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Brand Ambassadors – The Last of a Dying Breed?

As a whiskey novice and young bartender I can remember sitting in the warmth of a wonderful Irish whiskey bar on a cold winter morning at around 9.30am, surrounded by 100 or so Irish Whiskeys which found their home in this 400 year old building. It was an exciting day, my first whiskey training, it began with being brought through the many elements of appreciating whiskey, taking note of the colour, the viscosity, the ‘legs’, nosing lightly at first, inhaling deeply allowing the nose and palate to begin to interact, sipping softly, allowing the whiskey to coat your palate, holding it there, allowing it to develop, before swallowing, feeling the natural warmth, exploring the aromatics and taking note of what I was experiencing. There it was, I was hooked, I owe everything I’ve achieved in the past 8 years to that one moment, not to the whiskey itself, although it was Redbreast 21, but to the experience that was created by one man, the Brand Ambassador, Seamus Lowry.

So, ‘The Last of a Dying Breed’, one could argue is an overly cynical way to begin an article on the future of Brand Ambassadors (BAs) in Irish Whiskey and for that matter, BAs across all whisky industries. Seamus isn’t dying, or at least he certainly wasn’t when I saw his floating head on a recent Zoom whiskey launch, although he lives a life under another guise now, for another brand. And, I’m not actually suggesting that BAs are dying off, merely pointing out that the idealistic confines of what a BAs role consists of, are now harder to justify than ever. The idea of these globe-trotting multi-talented entertainers, skilled in public speaking and bartending, with almost sage-like knowledge of their own brands and the wider whisky industry is something we’ve never really had in Ireland.

Most BA’s in Ireland perform roles that are much more multi-faceted than the above description and their skill-sets are significantly broader by necessity. However, the traditional BA role has been further disrupted because of Covid-19 pandemic and made near impossible to justify for companies of any size, so at this very moment in time, it doesn’t look like we are going to have BA’s pigeon-holed in a wholly ambassadorial orientated role in the future either.

What I am attempting to convey here is almost a letter to myself, as a currently unemployed, multi-experienced potential candidate for any role within the Irish Whiskey industry, I want to understand why there seems to be little to no opportunity within the industry for people such as myself. Now, I have been fortunate, not a month has passed where I haven’t been working with a distillery, blender or bottler in helping build their strategies for the future. But as for my future, it’s really anybody’s guess, but one of the many roles I feel it necessary to explore in this search is that of the Brand Ambassador. So, with some light encouragement from Editor-in-chief JJ, I started to reach out and get to grips with exactly what is going on in the world of BAs as I write.

So, what does a BA actually do? Taken from a consumer point of view one could be forgiven for assuming that it is 90% travel, hosting tastings, attending whiskey festivals or guest shifting in Bars across the globe. However, in order to get a more in-depth view of the day-to-day life of a BA, I asked Slane Irish Whiskey’s National Brand Ambassador, Micheál O’Flaherty. Micheál started his ambassadorial career as an IBEC graduate based in Chicago, armed with whiskey knowledge-a-plenty and a rather generous corporate credit card limit he set about introducing as many consumers as possible to Slane Irish Whiskey across the bars and restaurants in Chicago. Now based in Ireland working directly for Slane’s Irish distribution partner he lives a slightly less glamourous life.

Micheál O’Flaherty representing Slane in the US. He’s slightly less bearded now.

Malt: Being a full-time Brand Ambassador, what did a day in your life look like pre-covid?

Micheál O’Flaherty: Pre Covid my day would usually go either one of two ways. If I had no events or trainings on, my day would start with admin, emails, calls, reports, messaging bartenders and even sometimes getting my expenses in on time. Next, I’d meet up with one of our Business Development Executive (Reps in layman’s terms) to begin making business calls into venues around town, looking to secure new placements, training’s or specials. These would usually be highly caffeinated affairs as the managers/bartenders you are trying to meet are invariably busy.

I’d usually wait until the last of these meetings before grabbing a late lunch at one of the bars. Once I was watered and fed the more casual of my account calls would begin. With me calling into spots to have chats with bartenders to see what they’re up to. What’s going on in their lives, have they any new ideas for drinks that they’re making, is there anything that I might be able to help them out with or steer them in the right direction of. If some of them were finishing up early I might even head for a drink with them as long as I hadn’t taken the car with me. I’d head home later in the evening, take some notes on the day, any wins or things that I need to work on and to send off any emails that need sending.

Other days, if I have an event or training booked on my day I’d start off at home with the same kind of Admin. I’d then double & triple check that I have everything for the training/tasting I have later that day. I’ll drive to the general area of the venue and start calling on nearby accounts making sure that I’m where I need to be an hour ahead of time to get set up. Because you never know when you might’ve needed to check a fourth time. I’ll host the event, it goes deadly of course, and usually, I’ll stick around to buy a couple of rounds for consumers and answer any questions that they might have.

