of record in Interpublic Group of Cos.' Avrett Free & Ginsberg, New York.
"Brand ambassadors have become a huge part of our strategy because we have an upscale product that requires special tactics," said Mr. Dawson. Although he concedes it's "virtually impossible" to measure the Highlanders' effect on sales at individual establishments, "the anecdotal feedback we get is amazing, and paired with our print advertising, Dewar's brand awareness has shot up in the last couple of years."
'Chief revolutionary officer'
The difficulty of measuring the impact of brand ambassadors -- especially for product launches where there is no control group for comparison -- underscores one of the risks of such tactics, said David Kinard, chief revolutionary officer of Seattle-based Access Marketing Solutions, a marketing consultancy.
"Without a clear and measurable objective to begin with, [marketers] often waste scarce marketing resources. Sure, it's creative and edgy. But so was that other product no one can remember the name of," he said.
Turning celebrities into brand ambassadors is another fast-growing trend, said Lori Levine, president of Flying Television Productions, New York, which coordinates events staged to introduce new products with guest lists studded with celebrities.
Ms. Levine negotiates with celebrities and "influential locals" to appear at events on behalf of marketers. Most deals are short-term and do not involve designating the celebrities as spokespeople for the brand.
One recent client was Procter & Gamble Co.'s Tampax brand, which staged a party at a nightclub in Manhattan in October to introduce its new Tampax Pearl brand, with 150 "influential women" on the guest list. The event was hosted by Jamie-Lynn Siegler of HBO's The Sopranos, and the event garnered photos and publicity in local celebrity columns, said Ms. Levine.
$25,000 gift bags
"Typically we create an event in a hot location that brings well-known people together, usually with gift bags for attendees that are worth $5,000 to $25,000, and with the right elements, we get a lot of publicity that shines favorably on the product," said Ms. Levine.
DVCX opened its doors earlier this year to answer a growing need for brand ambassadors and guerrilla-style marketing efforts, said Mr. Palumbo, adding that the six-person shop plans to expand next year.
"Advertising is about taglines, but real people don't actually speak in taglines," Mr. Palumbo said. "We consider it our job to actually demonstrate an advertising theme line with experiential marketing, and I believe there will be a lot of growth here."