Michael Morrison was 13 when he first visited a Red Robin restaurant and experienced the teenage heaven that is burgers and bottomless fries.
As he grew to adulthood, Morrison’s love for Red Robin also grew. Now 28, the small-business owner and father of four from Spanaway, Wash., said he takes great pleasure in introducing Red Robin virgins to the brand. He takes an active role responding to negative comments on the chain’s Facebook page. And his second child was born in a Red Robin parking lot — although not deliberately.
So it’s no surprise that Morrison was selected in an online contest as the 450-unit casual-dining chain’s first “chief burger officer,” a volunteer position of sorts, paid in burgers — actually, a dozen $30 Red Robin gift cards — an iPad and other perks.
Red Robin is one of a growing number of companies that are tapping the civilian ranks — or, more specifically, their customers — to enlist brand ambassadors. Others include Jamba Juice, with its ongoing “Ambassadors of Wow” program, and Tommy Bahama, which now is searching for the ultimate Rumologist, an expert on rum.
The concept of recruiting brand ambassadors is not new. Regular Joes have long been recruited by restaurant brands. Some, like Subway’s über-famous Jared Fogle, have become virtual brand icons, while most enjoy a more fleeting moment in the spotlight celebrating something they love. But with the rise of social media, the brand ambassador concept has become an increasingly popular tool for deepening engagement with customers and bringing light to passions that already exist.
“There are consumers who are like-minded and who naturally, without company prompting, do become ambassadors for the brand,” said Jeff Fromm, senior vice president of marketing firm Barkley US. “You’re harvesting that groundswell.”
One key to the success of such programs is maintaining authenticity, said Fromm, noting that today’s digital-savvy brand fans quickly recognize the inauthentic, such as when people are hired to push a brand.
“It’s disingenuous,” he said.
Devotion in motion
Jamie Winter, Red Robin’s communications manager, said the casual-dining chain received about 7,400 “applications” for the CBO position. Finalists were selected by company officials, and more than 43,000 people voted to select the winner from among the finalists.
Morrison, who submitted a homemade video that included his Red Robin-born son, now 4, got about 6,800 votes. He campaigned door-to-door, passing out flyers asking people to vote online.
“That put my name in people’s heads, and perhaps the desire for a burger,” he said.
It may have helped that Morrison had won an earlier Red Robin social-media contest inviting fans to submit photos of themselves enjoying a Royal Red Robin Burger topped with a fried egg.
“That showed how dedicated I was,” said Morrison.
As CBO, Morrison and his wife visited Red Robin’s Greenwood Village, Colo., headquarters and met with company officials. He will help judge burger contests for the brand and has his own set of business cards featuring a $3 coupon, which he can give away freely.
When executives asked him for suggestions, Morrison was ready: He would love to see a line of stuffed burgers, he said, and the chain should consider using iPads at the table for guests to order.
For Kaela Callaghan, one of what will ultimately be eight Ambassadors of Wow for the 741-unit Jamba Juice smoothie chain, her new role simply makes official what she was already doing: talking up the brand.
A 20-year-old student at St. Louis University who lives in the Chicago area, Callaghan describes herself as obsessed with Jamba Juice, carrying a menu with her so she can help friends create the perfect smoothie. Her favorite: the Razzmatazz, which is made with a berry juice blend, orange sherbet, bananas and strawberries.
Like the other Ambassadors of Wow, Callaghan promotes Jamba Juice events on her personal blog and submits health and wellness tips to the brand website.
Some Ambassadors of Wow will appear in television ads or make store appearances, said Susan Shields, Jamba Juice’s senior vice president and chief marketing officer.
Launched in March, the online contest features 100 local ambassadors, from which eight Ambassadors of Wow are being selected at a rate of about two per quarter, based on their knowledge of the brand, attitudes toward health, hobbies and other factors, said Shields. The company received about 2,000 submissions, and about 18,000 people voted in the first round.
“It’s really an amplification of how the brand was built from the beginning,” said Shields, referring to the Emeryville, Calif.-based smoothie chain’s beginnings, when founder Kirk Perron spread the word through fellow bicycle club members.
Jamba’s ambassadors don’t get paid in any way.
“They just love the opportunity to get involved,” Shields said.
Tommy Bahama’s Rumologist, however, will win a grand prize of $50,000. But the restaurant and bar chain is asking for a significant commitment.
The Rumologist will be asked to travel to the chain’s 13 locations around the country, helping to launch rum programs, developing cocktails and generally “living the Tommy Bahama lifestyle,” said Rob Goldberg, Tommy Bahama senior vice president of marketing and restaurants.
Responsibilities will include making media appearances, serving on panels to share knowledge of rum and cocktail making and sharing his or her adventures and knowledge through a blog.
Tommy Bahama is accepting applications through its Facebook page through late August, and of those, 20 finalists will be asked to submit videos explaining why they should be dubbed the world’s top authority on rum. Fans will vote on the candidates, and the winner will be announced in October.
In this case, said Goldberg, the goal is not only to tap into an existing passion, but also to find an expert who can validate and strengthen a key brand attribute.
“Tommy Bahama is many different things — clothes, furniture, watches, restaurants. When we use a brand ambassador, it helps provide context.
“Rum is at the heart of what we do,” Goldberg added. “We have an extensive collection, and we often don’t get recognized for that.”
Contact Lisa Jennings at [email protected] .