Trying to look at Micháel’s description of his pre-covid life with an analytical tone we can see that a large portion of his role is based on relationship building, ensuring his customers know that the brand is investing in them. With a keen emphasis on admin, we can assume that accountability in roles such as this is key, reporting is essential to the business and allows them to ensure that they get the maximum return on investment from their employee’s time. It’s also clear that Micháel places huge emphasis on attaining maximum impact through booked events, which gives the clearest and most direct opportunity for engaging with the public or with bar teams in the chosen venue. Each of these elements help to promote effective brand building.

Given that my own career thus far has been almost exclusively in the Irish market it brings forward the thought that brand building in Ireland must have been incredibly difficult in the recent past, such as the 90-00’s, when Irish publicans were less than concerned with the various options they could add to their Whiskey selections.

It has only become popular to stock a range of Irish Whiskeys in the past 5/6 years, so to gain an understanding of the foundations of this renaissance I got in touch with Irish Whiskey Industry Consultant, John Cashman. Formally GBA for Cooley/Kilbeggan portfolio who worked for many years before the BeamSuntory takeover and for many years after, however, he initially started out as an EOP graduate with Irish Distillers. Given that I know in the earlier days of the growth in Irish Whiskey, there were no BA roles as such, there were people who were the core representative of a brand, both in a commercial and ambassadorial sense, thus my line of questioning.

John Cashman

Malt: In the early days of your career, working with Irish Distillers and later Cooley, how important was it to have a mix of commercial and ambassadorial skills at the landscape of the time? Do you feel that same mix is needed today?

John Cashman: I began as an EOP on the Ibec programme for Jameson/Bushmills which predates their present excellent Grad programme. Back then that was purely Ambassadorial with some brand management depending on the market to which you were assigned. I branched out during my time on the programme to sales for all Pernod Ricard brands in Copenhagen which was a great intro to the world of sales.

My Cooley life began purely in commercial sales with some marketing as country manager for Ireland. Again over time I morphed into more Ambassadorial work, while retaining the sales/commercial element. Logical crossover both domestically and in the international realm. When in head office meetings I could talk authoritatively on pricing/margins and the brands themselves. This crossover was due to my experience and frankly out of necessity as Cooley was not a big company.

Although I can’t see many Ambassador’s having the kind of leeway I had back then, a commercial understanding of the customer’s needs is important. The Ambassador talks will appeal to the consumer, the commercials to the customer.

Far from the ideals of the educating entertainers that we so often think of when attempting to understand the life of a BA, John’s clear understanding of the commercial side of the industry allowed him to navigate between marketing and sales efficiently. In the year or two pre-covid, this dual skill set certainly stood out as sought after in the modern-day interpretation of the BA within smaller brands. For example, when taking a look at the wider team involved within the Whiskey Bonder brand JJ Corry, their team exhumes this multi-skilled approach to Brand roles. We spoke with founder Louise McGuane and found that this is an absolute necessity for her team.

Louise McGuane, JJ. Corry

Malt: JJ Corry is a relatively young company but you have built a team with balanced skill sets who, each, can carry out Sales & Marketing focused roles while also covering Ambassadorial work in their respective regions. Was having individuals that could achieve this always part of your growth plans for the business?

Louise: Yes. Back in my corporate days, I did a lot of work with and around Ambassadors and the evolution of the meaning of the role over time I started off as a brand ambassador myself in my first role so I understand the value of it. My belief is essentially at a business like ours everyone has a pure ambassadorial role as part of their job. Each team member can tell our origin story, knows and understands our approach to whiskey making and can lead a comprehensive tasting of our whiskies.

However, that’s just a small part of the role, building customer relationships and making sales is a vital part of it for us too. Our BA’s don’t go around doing shots and sampling in stores they go around building the brand and making a positive sales contribution to the business whilst making sure folks understand our story. It’s a very rounded role and allows those taken on as ambassadors a clear career path in the business as it becomes clear where their skill sets and professional preferences lie.

We can see from Louise’s description of how her staff operate in market, that they are pivotal to the commercial success of the brand and her reliance on them to give a clear understanding of her brand story drives the advocacy element of their roles. These types of roles are more and more common within the Irish Whiskey industry, no longer are sales and brand completely separate, or probably more accurately, they may never have been for Irish Whiskey Brands.

