What happened to brand ambassadors? Going from actors to influencers.
What happened to brand ambassadors? Going from actors to influencers.
Being a brand ambassador ain’t what it used to be. Ten years ago, anyone could dress up to hand out products to people IRL. Today, brand ambassadorship exists predominantly online, driven by Instagram influencers and actors paid to pose with products in transactional sponsored #ads.
As brand ambassadorship has become increasingly digitized, the authenticity of advocacy has been called into question, leaving us to wonder: What even happened to brand ambassadors? Although the job seems more popular than ever, ZoomInfo data shows the title peaked in popularity in 2017 before suffering a sudden decline.
To find out how brand ambassadorship has evolved over the last 10 years we talked with Kristal Mallookis, the CEO and founder of Mustard Lane, a brand ambassador staffing agency that has built a community of thousands of brand ambassadors across the country.
Kristal MallookisKristal Mallookis is the founder and CEO of Mustard Lane
Stephanie Tonneson: Brand ambassadors. They used to be a company's biggest fan, top customer, someone who used the products, loved them, and wasn't afraid to shout it from the rooftops. Companies rewarded these people by giving them free stuff. And it worked. It worked so well that those same companies started paying other people to act as brand ambassadors, giving out samples on the streets, campuses, and late night in front of bars. This is why for most of the 2010s, the number of newly- hired brand ambassadors grew over 1, 000%. Fast forward a couple years, sprinkle in some social media, and now everyone's online feeds are covered with# ad posts, repping one product after another from" brand ambassadors." And then, by 2017, the number of new hires started to drop. So what happened? Did we reach a tipping point from authentic brand love to transactional brand gig? Did the job change, or did the tactic fail? To better understand what happened to brand ambassadors, we found someone who's been in the game for over a decade. Her name is Kristal. Kristal Mallookis is the CEO of Mustard Lane, a brand ambassador staffing agency that hires professional actors to do the job. So when we asked her about recent changes within the industry, she had a lot to say. And most of it was not what we were expecting. Could we begin with your name and your title? Yes,
Kristal Mallookis: Yes. I am Kristal Mallookis and CEO of Mustard Lane.
Stephanie Tonneson: Amazing. You're doing great so far.
Kristal Mallookis: Nailing it.
Stephanie Tonneson: Yes. Okay. So to start, could you tell us the story of how you founded Mustard Lane?
Kristal Mallookis: Mustard Lane is an event staffing and promotional marketing company. My background is in dance and theater. I originally grew up in Colorado and studied dance theater at University of Northern Colorado and decided I wanted to move to New York one month after graduating. And I moved to New York, I was lucky enough to have some friends that went to Marymount Manhattan, and so I automatically kind of had a friends group and was hustling, working a few different jobs at a ballet school. I was babysitting, I was walking dogs. And then I got into doing a few catering jobs and meeting other people like me that worked random jobs. And I loved it. I loved just having somewhere different to go every day. I loved the different events going on and realized that I was really good at finding these jobs. And at that time I applied for a flyering job for a popular New York City chain cafe called Cafe Metro. They were owned by a bunch of Greeks and paid cash, gave us food afterwards, and they started opening more and more locations. So they asked me if I had friends that would be willing to work. So then I started pretty much an under- the- table cash business with this cafe chain and a bunch of my friends doing flyering for Cafe Metro and was approached by a representative of Honest Tea. And he loved me and he was like," Who do you work for?" And I was like," Well, actually this is my own company. It's called Mustard Lane." And he was like," Could you do 50 demos this summer in New York City?" And I said," Absolutely." And I went online, I went on LegalZoom, created Mustard Lane, LLC, and got a bank account, and that was my first big client. And what was really cool is that client, we did Honest Tea samplings at Cafe Metros and other cafes, but also in Duane Reades. And the Duane Reade marketing company was like," Wait, what company is this? We love them." And so then Duane Reade became a client of ours and we started working with all the brands that were doing demos in Duane Reades.
Stephanie Tonneson: Wow. That is an incredible story. When he asked you," Can you do 50 demos this summer?" were you thinking," Maybe, but I'm going to say yes"? Or were you sure in the moment that you definitely could make it work?
