Andrea Montague head of advocacy at Edrington UK: “The best educators are our bartenders”


Brand ambassadors are the diplomats of the drinks trade. Long being seen as a route for veteran bartenders to take back control of their evenings and weekends, they wield a soft power where the aim is that their charisma, enthusiasm and knowledge of their brand create influential disciples and fans within the industry. But as Covid moved engagement away from the then-closed bars and online, the requirements of a public-facing brand envoy quickly changed.

Last summer the Pernod Ricard-owned Olmeca Tequila launched the “world’s first” on-screen, virtual influencer, the uncannily life-life Maria Margarita as a consumer-facing brand advocate. She arrived with a statement from Juan Namur, head of digital for House of Tequila at Pernod Ricard that contained the dystopic statistic that “research shows that virtual influencers are three times more engaging than their human counterparts”. Now even the work of social media influencers is being contracted out to the machines, it’s the industrial revolution for the TikTok-age.

Back in the trade-facing world, Olmeca and Pernod Ricard have an extensive network of brand ambassadors as part of their House of Tequila and Dré Masso and Henry Besant-founded Tahona Society. The same can't be said for Moët Hennessy UK's spirits portfolio where trade advocacy has been distilled into a single, and presumably overworked, spirits ambassador position.

Edrington UK has been taking a different approach. Under the stewardship of head of advocacy Andrea Montague, the group has recruited a crack team of brand ambassadors across their premium spirits portfolio.

“I don't think now's the time to be dialling down on brand ambassadors,” says Montague, speaking to Drinks International. “Nowadays, every single category is a huge market and consumers are much more aware of what they want to drink, they’re much more discerning, and now our bars are open, the best educators are our bartenders.

“For us, our commitment to advocacy and our commitment to giving back to the trade means increasing our use of brand ambassadors and having that personal touch and platforms where we can speak directly to bartenders. We’re in the business of engaging and inspiring people, how inspiring is reading another powerpoint presentation?”

The UK advocacy team led by Montague certainly packs a punch. Nicole Sykes, formerly of Satan’s Whiskers and Lyaness and national winner of the Bacardi Legacy 2020 is the UK ambassador for Maker’s Mark. Another Lyaness alumna, Beckie Sullivan left her position at A Bar with Shapes for a Name to occupy the same role for Courvoisier.

Hospitality and brand management consultant Jamie Campbell is the UK ambassador for Brugal 1888. The ex-bar manager for The Berkeley Hotel, Raffaele Di Monaco, is the UK brand ambassador for House of Suntory, and Aaron Masonde, the former bar manager at Oblix is UK brand ambassador for The Macallan.

“It’s crucial - I call it aces in places,” explains Montague. “Everyone comes from an amazing bar background but they all bring different strengths. It’s important to get people who embody the brand and are passionate about it. The needs of Courvoisier are completely different to the needs of The Macallan for example, a great brand ambassador is an extension of the brand. They’re the face of the brand, they understand the brand better than anyone, and they bring the brand to life.

“Lots of bartenders want to be brand ambassadors, but brand ambassadors live and breathe the brand, talk about it day in and day out, and need to inspire people. I’m very lucky. We’ve got such a wealth of talent in the UK to choose from and I’m fortunate to have found the brand ambassadors that I have but most importantly they all embody the brands that they represent.”

A criticism of the kind of stewardship that brand ambassadors embody is that it’s not always as easy to quantify as the direct boost that a talented salesperson can deliver.

“It's very hard to put a number on the benefits of advocacy, it’s founded on relationships and education which are difficult to quantify, but it’s very noticeable when a brand doesn’t have good advocacy.

“Good brand ambassadors educate and inspire people to shout about their brands in their bars, on menus, and on their own social media platforms, that impact might not be easily quantifiable but visible when you don’t have a good advocacy program.

“One of the biggest challenges in our industry at the moment is recruitment and engagement, you’re not going to be able to inspire someone who has just started to work behind a bar with just what they read online. Yes, digital is the future but there also needs to be some personal engagement to go alongside it and my team could not be busier. People want them in their bars to engage with people.”