If you ask the trade in Ireland what the biggest weakness of our sales forces within spirit’s distribution is, chances are they will refer to lack of knowledge of the sales representatives on the spirits themselves. The classic sales representative role in Ireland has changed dramatically in recent years as the consumer becomes more discerning, so do the publicans and bar staff who began looking for new and interesting products to learn about and taste. The traditional sales representative never had to worry about this before, in their simplest description they could have been described as ‘box-pushers’, they only needed to be interested in volume and margin, any other details would have been considered non-essential and the notion that this still stands true for the vast majority of sales reps today is pitiful.

When this is considered it brings an even clearer understanding of just how important having Brand ambassadors is to a brand. People who can, not only, tell your story but also close the sale and get that all essential cross-order are invaluable to young brands especially. And one can imagine that, in the future, the majority of a Brand Ambassador’s working day will be taken up by driving distribution rather than out and out brand advocacy work in a post-covid world.

In order to get a better understanding of how Brand Advocacy has changed, not just in under-developed markets but across the globe, I went to Ireland’s most decorated, respected and longest serving Brand Ambassador, John Quinn of Tullamore D.E.W. With over 40 years’ experience globally within Irish Whiskey and the ability to engage audiences of all demographics consistently throughout the years, John’s generosity and insights have been invaluable to many young BA’s coming through the Irish whiskey industry.

John Quinn

Malt: Given your time with Tullamore D.E.W, I would assume you’ve seen the focus on Brand Advocacy changed dramatically through the decades. Are my assumptions accurate & how important has William Grant’s focus on Brand Ambassador programs and continuing to develop these individuals been to the recent successes of the brand globally?

John Quinn: Yes Mark, the focus on advocacy has changed dramatically over the years – let’s not forget I started in the early 1970s so there were no such things as influencers in the way we know them today. It was often said in the 70s that if only one of the Kennedys (US version) would have declared a preference for Irish whiskey then the category would have boomed there and then. So it was a slow burn with focus on getting distributors who had good distribution, then getting focus within their sales teams so as to have the brands placed in bars, restaurants, liquor stores etc. Some things never change and these still apply for most brands of Irish whiskey but the opportunity for brands to access people who can influence new and existing consumers is new.

When the idea of bartenders changed from being anything more than people who served you what you ordered to being people who influenced what you drank and what you thought about certain brands, that’s when people recognised the opportunity for ambassadors to play a significant role in a brand’s development. And that’s even before social media-based influencers became a thing.

In Wm Grant the BA programme for many brands is now 20 years approx. in the making – the first brand ambassador was appointed in 1999 – a Glenfiddich BA. Nowadays the company has 100 ambassadors across all brands. So yes the BA is seen as a distinctive asset for the brand and one to be “sweated” for maximum impact.

Malt: Taking the more recent growth in Irish Whiskey into consideration, how important a role are Brand Ambassadors playing in shaping the way global markets look at the Irish Whiskey category, not just for Tullamore D.E.W but for Brands throughout the category as a whole?

John Quinn: If you look at how the Irish whiskey category has grown over the past 20 years in particular you can see a parallel line between the growth in the category and the growth in the number of ambassadors. You can’t immediately draw a causation conclusion that one begat the other but you can say the bigger brands in particular saw a connection between a growing opportunity to access influencers (such as bartenders/mixologists) and the opportunity to drive consumer trial – the ambassadors facilitated that connection. But make no mistake BAs are a big investment for any brand, big or small. And like all investments, the effectiveness can sometimes be difficult to assess – and frequently involves patience on behalf of the brand owner. But when you get a good one it’s hard to imagine your brand’s life before your BA came along.

John’s insights showcase that BA’s can be an invaluable asset when attempting to build your brand in markets, they can be the bridge between the brand itself, the consumers and influencers, and create a wider advocacy base within a market based on the experiences that they deliver. And it is clear that the bigger players in the whisky world have invested heavily in these people but with the knowledge that it is most certainly a long-term play.

Another component of a Brand’s engagement with its consumers has come to the forefront in recent years which could also be described as the company’s brand ambassador’s, that being the whiskey makers themselves, the distiller’s, the blenders and the founders of independent brands among others. We are seeing more and more Master Distillers and Master Blenders appearing at whiskey festivals and tasting events throughout the whiskey industry and these are an incredible asset to the BA, but in a lot of cases understandably overshadow them.

When the topic of BAs is discussed among whiskey enthusiasts, in the Scotch Whisky industry people start to throw out lists of names as long as their arms, or in many cases nowadays Instagram or Twitter handles, revered talents such as Georgie Bell, now Head of Advocacy for Bacardi’s incubation brands, Struan Ralph, GBA for Glenfiddich, Gemma Paterson, GBA for Balvenie and Dave Worthington, That Boutique-y Whisky GBA, pop into mine, none of whom I know personally but who I watch and hold in esteem online. Although, 9 times out of 10 that conversation will turn to the Whisky Makers we admire and respect, the Icons that have helped shape the Scotch whisky industry such as Richard Paterson, Rachel Barrie, Billy Walker, David Stewart, John Glaser, Jim McEwan, Bill Lumsden among many, many more are the shining lights of their respective brands and without doubt, the people that the educated consumers want to engage with the most.