Kristal Mallookis: I was sure. I'm a jump head- first kind of girl, and I think that's important for most entrepreneurs in order to make it, is you got to make those decisions, whether you can do it or not. You can do it and you will do it. So I figured out logistics later and slowly kind of figured out how I wasn't charging enough and I needed higher profit margins to survive, but those are things I kind of learned along the way. But no, I wasn't afraid. I was ready.
Stephanie Tonneson: What is one thing you wish you knew when you first started the company?
Kristal Mallookis: I wish I was more confident at the beginning. I think I did jump head first, and I wish I was more confident in all the decisions I made. I don't think I would change the way I did anything because I'm the type of person where I learn as I go. If I trip, I will learn from that mistake and I will be better because of it. But I wish from the very beginning, I was a little more confident.
Stephanie Tonneson: How could you have been more confident? You sounded like you were so confident.
Kristal Mallookis: Yeah. Just a little more confident with being a leader and just making big decisions. I think sometimes I would procrastinate on things that I shouldn't. And now, years later, I'm just like," Own it, do it." Sometimes decisions are tough, you let the emotional side out of it and just do what you got to do.
Stephanie Tonneson: Wow. That's amazing. I'll take some pointers. How did you make the connection between actors and brand ambassadors? It sounded like it happened very organically, but that's not something that every BA staffing agency does.
Kristal Mallookis: Yeah, absolutely. So that's definitely our bread and butter. And the reason why I started the company is I have a dance background and I worked random jobs because I wanted to perform. And I learned early on that I liked working and running the business more than performing. So it was more of a hobby or a passion. But my community and my friends, they all were performers and have been on Broadway and cruise ships, and their contracts changed all the time and they were always working in these random jobs. So I knew that I could find great workers that were reliable and that looked good and would make the brands happy. And what's different about the setup at Mustard Lane is all actors and dancers and models, they work for a lot of different agencies, but we cater towards... We're not going to be their first choice if they have a catering job or an audition, so we understand the night before if they're like," Oh my gosh, my agent called and I have to go to this thing at 9: 00 AM." We're going to find someone to cover and we understand that. And that's something that our community, they support each other, and they're willing to pick up shifts last minute to cover for someone that has something last minute having to do with the arts.
Stephanie Tonneson: That's great. Yeah. That's a really unique sort of setup. What did other brand ambassador staffing agencies look like when you started, and were they using actors? Was that a standard in the industry already?
Kristal Mallookis: I don't think it was a standard, but it was happening and people weren't aware of it. Now, the secret is out, and a lot of actors and dancers and performers are working all these random jobs. And other companies know about it, brands know about it. Our clients are now asking for actor BAs because they need to act a certain way, they need to wear a costume, they need to memorize certain talking points. So now it's just a whole other tier of brand ambassador that we offer, and it's obviously a little more. And what's interesting is the same BA could fill a bunch of the different roles. They could be the high end promo model, they could be the actor BA, or they could be the regular BA. It's just a matter of what they're asked to do on the job or asked to wear.
Stephanie Tonneson: How is Mustard Lane different than other BA staffing agencies?
Kristal Mallookis: We have a really strategic vetting process when we do interviewing, almost like a personality test. So we place BAs where they're going to do well. Not every BA is going to be great at handing out flyers, some people just really hate it and aren't good at it. And some people thrive at standing in front of a door and not letting certain people in and saying," You're not on the list." So we're strategic on where we place people and we're strategic on how we book people. And also, when we send out an email to book people, it's not a mass email to 30 people and the first five to respond get the job. We actually ask five people, and we're waiting for their response before we book other people. So I think when people know that they get an email from us asking if they're available, they feel special. They know we want them to work. And we just ask that they reply yes or no, and then no questions asked, we'll ask the next person in line.
Stephanie Tonneson: That's great. Yeah. It sounds like it's very careful and thoughtful. What sort of thing is in the vetting process and the application?
