Everything You Need to Know About Becoming a Spirits Brand Ambassador
Photo by Jennifer Mitchell Photography
To the untrained eye, being a spirits brand ambassador may seem like one long, all-expenses-paid party—but most people working in the industry know that these roles often come with grueling hours, endless travel and more nights spent in hotel beds than at home. Becoming a brand ambassador isn’t for the faint of heart, but for those who can handle the responsibilities of the role, it can also be an incredible opportunity to step out from behind the stick and see the world.
Charlotte Voisey began working in the hospitality industry as a waitress, worked her very first bar shift at age 18, and went on to study international hospitality management in university. She was working behind the bar at London’s Apartment 195 when William Grant & Sons approached her about moving to the States and working as one of their first ambassadors. Charlotte, who saw the job offer as an opportunity to stay in the industry she loved while also traveling, exploring and meeting new people, said yes. That was almost a decade ago, and since then, Charlotte has become one of the most recognizable personalities in the industry. She’s also helped William Grant build their ambassadorship program, acting as a mentor to the 25 ambassadors across the entire portfolio. In our latest online Shakeup, we asked Charlotte to share some of the lessons she’s learned along the way. Read on for her honest take on what being a brand ambassador is really like, what kind of personality it takes to succeed, and what you should consider before making the leap.
Being a brand ambassador is a great way for bartenders to stay in the industry they love, but stretch to meet new challenges in a new environment. Charlotte joined William Grant because, as she says, “it was an opportunity to stay in the industry that I loved, use the skills that I had gained to keep the contacts and build on them, and travel and explore the country and open myself up to hundreds of new opportunities,” she says. Plus, even though it’s certainly not an easy job, it doesn’t typically have the same physical demands of a bartending position. “While we love bartending, we know that it's a very physical job and it can be antisocial in terms of hours that you keep,” she says. “So this is a great way to stay in the industry you love, share education, share your experiences, but maybe keep a more sane kind of lifestyle. It allows you to shift disciplines within the same industry.”
It’s essential to know and love the brand you work for. “We believe, and many people believe, that a brand ambassador is the embodiment in real life of a brand," Charlotte says. "You have to really gel with the brand — the way it feels, the way it looks. The kind of personality it would have, if it were human, would be you.”
It’s demanding, but rewarding—for the right person. For the first few years of her brand ambassador career, Charlotte was constantly traveling. “People would ask me how much I traveled, but those who are brand ambassadors know that you don't have time to actually sit down and count,” she says. But, she adds, “when you have the right life setup, the right energy levels, and age is on your side, it is arguably the best job in the world to have. You can travel, you can truly be everywhere always, and meet the tremendous amount of people there are in this industry.”
You have to have a lot of energy. “When you're young or starting out, there's a need for you to travel a lot, meet as many people as you can, do as many events as you can, to really get your name out there but more importantly to promote the brand you're working on,” she says. This is especially true if you’re helping to build a new brand. When Charlotte was the ambassador for Hendrick’s, the gin was still in its infancy in the U.S. “It took a lot of hustling. You need to be set up and excited to do that.”
Bartenders are particularly well-equipped for the job because they can multitask. The ability to do many things at once, whether it’s having a conversation while making a cocktail, or being courteous to guests while helping your colleagues, is crucial. “A good, fast bartender is a hell of a multitasker,” says Charlotte, “and one of the things you need as a brand ambassador is the ability to multitask. Sometimes you need to do a hundred things at once, they're all priorities, they were all due yesterday, and likely you'll be in a plane or in a taxi or without wifi when you have to do all of these tasks.”
Bartenders also make great ambassadors because they know how to read people. That intuition required to read a guest or understand what they need is indispensable to brand ambassadors. “As a brand ambassador, we speak to many different audiences. Reading the audience and giving them what they need or what they want or what is helpful to them is the key to success on how to be a great brand ambassador,” says Charlotte. And no two groups are the same: you’ll talk to everyone from bartenders to distributors to regular consumers who like to make cocktails at home (not to mention the media). “Understanding why they're talking to you, what they need, and what you can give them that's helpful to them is very, very key, all the while keeping your own agenda in mind.”
Bartenders know their stuff. The most passionate bartenders have a clear commitment to knowledge and education. “They know production, they have a wonderful wealth of knowledge because they care and they study and they're dedicated to this art,” Charlotte says. “When you get a really well-rounded educated bartender, you've got the credibility, you've got an expert in the field of spirits or a specific category, and it gives you a great head-start because credibility is one of those key characteristics that you can't really train, you certainly can't buy, and it's appreciated by all of the audiences.” Beyond knowledge, passion in general is a must for ambassadors. “True passion will carry you through longer, it will carry you through the harder and more difficult times, and it's picked up on and appreciated by every audience,” adds Charlotte.