In Ireland it isn’t quite so easy to start shouting out names and expressing defence or support for the veterans of the Irish Whiskey industry’s respective talents. Why? because we are still in the infancy of our Renaissance, and the truth of the matter is, very few of these legends have been pushed to the forefronts of their brands as of yet, but it is starting to become more common.

When attending whiskey events in Ireland it is now more common than ever to see people such as Kevin O’Gorman and Billy Leighton, Master Distiller and Master Blender at Midleton distillery, or Noel Sweeney, former long-time Cooley Master Distiller now with Powerscourt Distillery, or Alex Chasko, Teeling Whiskey Master Distiller, Helen Mulholland, Bushmills Master Blender. These are the people that the crowds gather around and the core of a relatively small group of well known Irish distillers and blenders that are globally recognised for their roles and respected throughout the globe for their talents as well. But the truth of the matter is that the younger distilleries in Ireland do not have access to people with the careers, expertise and time put in to their craft to be globally recognised, with the exception of Graham Coull at Dingle Distillery and Darryl McNally with Dublin Liberties Distillery, most of the newer distilleries do not have such indispensable talents on their payroll.

But, Irish Distillers are paving the way for this element of advocacy by investing heavily in the Ambassadorial talents of their new apprentice Masters, Dave McCabe, Apprentice Master Blender and Katherine Condon, Distiller, among others who play a vital role in engaging with consumers globally. This raises the question of the importance of the whisky makers as operating as BA’s rather than hiring dedicated people to the role, especially with Covid-19 making it more difficult than ever to justify putting BA’s on the road, why not just use the people that are already there. This gave rise to the following question I put to Malt founder and Head of Brand Communications for the Waterford Distillery, Mark Newton.

Malt: From the on-set the Waterford Distillery’s commitment to its vision for Terroir in Single Malt Whisky has placed the brand firmly in the minds of whisky enthusiasts worldwide. This, coupled with outstanding packaging along well designed and delivered digital content, means one could argue that the brand wouldn’t need a Global Brand Ambassador to help accentuate its growth? Is this the case?

Mark Newton: From the off we have never been terribly keen on what you might call the traditional role that a brand ambassador fulfils, largely as we have the people who make Waterford Whisky – from field to bottle – who can and do contribute to the conversation on an ongoing basis. We’re nerds making whisky for other nerds to enjoy, to discuss, to argue about. And we have lots of different angles, each a different interpretation of the whisky.

Traditionally the spirits industry economises on the inputs (ingredients) and dials up the spending on creating artificial narratives, whereas our expenditure is massively on how it’s made – the barley is more expensive to source locally in single farm blocks, the wood is a third of our production budget. And that becomes our story.

We’re not making anything up. There’s nothing contrived, no artificial story, no one-note theme. Yes, we’ve a heavy investment in content marketing – which shows, rather than tells, our story in the most entertaining ways we can, and mostly online. But you can do that more easily when you know where your ingredients are grown! We have something different to say and we say it robustly, but that’s what we had intended to do pre-COVID anyway; the world wants good content and we’ve got plenty of it.

So, I wouldn’t say that the outfall from COVID has meant we wouldn’t need a global brand ambassador – it’s just as probably that we would not have needed one anyway. We, ourselves, want to be out there talking about these subjects; or we want to be creating indulgent content to entertain people about the subject.

So we see from the Waterford Distilleries point of view that they are allowing the brand itself and their approach to whisky-making to play a significant role in the Brand Advocacy globally but that’s not the only vital element for them as Mark explains from my question below.

Malt: It’s clear from initial consumer events, along with appearances on podcasts and online live streams, that Waterford has various options for public-facing events, with Mark Reynier, Ned Gahan and Agronomist, Grace all flying the flag. Will this continue to be the case and do you feel this allows consumers to build more personal relationships with the brand?

Mark Newton: Naturally we’re in our infancy – but we’ve reached into 30 countries in our first year, with some excellent partners who can use all of the content we’ve created in whatever way they see fit. And in the Zoom age, we can and do speak across the world. Whether it’s Mark Reynier speaking to the USA one day, Ned to the Dutch, Neil to the Brits, Grace to the Canadians, or myself to the Chinese, we’ve been happily banging on about terroir to whoever is curious enough to listen to us relentlessly over the summer. We’ve even got Dr Dustin Herb – our academic lead on our terroir project – based in Oregon involved, and Distiller Ian who has been joining in too. Basically we’ve an all-star cast and we spread things around so it never becomes too much of a chore. We each have a different angle, each with a different way of expressing what it is we’re doing, so I don’t see why that would change in terms of the people we have representing us.