Kristal Mallookis: We're to the point where a lot of our hiring is just done by referrals, which is really interesting. I had a moment where we needed a bunch of people in New York so we opened up our casting and maybe interviewed 20 people. And we had this kid who was so excited just to have an interview with us, he'd been trying to work with us for a while. And he literally was like," You guys are like the Broadway for brand ambassadors," and that moment was just so cool because we have worked so hard to create this reputation that's not even just good for the clients, but good for the brand ambassadors as well. So that was a really cool moment. And I think we just take time to get to know the brand ambassadors. Each brand ambassador does have a profile, we track the feedback we get from them on all the events they work, we have all the communication with them and the system. So we just kind of keep track of them and we have catch- ups with them. A lot of them will be in our system for five years and maybe only work a handful of times. So we'll catch up with them every year, every couple of years, just to see what's different with their work resume. Maybe they're a little older, maybe they're team manager material, so we try to just keep tabs on everyone that's in our system that works for us.
Stephanie Tonneson: Do you think the level of care and thought you put into each person that you hire allows them to be even more sincere when doing the actual job?
Kristal Mallookis: 100%. I think people realize just the different way we communicate. And I do think that our brand ambassadors think we care. And I know with the clients, we ask a lot of questions to make sure that they're taken care of during the job, questions that not everybody thinks of, so that when our brand ambassadors arrive onsite, they're set up for success, there's no question, everyone knows what they're supposed to be doing. And that's something we make sure inaudible every event is taken care of.
Stephanie Tonneson: This is sort of a little bit of an aside, but how important is social media following to you when you hire people?
Kristal Mallookis: For me, personally, and the people we hire, I don't really care. But for the clients, that is something new that they're asking for, is to take a peek at their Instagram. Not necessarily to look at the following, but maybe to look at their vibe, if it's a long- term pop- up that needs to have a certain vibe.
Stephanie Tonneson: Are there particular types of clients, or is there a particular industry that you find it's more frequent for them to be interested in the social media?
Kristal Mallookis: I think the cooler brands, the more popular brands, for sure. And if it's a long- term activation, again, with just a very certain vibe, they've asked for it.
Stephanie Tonneson: Can you think of an example of what the vibe is? I'm curious.
Kristal Mallookis: A lot of times we just have to find different pictures to represent. So most brand ambassador pictures are their headshots and they're smiling. And there's certain ones, we did the Missy Elliott museum in SoHo, it was a couple of years ago, it was very cool, it was a pop- up. And instead of showing the headshots, we had to find edgy, cool photos and put them in the profiles so that they could see that they would represent the brand and the vibe.
Stephanie Tonneson: Wow. That's so much fun. That sounds like such a fun project to put that together.
Kristal Mallookis: Yeah.
Stephanie Tonneson: So, sort of on a similar note, when you hear the words" brand ambassadors" and" influencers," what is the difference that comes to mind for you?
Kristal Mallookis: The influencers are usually someone with a huge following and a personal brand that the brand wants to participate in and get more following from. And it's usually a short- term engagement with them. Brand ambassadors, they don't have the following, they don't have to have the following at all. And they're just meant to embody the brand, whether that be in an Instagram post or at an event, it's just more about the brand and not about the following.
Stephanie Tonneson: Right. That makes sense. Do you think that one tends to be more sincere than the other?
Kristal Mallookis: Yes. Yes. I feel like the influencers, they are doing their job and they're really good at it when they do get their brands. But I feel like the non- influencer brand ambassadors, usually I feel like they would partner with the brand because they care about it or because they like it. And I feel like with the influencers, it's just because it's a job, if that makes sense.
Sam Balter: All right. Wait. Pause. Honestly, it kind of surprises me that social media following isn't that important.
Stephanie Tonneson: It surprises me, too, because when I think of brand ambassadors, I associate it with people who are actually acting like influencers in the way that Kristal just described it. But they're calling themselves brand ambassadors.
Sam Balter: I think that's so funny because I think for Kristal, influencers are kind of co- opting the term" brand ambassadors." But being a brand ambassador doesn't really require you to be an influencer, and your social media following doesn't even really matter that much to being a brand ambassador.
Stephanie Tonneson: Right. So I think probably, for Kristal, at least from my perspective, people who are influencers calling themselves brand ambassadors may actually hurt the term" brand ambassadors" overall.
Sam Balter: Yeah. Because it seems like the brand ambassadors are doing something a little bit more unique than just posting a picture of themselves wearing a piece of clothing or using a particular product.