And bartenders know how to roll with the punches. That Sunday night shift that’s supposed to be quiet, but ends up with everyone in the weeds? That’s the kind of stuff brand ambassadors have to be ready to deal with, too. “You just dig deep and handle it. You may not have the mise en place set up in the bar, you may only have one station open, and 300 people walk in, but you find a way to figure it out,” she says. It’s all about being able to deal with crises, and reacting calmly under pressure. “Because as much as we plan for some of the big events, it's guaranteed that on the day, certain things will happen, things won't arrive, mistakes happen, accidents happen. Anything can happen. So being able to think on your feet is probably one of the number one skills, really in life, but particularly in our industry for both a bartender and a brand ambassador.”
But, it isn’t always an easy transition from bar to brand. The cultural shift of moving from a bar to a more corporate environment can be tricky to navigate. “It's the same as moving countries: different behaviors, different norms, different language, different ways of doing things,” says Charlotte. “Plus, you're automatically put in a new environment with usually quite a large empathy gap when it comes to your colleagues and the people you're working with.” In other words: don’t expect your corporate colleagues to always have a full grasp of what you do. Which brings us to our next point…
Few people will ever really, truly understand your job. “No one, truly, ever gets to see 360 degrees of what a brand ambassador does,” says Charlotte. “That's another reason my role is so important, because I can pitch in and speak up and explain the rest of the picture to my colleagues when it comes to being a brand ambassador and what it truly entails.” All the travel and late-night events might sound glamorous to a traditional 9-to-5’er, but anyone in the role knows that there’s a lot more going on behind the scenes.
It’s not as glamorous as it may seem on social media. If you know a brand ambassador and follow them on Instagram, you’ve probably seen your fair share of photos depicting a life of travel and parties. Maybe you were even a tad jealous at your friend’s seemingly endless snaps. As an ambassador, you might get dogged for bragging on social media—but, as Charlotte says, it’s only natural to share the exciting and fun parts of your job with the people you care about. You just might want to be mindful of how others might perceive it. And, as we all know, social media never tells the full story. “Ambassadors are never going to make a social media post about, ‘I'm sitting at home on my weekend again doing my expenses,’ or ‘hey, I just missed the train, so I'm going to be in this train station for the next three hours.’ It doesn't really make for great viewing,” she says. “So, of course, we only post the highlights; the fun, interesting, great things that happen.”
As a bartender, if you’re used to being wined and dined by brands, prepare for that to slow down. “You will be excluded from certain industry parties, events, treats, perks or trips that you used to get invited on as an independent bartender. And yes, you can suffer from FOMO in the beginning, but you have this wonderful new job with this wonderful new world and collection of events that you're about to enjoy and create. So the tradeoff is absolutely worth it, but you need to be ready for it.”
Charlotte Voisey and Joseph Mortera, ambassador for Hendrick's Gin in Mexico, giving the welcoming toast with Ann Tuennerman at Tales of the Cocktail on Tour in Mexico City. Photo by Jennifer Mitchell
Your success in the job is entirely in your hands. As cliche as it might sound to anyone who’s ever interviewed for a job, you do need to be a self-starter. There are a lot of people to help you along the way, Charlotte says, but when it comes down to it, “the success that you have as a brand ambassador is ultimately up to you, in terms of how you grasp the reins and run with it. The reason that brands hire you to be their brand ambassador is because they've come to believe that you are the missing link. You complete their brand package. You complete the marketing mix. If you have ideas, relationships, events that you want to create, break the mold, go after new ideas, that's exactly what you should do.”
It’s important to do your homework before jumping into a role. If you’re faced with an offer to work in this capacity for a brand, Charlotte advises doing some research on the company's approach to brand ambassadorship. “Make sure that the company's focus is aligned and the company's ideals match yours,” she says. “You need to really understand the back-end behind the scenes, in terms of what you're expected to do, what levels of freedom you're given, how you can really exercise your creativity. You should also look into things like compensation, benefits, job security, your contract — because again, every company is different.”
You may need to rethink your approach to social media. This one can be a bit of a grey area, but in general, you’re typically not going to be using Facebook for political rants or off-color conversations. “It's one of those golden rules that we never discuss religion or politics at the bar, and as a brand ambassador, it's just an extension of that,” Charlotte says. “I think you always have to be mindful of the fact that once you're a brand ambassador, you are always ‘on,’ so any channels of communication, especially social media, should be treated with care.”