But – and this is a big but – I don’t think people respond anywhere near as well to online talks as they would do in real life. There are plenty of blank screens looking back at you, not as many questions flowing naturally. I for one cannot wait until restrictions are lifted so that we can create even more of an immersive, engaged experience about terroir. I recall last autumn we held a wonderful tasting at Whiskybase The Gathering – Ned leading a tasting, and me loading up the video, animations, audio! That was a lot of fun – the feedback was terrific – and no matter how easy it is to load up Zoom, personally that experience cannot be replicated online. I want us to come out of all of this pandemic with vigour.

However, it would still be Ned, still be Grace, still be Neil, and still be Mark who we’d want returning. The personal relationships we would want creating with all of us, not just one figurehead. Come and speak with the people who made Waterford Whisky.

Given the clear importance that Waterford have placed on their wider production team and the successes they are having thus far, it’s clear that this method of engagement is working for them. I asked Louise McGuane where she stood on the possibility of hiring a GBA in the future to get a more distinct insight into her expanding independent brand which doesn’t have the luxury of Master Distillers etc.

Malt: In projecting for continued success and growth worldwide, would having a Global Brand Ambassador have been in the plans for your brand or would you have covered that responsibility yourself? How difficult has the Covid-19 pandemic made planning the advocacy strategy for the coming years?

Louise McGuane: JJ Corry is what’s known as a Founder Led Brand and that’s quite intentional. As such for now I am the global brand ambassador by necessity. I used to spend about 60% of my time traveling to perform that role, along with doing everything else. As the business grows that will certainly shift but I’ll always be at the heart of it I think, I’m building the business and I live what I do so being able to tell people that in person is not only enjoyable but very powerful. Folks can see we are coming from a genuine place with good intentions.

For me, Covid has meant that advocacy piece has simply gone online it’s a lot of late-night zooms and podcasts and Insta lives etc. We have been and will continue to be very active digitally whilst we can’t travel. Everyone in the team now has their own ring light and home studio in preparation for the long winter ahead.

Projects like the crowdsourced blend we did were born out of Covid. Advocacy goes on we just have to be more creative about it and engage the online audience we’ve been building for years and of course attract new members to that audience. It’s been a great leveller in some ways Pernod or Grants can’t send their usual 50 IBEC Graduates just to New York this year, they have to turn to digital means to build advocacy just like we do.

We can see again that Louise is investing in the strength of the message she can deliver herself as the brand owner but also with the demands of Covid-19 she is ensuring that her brand is creating new ways to engage with consumers such as crowdsourced bottlings and ensuring all of her team are equipped to operate in a virtual world.

She also mentioned the IBEC graduate programme which has facilitated Brands engaging with recent graduates offering them Global Brand building experience while coinciding with them achieving a Masters in Global Business. This is where many BA’s got their start and has led to some incredibly successful careers in the Irish Whiskey industry, one such success story I admire greatly is that of Jane Maher, a former Tullamore D.E.W graduate ambassador who now just a few short years later is Global Brand Manager for Irish Whiskey with W.M Grant.

This got me thinking about the future of these schemes and led me to get in contact with William Lavelle, the Head of Drinks Ireland, the governing body for Irish Whiskey and spirits in general. I was made aware that many of the current graduates had been sent home from their prospective markets due to Covid-19 and I sought to better understand this while endeavouring to find out what the future may look like for them and the scheme, and also the role BA’s play within the Irish Whiskey Association(IWA).

William Lavelle

Malt: We are aware that many of the IBEC global graduates are being sent home from their markets and that there is a large amount of uncertainty surrounding their futures within the industry. What supports are the IWA and the IWA members providing to these graduates to ensure that their commitment to the graduate scheme and to the Brands they have been working for is being recognised and that they are not being abandoned by the industry itself?

William Lavelle: 2020 has been a cruel year. Our member companies are doing their best to support and offer opportunities to brands ambassadors whose international placements were ended because of Covid-19. I know numerous brand ambassadors who have secured new roles back in Ireland. Our industry will do its best for all staff in these tough times.

Malt: Given the travel restrictions in place, does it seem likely that the IBEC graduate scheme will go ahead in 2021 or will there be a reinvention of the system to entice more graduates to consider a career in the Irish Whiskey industry?

William Lavelle: I’m happy to report that Ibec have already confirmed that at least one round of placements will take place in 2021. Whether further rounds take place is probably up to Government.

We have consulted widely with our members and we know there is an overwhelming demand to get brand ambassadors back into export markets to help reboot brand promotion and renew relationships with business customers. However, our SME members are telling us that due to the commercial pressures imposed on them by Covid-19, they would need government support for his. Among our SME members, this has been identified as the number one thing that Government could do to support them in recovering from the Covid-19 crisis.

Previously Bord Bia (Ireland’s stage agency for food and drink promotion) had provided funding support, via the Ibec Global Graduate programme, for brand ambassador placements but this was sadly withdrawn a few years ago. We have lobbied hard to see it reinstated as an emergency Covid respond, but we have been very disappointed that Bord Bia have, to date, declined. We will continue lobbying and we hope common sense will prevail.

Malt: Do Brand Ambassadors play any role in the committees of the IWA and/or are they consulted when it comes to general support for members in terms of advocacy trends, standards etc?

William Lavelle: Yes, to both questions. Our Trade & Promotion Committee includes several senior and global brand ambassadors on its membership, including one based full-time in the US.

During 2020, we consulted members on developing content for several projects which will be activated in 2021. These covered topics including how to describe Irish whiskey to new audiences, Irish whiskey cocktails and promoting Irish whiskey in the on-trade. In nearly all cases, the feedback from members and their engagement in this project was led by their brand ambassadors, again including a number based in overseas markets. This proved highly valuable as the feedback was coming those who knew what they were talking about as they are working at the coalface every day promoting Irish whiskey to both business customers and consumers.

We can see that they certainly intend for there to be a future for these BA schemes but that all parties deem government funding to be necessary. We know that WM Grants, Pernod Ricard and recently Diageo operate their own graduate schemes but it is such an expense that many of the smaller companies will simply be unable to even use the government-backed IBEC scheme if their funding support is not restored. So even the success of the scheme in the past is still limiting the opportunities for prospective BA’s in the future because of the costs and Covid-19 is certainly going to keep putting nails in that coffin.

With all that being said, the landscape for a BA’s and GBA’s has changed dramatically this year due to the Covid-19 pandemic closing down the on-trade for extended periods throughout the globe and shutting down the travel options for these BA’s as the quarantine periods would keep them isolating more often that not. So to gain a better understanding of how their roles have changed and how they are adapting, who better to ask than John Quinn.

Malt: With the Covid-19 pandemic ongoing, how does the everyday life for a Global Brand Ambassador such as yourself differ?

John Quinn: It differs dramatically of course. When your life has been all about educating and advocating to various groups you meet in person (for the past God knows how many years) and suddenly you can’t be there to meet them anymore, then things take a huge turn.

The present-day expression is “you have to pivot”. At Tullamore DEW the pivot has been dramatic for us the ambassadors. Actually, we still meet the people but we don’t spend hours on a plane (or even in a train or car) to do so. The online experience is not peculiar to whiskey ambassadors – it’s now an everyday occurrence and for most of us in business a day without a Zoom or Teams call is a very odd one indeed. So we pivoted and along with my colleague Kevin Pigott we have managed to create some interesting takes on whiskey talks and presentations. Kevin has done many great cocktail training sessions on line and many people I know have taken to making cocktails at home having seen his Instagram trainings.

The Tully Virtual Snug sessions as an example have been a great way to get into the hearts and minds of our audiences. In fact, sometimes one could argue the on-line experience is even more impactful than a normal presentation/tasting. Let me give you an example. Kevin and I did an Instagram Live presentation to a group of bartenders in Chile last July. The event was arranged in collaboration with a bartender school in Santiago. News of the whiskey chat/storytelling/singing event spread across Latin America and 357 bartenders, from as far north as Panama to the southern tip of Argentina, called into the event. It was surreal to think we had that many people attending, listening and learning about Tully. It lasted for over an hour and the feedback we got was incredible. I have never had so many bartenders (influencers) attend any session I presented in person so you can see it’s not all bad, even for ambassadors, if we pivot in the right way.

Aligning with the many other industries which haven’t quite shutdown most BA’s have been kept at work and are continuing to attempt to engage with consumers and educate their customers globally via virtual means. We have seen plentiful examples of virtual tastings, trainings and experiential-based events online throughout Covid. Some BA’s have shined through with their presenting talents, engaging crowds through computer screens, with the best BA’s actually holding their audience’s attention. In my recent review of the Bushmills Causeway Collection Irish Exclusives, I mentioned their would be a virtual launch with Master Blender, Helen Mulholland, who was gracious with our questions and showcased her incredible passion for Bushmills. Although, the host, Brand Ambassador Lauren McMullan stole the show in my opinion through her engaging tone and superb handling of the flow of the event making it one of the standout virtual launches I’ve attended.