Stephanie Tonneson: Right. The type that Kristal is talking about is specifically people who are putting on these incredibly artistic and immersive experiences that companies want to give to their customers.
Sam Balter: Like what?
Stephanie Tonneson: We're getting to that part, Sam. Okay. Well, on the subject of different campaigns, I want to do a little round of rapid fire questions. So I'll say the name of a campaign that you've worked on, and then you can tell me in a couple of sentences what that campaign was like.
Kristal Mallookis: Okay. All right.
Stephanie Tonneson: Adidas.
Kristal Mallookis: We've done a couple of things with Adidas. I'm picturing the one that we did in California. They really wanted more models to work alongside a truck, and I'm picturing all the pictures. It was more of getting the photos of the models with the Adidas gear.
Stephanie Tonneson: Netflix.
Kristal Mallookis: We do a lot of the Netflix premiers, which is super fun. I can't even remember the last one. But we handle the check- in and the coat check at a lot of the premiers for Netflix. Very cool. We've done a lot of really elaborate ones, which are awesome.
Stephanie Tonneson: What are the BAs doing at a Netflix premiere?
Kristal Mallookis: So, they're getting more elaborate with them. We did one for Stranger Things, I think two years in a row, and it was so fun. They dressed the BAs in a very 80s, Stranger Things vibe. I wish I was there. But in the pictures, they had pretty much a whole set of Stranger Things and inaudible experience. So our BAs are not only dressed the part, but they're probably checking you in to the event or giving you popcorn or something of the sort. So they're not only to look at inaudible ambience, but also efficient working the event.
Stephanie Tonneson: Cool. That's awesome. Facebook.
Kristal Mallookis: Facebook, we did a ton of those little Facebook events all over the country, actually. And they were just kind of one- off events for Facebook and we just handled the check- in and any photo opportunities.
Stephanie Tonneson: Audible.
Kristal Mallookis: Audible. We did some cool things for Audible, New York Comic Con comes to mind. It was, I believe a Harry Potter thing, and it was insane, it was very cool. And this was another one of those events that they did hire actor BAs for.
Stephanie Tonneson: I can see, actually, the more we talk about it, I can see how much sense it makes to bridge the actors with brand ambassadors, because these events and campaigns are performative and they are artistic.
Kristal Mallookis: Totally.
Stephanie Tonneson: Switching gears a little bit, one thing we found with ZoomInfo data that was kind of interesting was between 2010 and 2017, the hiring of brand ambassadors was very much on the rise. So cumulatively, in those seven years, it rose by 1, 294%. And then all of a sudden in 2017, it started dropping, and it went down by 13% in that year and then 48% in 2018. And I'm wondering why you might think that is?
Kristal Mallookis: Hmm. The numbers definitely make sense with kind of the flow of our company, a thousand percent. I'm not really sure. I feel like inaudible the flyering thing, I think there's so much virtual now and online ordering, so the handing out of things isn't as necessary. Sampling products, actually having someone hand you a sample, there's definitely a lot less of that now, and especially now because of COVID. But within the last couple of years, I feel like techniques have changed a little bit as far as the in- person sampling and flyers, and so that could be a reason.
Stephanie Tonneson: Another thing is it sounds like there are sort of different pockets of the brand ambassador industry. So there's the live events and staffing with that. And then I'm just thinking of, with my own experience, seeing this data was really surprising to me because as a young person, I go on my social media and all I see is brand ambassadors. And you also see companies advertising," Oh, be a brand ambassador for our clothing brand," and then you realize you're sort of getting swindled into just buying from them and they sort of know that you're not going to sell anything. Or brands will reach out through direct messages and say," Work with us," and you don't have that many followers. So people know that you're not going to sell, they're just trying to get you to buy. What is your opinion on that?
Kristal Mallookis: It's an interesting technique, for sure. And it is obviously different than the influencers that have those following. But the concept behind it, maybe you feel special because they want you to be the brand ambassador and then you buy their clothes, maybe. But it is definitely more of a trend nowadays.
Stephanie Tonneson: And do you think that that approach that some companies are taking is possibly harming other BA staffing agencies that are not doing that?
