• Even in the women's pro peloton, generating your own media exposure is key to building a following. (AAP)Source: AAP
Brand ambassadors have become central to cycling industry marketing strategies. But when is it better to sponsor yourself?
Cycling Central
17 Apr 2016 - 10:31 AM  UPDATED 17 Apr 2016 - 10:33 AM

Over the last few years there’s been a shift from bike companies and shops sponsoring or supporting riders with racing aims, to riders acting as brand ambassadors to grow the sport more broadly, particularly to the lifestyle and entry level markets.

While some brands engage male ambassadors in these roles, this is a strategy that is strongest in the women’s market. At a local level (the type of program which is the focus of this article), some female ambassadors certainly achieve ambitious race goals, but their role typically includes leading social rides, helping at specific events, writing blogs, creating regular social media content and being a point of contact for riders entering the sport.

Depending on the deal, they get a certain amount of ‘free’ product, but they often access most product through a secret, discounted rate.

When these relationships work well a mutual respect is evident between the rider and the shop or the brand. Tasks required by the role are activities the rider typically does anyway and they’re professional in their conduct.

The support makes a valuable difference to the rider’s personal goals and expenses, the brand benefits from the exposure and community-level growth, and the rider benefits from increased networks, opportunities and professional development. The relationship also benefits riders who are new to the sport, which has a positive impact on the surrounding cycling community.

When these relationships don’t work out well both the rider and the brand become dissatisfied and feel that each is demanding more from the other than the other is prepared to give. It’s not only a negative experience for those involved, but it can ruin future opportunities for others.

Each time a new ambassador program is announced, I find myself fielding questions from a whole range of riders thinking of applying.  If you’re in this position, a few things to think about are below.

Are you a good fit?

You’re excited and rosy eyed at the opportunity to get free product and feel a little bit famous. But is this product, or gamut of products, something you would use anyway? Do you already own a bunch of these things that you’ve paid for, rate highly and prefer to other options?

Ambassador deals work best when you’re already invested in this product and the company’s key messages. Not because you already own lots of sweet stuff, but because your reasons for using it are genuine, not forced, and you’ve already started building a relationship that shows you support the company and the people who sell their wares. 

If you’ve never tried this company’s bikes (or can’t even name the models that most riders are interested in), you prefer to shop somewhere else or you only want to use some but not all of this company’s products or services, it’s probably not the program for you.

What does the company receive from you in return?

Be realistic about what the company can expect to sell in return for the exposure you provide them. It’s tempting to think you’re worth sponsoring because you ride your bike a lot, but these programs are more about giving than taking.

Remember that being a brand ambassador is a little bit about you, but really, it’s about creating opportunities for, and inspiration in, others.

How much time is involved?

Find out how much time and energy is required to hold up your end of the bargain and what you get in return. If these are activities you’re genuinely interested in doing you won’t resent the time and energy cost, and you’ll be grateful for the extra equipment or reduced cost of things you’re buying anyway.

If leading a regular social ride sounds more like a hassle than a pleasure, think about how much it would cost you to buy said product, and how much you earn per hour at your day job to do so in comparison to the number of hours required by the ambassador role.

What restrictions does this opportunity place on the way you ride?

Think seriously about the number of days you need to mark off your calendar to uphold the required obligations. These might be race days, helping at events or participating in organised rides.

Again, a sign of a good deal is when these are things you’re excited about and want to do anyway. A bad deal is one where you religiously give up every Wednesday morning, wish you were somewhere else, and feel like no one appreciates it.

Also consider the obligation to use specific products for the duration of the ambassador role. Does signing with a brand for a new full suspension mountain bike mean you can no longer race on the $8,000 hardtail or road bike you bought last year and are not ready to sell yet?

Is the company giving you two sets of kit, that you must wear every day of the week, for a 12-month period? In my experience most bibs, used twice a week, only last around six months before the chamois shows its age. Can you purchase additional pairs for a reduced cost rather than pedal around in discomfort for the remainder of the year?

These things work best when the support from both sides reflects mutual aims. They work out badly when people from both sides enter the arrangement when they want something free.

If you see a program you want to apply for, think forward to the logical outcomes on both sides, and weigh up the personal cost in time, energy and additional expenses against the assistance and opportunities you’ll receive in return.

If you’re a company offering such a program, make sure to lay out clear, realistic expectations from the outset, preferably in writing, and set regular review dates so these can be discussed and renegotiated as circumstances change. This doesn’t have to be overly formal, but outlining mutual expectations and support will go a long way to creating a successful relationship in the long term, especially when people get stressed and busy, or situations change later on.

I’m inspired every day by the work of ambassador riders in my local communities and the better programs out there that facilitate this. If you see someone working hard in your own community, take the time to thank them for their efforts and show your support as well.