Like every industry, the whiskey industry has had to adapt throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, traditionally whiskey companies would have taken the approach to ‘build brands in the On-trade and gain volume in the Off-trade’ with the BA’s being firmly placed in the on-trade in most cases. This fact, coupled with the long-term closures of the on-trade must certainly have made many of the BA’s in the Irish Whiskey industry worried for the security of their jobs but if anything, Covid-19 has shown the Irish Whiskey industries ability to adapt and develop new streams of connecting with their consumers.

Micháel O’Flaherty, Slane Irish Whiskey, showcased some of the other opportunities he has attempted to explore since the on/off lockdowns have become such a disruptive component of brand building in Ireland.

Malt: How has your role changed with the lockdown playing havoc with the On-trade in Ireland?

Micháel: Covid life has resulted in a complete pivot of my roll. It’s gone from focusing on the On Trade to the Off Trade and from in-Person to Online. At the beginning of all of this when I so naively thought we’d be out of this in time for EP much of the work that I was doing centred on our Instagram platform Ask.Ed which is targeted directly at Modern Hospitality Professionals.

It consisted of making multiple posts a week ranging from the history of cocktails & spirits to how to make orgeat and charcoal. As part of this move to online we started a live series where we’d each interview a guest live once a week for roughly an hour. These guest included Jack McGarry (Dead Rabbit), Alex Conyngham (Slane Whiskey), Adolfo Comas (Bacardi Family Member) & Kevin Hurley (Balfes) to name just a few. This moved into us doing cocktail videos and continues to evolve as time goes by. But the premise is the same, using social media to educate, inspire and engage Hospitality Professionals. In other words, ensuring that Slane Irish Whiskey is supporting bartenders and they know it.

John Quinn explained that Tullamore D.E.W took their bartender engagement global from the comfort of their own homes, similarly, Micháel and Slane took to the world of Instagram to provide a platform for education to the bartending community in Ireland and abroad. This adaption to brand building online has proved pivotal for many of the BAs at work in the Irish Whiskey industry, but surely there is a limit to the amount of online tastings, trainings and launches that consumers and bartenders alike are willing to attend.

With Ireland now in its 3rd wave of Covid-19 but with a vaccine on the horizon the job security of the Irish Whiskey industry’s BAs is looking relatively safe, we have seen the importance they have played in the building of global brands, the effectiveness they have showcased in their adaption to a life online and a commitment from Drinks Ireland that they will continue to focus on Brand Ambassador schemes.

However, it is clear as the industry further develops that consumers may become more interested in the relationships they can develop with the whiskey makers, the distillers, the blenders, the founders and in one particular case the agronomist. The people directly involved with creating the products that consumers enjoy offer an invariably more personal, engaging, unique and transparent experience.

Although I can say from personal experience that there are some incredible talents working as BAs in the Irish Whiskey industry who are invaluable to their brands. Such as John & Kevin with Tullamore D.E.W and Micháel with Slane who were kind enough to offer some words to us at Malt among others. An honourable mention must also go to Derek King, who took up the mantle as Powers Global Brand Ambassador only a few years ago and has solidified himself as one of Ireland’s most outstanding ambassadorial talents, even if he has a questionable fondness for appearing to not wear socks.

The role of the Brand Ambassador is far from dead but we’ve seen sufficient evidence that the importance of having commercial or marketing acumen intertwined with the ability to entertain and influence will inevitably lead to a greater reliance on your services. I feel that as the industry grows we will see many more of these hybrid roles introduced throughout the newer brands in the Irish Whiskey industry, we will see Founders at the forefront of the Irish Whiskeys growth and it will be the multinational brands which continue with the more traditional form of BA.

For me, the conversations that formed the content of this article gave insights into how the many different styles of businesses within Irish Whiskey industry have delivered a greater openness to the interpretation of the Brand Ambassador role, and I’m sure that for any Independent brand owner who reads this, they will see that depth of skill set seems to be the most important factor when exploring new hires.

As an aside, I found it surprising that the rise of the ‘Startender’ hasn’t made its way into the folds of Irish Whiskey ambassadorial roles in a big way. Teeling Whiskey have placed emphasis on this aspect of their hires for ambassadorial roles so far, with Kevin Hurley previously and Rob Caldwell currently, they have shown that Bartenders of their calibre can influence immensely on a Global scale. But, I can say that I am relatively relieved that the wider industry is placing more emphasis on wider skill sets as more prospects would be greatly limited if my cocktail making abilities were part of an interview process.