It’s exhausting, but it also leads to opportunities you’d never have otherwise. The best part of the job, in Charlotte’s words? “You literally get to do things you would never do otherwise. I always think of it as having a backstage pass to the world.” She’s close to having visited all 50 states in her ten-year tenure at William Grant. “If you had told me ten years ago that I was going to move to America and visit every single part of this vast country, it just sounds like a dream opportunity, and that's exactly what I've had,” she says. Beyond just the travel, brand ambassadors get to interact with people they may not have ever encountered otherwise—like when Charlotte met Sean Connery backstage at a New York fashion show, or served Robert De Niro his Hendrick’s with a cucumber at Sundance.
And you get the satisfaction of seeing your ideas come to life. William Grant & Sons is known for throwing a hell of a party, especially their annual Wednesday night welcome event each year at Tales. Charlotte says that seeing the ideas they’ve scribbled on a napkin or dreamed of at night come to life is one of the most rewarding parts of her job. “Those are your ideas, and when you see people come in and enjoy, and you see the look on their faces and speak nicely of you afterwards, there's an amazing rewarding feeling when you can be responsible for something so much fun like that,” she says. “Being able to be creative and seeing your ideas come to life and seeing people enjoy them — it’s that same feeling that you get when you're a bartender, you make a cocktail and you put it in front of someone, and you sneak that first glance at their face, and their facial reaction says everything.” It’s all about seeing that look of delight on someone’s face, whether you've made them a drink or you've put on an amazing event.
Staying healthy can be a struggle, and burnout is real. It’s just about impossible to get decent sleep on a plane, not to mention the immunological repercussions of sharing air and tight quarters with that many strangers. Time away from home, too, can put pressure on your mental well-being and other relationships. For Charlotte, wellness is the hardest part of the job to balance. But, if you love it, you learn to deal. “Early on, I adopted this trinity of sleep, diet, and exercise, and that's I think why I've lasted so long as a brand ambassador: you have to look after yourself,” she says. Knowing your limits is key. “I require a lot of sleep, healthy food, and a lot of exercise to feel good, to feel alive, and to have the energy to do my job,” she says. “If I fail on any one of those three things, I become not very good at my job, very quickly. I learnt early on that I have to prioritize those.” That might mean leaving a party early or turning down a fun night out in a different city, but ultimately, it keeps burnout at bay and makes for a more productive ambassador. (Fun fact: Charlotte’s exercise regimen typically includes clocking time in the gym every day with a goal of burning 1,000 calories, and hot yoga three times a week.)
If you don’t have bartending experience, it couldn’t hurt to get some. Charlotte emphasized that not all brand ambassadors have to come straight from the bartending world. But for those who have no experience behind the bar, it can’t hurt to dip a toe in the waters. She references a few ambassadors who, worried that their lack of experience would hurt their credibility, decided to work one shift a week at a bar in their hometown. “I think it does two things: it gives you the skills that you can understand mixology better and contribute to your brand's drink strategy, and secondly, it shows that you want to know more about bartenders and understand what they go through, and have more empathy for them,” she says. It makes it easier to relate to the bartenders you’re doing business with, and they have that much more respect for you. “I don't think there's any shame in not being the best bartender in the world if you're a brand ambassador, but having a respect and an understanding for the skill is definitely very important. Your empathy tank gets filled all the way back up again and that can only be a positive thing.”
And how can ambassador candidates stand out in the hiring process? As with most jobs, but especially in this role, first impressions are crucial. “The first impression that you make is so important because essentially we're sending you out to the world to make first impressions to everyone you meet. If things don't click immediately, it's very hard to believe that they will click going forward,” says Charlotte. She says it’s important to strike a balance of charisma, confidence, knowledge, vulnerability, worth ethic and attitude, and storytelling. One needs to be charming, tell stories, know your stuff, and be able to convey it in a very engaging way to a number of different audiences. Once you’ve hit all those checkboxes, then it’s all about the brand. “We truly believe that a great brand ambassador truly exudes their brand,” she says, citing the way that Jim Ryan embodies the spirit of Hendrick’s Gin. “You really need to choose a brand that you truly love and align yourself with it. Passion always comes through. Nobody has to be perfect, there are definitely things we can train, but it's those intangible characteristics that we look for that can't be trained.”
Watch Charlotte's talk below: