Choosing The Right Brand Ambassador  

Meet a few companies that align themselves with athletes and icons not so much for their victories as for their vibes. 

By Shauna Farnell May 10, 2016

When Mikaela Shiffrin won an Olympic gold medal, naturally she became a magnet for sponsors wanting to tie their brand to her success. But her victory and the built-in product exposure it would bring is not what inspired Longines, which brought Shiffrin onboard as a brand ambassador in the 2015 season, after the fanfare of the 2014 Games had passed. Longines believes she embodies the qualities that define its brand.

“She’s perfect,” says Juan-Carlos Capelli, Longines head of international marketing. “She shares the same values as Longines: respect and elegance. The motto is ‘elegance is an attitude.’ It’s what you have inside. Mikaela is a [champion] but she doesn’t pretend to be a star. This is what it means to be Longines. It’s an elegant product but not a show off.”

Although Longines is not an outdoor company, per se, its athletic partnership holds lessons for small and large-scale outdoor brands, many of which follow a similar model of selecting athletes who embody the brand’s attitude.

Champions Need Time to Develop
Longines, a Swiss watch company, has been involved in sports timing since its inception in 1832 and has been the official timekeeper of the Alpine World Cup for decades. Even before the World Cup existed, Longines timed ski races not only because skiing is “an elegant sport” but also because the original Longines watch factory was located in a small Swiss village just minutes from a ski area, and employees would grab a few runs during their lunch breaks (yes, this was a practice even back then).

Longines began enlisting ambassadors about 15 years ago (they range from actress Kate Winslett, former tennis stars Andre Agassi and Stefanie Graf and Norwegian ski champion Aksel Lund Svindal to lesser-known personalities from Australia to Lithuania). In the past three years, the company began sponsoring an amateur ski event for up-and-coming young racers from around the world. Clearly, there is little exposure involved for the brand at such an event, but as with its choice of ambassadors, exposure isn’t Longines’ priority. The 15-year-old skiers who compete in the Longines Future Champions race are obviously not target consumers of high-end watches, but as Capelli points out, “one day, they will be.”

“We try to help children in many ways,” he says. “We think that sport is a good education for children and a good example for new generations. We can see that these children who don’t know each other, who don’t speak the same language, in a few hours are very good friends. This is a good example of sport, of fair play.”

The teen who wins the race does, however, get a Longines watch. Plus, his or her nation’s ski association receives a check for 20,000 Euros.

“We’re not giving just money and ‘bye, bye.’ We are giving a service to develop the sport,” Capelli says. “Without time, we don’t have sport. We help develop the sport and, one day, a new consumer.”

Sometimes Rough and Weathered Is Better Than Shiny and New
Although much smaller than Longines, Yeti Coolers takes a similar approach to selecting ambassadors. The 10-year-old, Austin-based company originally sought hunters and fishers to add personality to its brand and has expanded its fleet of outdoorsmen and women to include mountaineers, surfers, whitewater mavens, climbers, rodeo riders and, soon, a slew of winter athletes. Like Longines, Yeti selects individuals who exemplify the same characteristics as its products. In Yeti’s case, this means they are “durable, seasoned and the best at what they do.”

“It’s not scientific at all,” says Yeti’s Director of Community Marketing, Bill Neff.  “It’s just a feel. The criteria is that the individual needs to be doing extraordinary things.”

The brand follows its ambassadors on various adventures, sharing their stories through short films and social media channels, which only subtly—and rarely, at that—display a cooler or other Yeti product. Yeti’s aim is to humanize the brand, capturing a specific sense of vitality.

A Yeti Brand Ambassador storing a big catch in his Yeti cooler“There’s definitely a spirit in the people we ultimately align with,” Neff says.” There are very popular people who could get you tons of [eyeballs] but it would be confusing to our consumers if the spirit wasn’t there. It’s about the spirit.”

The Importance of Choosing Earnest
Eddie Bauer’s athlete sponsorship model is similar to that of Longines and Yeti Coolers in that its ambassadors personify and help develop the brand, but while the other two use “develop” in a figurative sense, Eddie Bauer uses it literally.

Many of the company’s athletic representatives are working guides—whitewater, mountaineering, climbing, skiing and snowboarding—and they have the final say as to whether a product is suitable to hit the shelves.

“They are actually contracted to build and test the products,” says Eddie Bauer Marketing Director Kristen Elliott. “Building technical gear the way we do is not an easy process. A lot of other companies add [athletes’] names to a product but they’re not in the nitty gritty [of designing and testing].”

Guides and athletes on the Eddie Bauer First Ascent ski and snowboard team meet in Lake Tahoe to review and test products.

Guides and athletes on the Eddie Bauer First Ascent ski and snowboard team meet in Lake Tahoe to review and test products.

In addition to vast technical knowledge and the ability to, say, test a tent on Mt. Everest to ensure it can withstand winds at 18,000 feet, Eddie Bauer’s guide ambassadors are picked for their selfless devotion to providing others with highly customized, life-changing outdoor experiences.

“A guide’s whole reason for being is to create an experience [for others],” Elliott says. “One thing that sets a working guide apart from an athlete is getting you or me out there, keeping us safe, well-fed and well-dressed. It takes a unique individual to be a guide. We have athletes on our team, and we choose our athletes based on the way they adventure. Our social media channels are fed by our guide and athlete teams.”

Rarely do you see an Eddie Bauer logo in the company’s blog or social media photos or videos, all of which are produced by the athletes and guides themselves. If need be, Eddie Bauer lends a hand in “media training” and “empowering” the guides and athletes to tell their stories. Ultimately, though, the story is not about what gear they’re using or what outerwear they’re sporting, and it’s certainly not about crossing the finish line first.

“For us it’s not about tagging the summit or hanging from one finger off a cliff,” Elliott says. “It’s about inspiring and enabling people to live their experiences. For me it might be running around the block. For you it might be climbing Mt. Rainier.”