For anyone who got bored halfway through this mammoth piece, and just skipped to the end to see my conclusions… In short, as Irish Whiskey continues to diversify so too does the role of the Irish Whiskey Brand Ambassador, it certainly isn’t dying out, if anything become more developed. Covid-19 has led to a lot of uncertainty for any and all working within the whiskey industry but as we look to the future, I’m sure we will get to see many more fantastic ambassadorial talents develop. With that said, Founder led brands and brands who rely on the people in production or just the uniqueness of their production, will certainly come to the forefront of any consumers recommended brands to watch. But it’s clear there is strength in numbers and the more people working with your brand, inevitably the quicker it will grow. Alas, for the smaller companies out there, they will certainly focus on quality over quantity in building their brands initially at least.

Note: When I started this piece I was just shy of 8 months into unemployment, on finishing I’m 6 weeks into a new role within the Irish Spirits Industry. But for many, their unemployment journey hasn’t ended just yet, but keep working, developing, learning and most importantly showing the world makes you unique.

Lead image by Jamal Yahya, with others borrowed from various websites and publications.

Mark McLaughlin

Born and raised in the North of Donegal, I spent my teenage years in a house 100 yards from the Atlantic Ocean, which I only appreciate now,obviously. Starting out in whiskey bars before going from retailer to brand and back again a few times, I’ve enjoyed 8 years of Whiskey focus so far and hoping it won’t end soon. Having little else to do while furloughed due to Covid I started Cask Strength Communications to get my thoughts and reviews out there while hoping to help the Irish Whiskey industry along the way.

  1. Welsh Toro says:

    Congratulations on landing that job Mark. It’s extremely difficult out there as you are obviously well aware. A mammoth piece as you say, and you obviously had a lot to get out of the system but I think it too long. I used to write like that but that message could have been conveyed in half the words. I read it though. You obviously have the Irish connection but the message is universal right now. My experience is that there are great ambassadors and, well let’s just say, the not so great. The not so great style are nothing more than average sales men and women and that’s okay for a shop tasting event but the probing of an experienced whisky nerd will find them out. The best one’s aren’t afraid to talk about other brands and know their whisky history. When we get out of this mess their services will be required once again but they are no different to our artists and musicians and the admin staff of these institutions who add value to our lives and are taken for granted. I’d like to think that after a year of Covid we could pause and reflect and reassess what is really important but my head tells me that we are such a degraded and materialist culture that we’ll just go back to the same old slop as before. Ending on the Irish note. I hope Irish whisky can break out a bit more but for goodness sake put up the abv and bring the price down. Cheers and all the best for the future. WT

    1. Hi WT,

      Many thanks for taking the time to read what was a mammoth piece, and as you say, may have been too long. (You wouldn’t have enjoyed the long version I’m guessing).

      I’d like to make a point on the Irish connection… when the concept for the feature was initially discussed, my ability to put it together was solely based on the fact I knew I could get the insights directly from my connections within the Irish Whiskey industry. It certainly is a universal issue but the role of the BA is underdeveloped in Ireland when compared with the Scotch or American industries. Up until 2015, there were only 3 Global Brand Ambassadors in the Irish Whiskey industry and given our industry here is in some what of a developmental phase, the purpose of the article was to showcase the many different facets of not just the BA role in Ireland but how Irish Whiskey companies are developing their global strategies as well.

      I agree that the message could have been delivered in a shorter format but that would not have sufficed to fulfil my own selfish need to get the info out there.

      And I’d like to reiterate my point, “when we get out of this mess” I don’t see the majority of Irish Whiskey brands having Brand Ambassadors, the multinationals may but that accounts for 5 distilleries out of 37 now producing spirit. They may have people who appear to be BA’s when necessary but they won’t compare to the plethora of BA’s that will inevitably return to work with other whiskey industries.

      You can be sure that my next contribution here on Malt will not take up anywhere near as much of your time, as it certainly didn’t take up as much of mine.

      Thanks again for taking the time to comment and I hope you enjoy my contributions to come

  2. John says:

    Great piece, Mark. It’s always nice to get a better perspective of an unfamiliar market. Though, with a long article like this, I’m going to need to read it a few more times to digest it properly.

    Congratulations on your new role. I look forward to learning more about the Irish whisky market from an internal perspective. With a more relaxed wood policy, I think Irish whisky can surpass Scotch.

    1. Thanks very much for the kind comments John, on reflection I should have mentioned the impending length in the opening paragraphs.

      I agree with the suggestion that Irish whiskey is an ‘unfamiliar market’, as it still is so small in comparison. And, yes with the more relaxed wood policy, wider variance in mash-bills currently being distilled and the abundance of new distilleries, I think it will certainly be a fascinating category to explore in the coming years.

      Whether it will surpass Scotch or not, we will just have to wait and see.

      1. John says:

        The singlepot still style is very intriguing as I’ve heard of old recipes consisting of 50% rye. As long as the big boys keep their grubby hands off the new ones I think the geeks will enjoy Irish whisky.

        Cheers

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