Kristal Mallookis: I don't think so. As far as what they're reaching out to, just a normal person that doesn't have any BA experience at all. And really, the brand ambassador agencies like mine, our brand ambassadors are used to being public- facing and representing brands and photos and in- person. So I don't know, I don't feel any connection with that industry at all.
Stephanie Tonneson: How has the pandemic impacted Mustard Lane?
Kristal Mallookis: It's impacted us a whole lot. We went from doing up to 20 events in a day to nothing in a matter of everything just being canceled in March. So we definitely had to do some business development and a lot of housekeeping with internal stuff, so I'm just trying to take advantage of the slower times. And I do think a lot of people in the event industry agree with me that once we're able to do events, it's going to be crazy. Everyone's going to be wanting to do so many different events, so we're just waiting for that. But what's been really cool is we have worked with some brands since July that have done some outdoor, very safe activations. Heineken's one of them and we've done a lot of drive- in theaters with them, which has been very cool. We've got a few here and there going on right now, which is just exciting. Our brand ambassadors are excited to get back to work. Obviously, there's a lot of safety precautions and everything's smaller and a lot of them are outdoors. We're getting there. We're getting there and we're getting by.
Stephanie Tonneson: Are you doing anything in particular to try and keep the energy high and keep the motivation up?
Kristal Mallookis: Yeah. We do some game nights for our team, which has been really fun. That's something we offer to corporate companies, too, virtual game nights, that have actually been pretty successful. So we'll do virtual game nights with our team. And the last one, I think we maybe had 75 people from all over the country, we had six different games going at once. And really just everyone loves spending time together and getting to know the other Laners, which is what we call our team from other markets, which was really cool. And then another thing that we've been focusing on is we do have a nonprofit that the internal members of Mustard Lane are a part of. It's called Off The Lane. And the nonprofit is based to help the artistic community. And so during this time we've actually really been able to focus on the nonprofit and it's grown so much. We have a mentorship program that we launched in March of 2020, which was so interesting because it was meant to be virtual to begin with. And because of that, it's grown 500% since we launched in March. So every session we're getting more and more mentees and pairing them up with mentors that are professional working actors. So it's been really cool to focus on just some other things during this time.
Stephanie Tonneson: It sounds like because you started the company being a performer yourself, and then you employed all of your performer friends, Mustard Lane is really like a hub of creative people.
Kristal Mallookis: 100%.
Stephanie Tonneson: Yeah. And it seems like with the way you try and match them with particular jobs, or you're asking them to do so many different things, you're really catering to people's specific passions and skills.
Kristal Mallookis: That's exactly what we're trying to aim to do. And what's really cool to see along the way is the community that Mustard Lane is and that it became organically, just watching that come to life. That was just a happy accident in creating Mustard Lane. And it's just been really cool to see people get married that met at Mustard Lane and find roommates and other gigs, and just supporting each other in their artistic things that they do. And it's been really cool to sit back and watch that all happen.
Stephanie Tonneson: Is the community between the employees the thing that you're most proud of?
Kristal Mallookis: You know, I guess 100%. Absolutely. I think the work culture is awesome and I am proud that people are proud to work for us. You nailed it, yes.
Stephanie Tonneson: And how big is the list of people?
Kristal Mallookis: We have a database of about 5, 000 people across the nation that we could have work at any time.
Stephanie Tonneson: What do you think corporate America should know about artists and creatives?
Kristal Mallookis: I think they're an asset in any position you would ever put them in. And I think that flexibility, you just have to be flexible to work with them, but they are an asset in any position. And now more than ever, being an artist is, it's an extremely rough time. And I know the job market's rough out there, too. So inaudible just continue supporting those artists because they need to be creative so they can create amazing work down the road.
Stephanie Tonneson: Are there any misconceptions you think corporate America has about artists and creatives?
Kristal Mallookis: I think I thrive with working with artists because I understand how their mind works, which is maybe just the creative mind works, which isn't so cut and dry, and maybe corporate America doesn't think about how the creative mind works.
Stephanie Tonneson: And they're missing out.
Kristal Mallookis: Yeah. They are missing out, absolutely.
Stephanie Tonneson: Where do you see the industry heading?
Kristal Mallookis: It's going to be interesting. I don't think the virtual is going to go away, so it's going to be interesting how it's going to work together. I do think that live events are important and I think that everyone's missing that experience, but there are going to be virtual elements in there as well. So I know that that's going to happen, I'm not sure how. That's what the creatives will figure out, but it's definitely going to be working together.
Stephanie Tonneson: Are there some industries that you think are more ready for that than others?
Kristal Mallookis: Yes. But because of the pandemic and the Zoom world, I feel like people are less afraid now because everyone's used Zoom during these times, so the technical element is less scary. I feel like if virtual was the new trend before COVID and COVID never happened, I think people would be really freaked out to try it. But now, they're kind of getting used to it and we kind of figure it out.
Stephanie Tonneson: Okay. So last question, kind of wrapping up here. You began as a dancer, you moved to New York City with that plan in mind, and then you got the opportunity to open your own company and you jumped into it head first. What did you take away from the experience of having one life path in mind and then choosing another?
Kristal Mallookis: For me, it wasn't hard. And I think for a lot of people, it probably is a hard decision. I know the moment that I did not want to be a dancer is I came from an audition and I was feeling so good, I made some friends, and learned the cool dance. And I was talking to my roommates, who, at the time, were trying to make it as dancers, and now one of them is Katy Perry's main dancer, has been forever. The other one was in Cirque du Soleil for a while. And they would leave auditions and think that they got the job. They were that confident about it. And when they didn't get the job, they would be devastated and crying, and it was the end of the world for a small job. And for me, it was just kind of like," Oh, that was fun." So I kind of realized that if I was going to make it in that world, which is very cut- throat and competitive, I needed to look at every audition that way. And I did not have that in me. So I wanted to stay in New York, I loved New York, and started a company.
Stephanie Tonneson: She says, casually. Do you ever look at those friends and wonder how your life path would have unfurled if you had gone that direction?
Kristal Mallookis: I don't. I don't" What if..." I know I'm on the right path, I don't question it. And that's because I love what I do. I'm so extremely lucky.
Sam Balter: The thing that's crazy, or the thing that, thinking about the episode for me, is that you and me have completely different views of what a brand ambassador is. And from my perspective, a brand ambassador is the person who is showing up on college campuses and giving out Red Bull or Snapple or skin cream or something like that. And that's basically what I thought brand ambassadors were. And then your view of a brand ambassador is totally online, somebody who is promoting something through social and who gets a bunch of discount codes, or something along those lines. So for me, I feel like it's interesting on this episode because there's definitely a generational difference of how we view the job of brand ambassador.
Stephanie Tonneson: Right. And then there's probably, we have different feelings on the job because of that.
Sam Balter: Yeah.
Stephanie Tonneson: I have more of a preconceived negative connotation with it, and I think most people my age do, because of the online/ insincere, like," Let me sell you my skincare routine."
Sam Balter: What's funny for me, hearing you about it, is you just see somebody online being like," This is a product. This is what I do. Blah, blah, blah. This is something I like," but you don't get that. You don't actually get that product. When I was living in Austin, people stood out on the streets and gave out Snapple, and I got to drink Snapple. You know what I mean?
Stephanie Tonneson: Right.
Sam Balter: I actually got something out of them promoting it. I got a free Snapple, or I got free Red Bull, or I got free skin things or whatever, like that. So I think that's funny because it's like you just see it and you don't get anything.
Stephanie Tonneson: I think before we did the interview, I had heard her refer to the inaudible as survival jobs for creatives. And I didn't even really understand what that meant. But then to hear her in the interview say," If somebody gets a gig, we want them to take that over the job that they signed up for at my company," that's incredible. That's incredible. And so I guess it just really struck me that it's all coming from a super, super genuine place, which is the opposite of what I had originally thought. Thanks for listening to this episode of Talk Data To Me. To keep up with us, make sure to subscribe on Apple or wherever you listen to your podcasts. For your one random act of kindness today, feel free to leave us a review. We'd be super grateful and it really helps us out. This episode was produced by me, Stephanie Tonneson, with help from Sam Baltar and Casted Productions. Huge thank you to Kristal, of course, because without you, this episode would not have been possible. Thanks again, and see you next time on Talk Data To Me.