NOTE: This audio was recorded before social distancing regulations were implemented, and since the spread of COVID-19, your influencer marketing is probably looking a little different these days. We think you’ll still find Bruce’s information valuable, and we look forward to seeing how you support your audience and your influencers and adjust your influencer marketing to stay safe during this crisis.
What exactly is the difference between a brand ambassador and an influencer? Well, according to Bruce Downes of Willie’s Superbrew, there shouldn’t be any difference at all. From the outrageous yet heartwarming origin story to their annual donation to an environmental charity, Willie’s Superbrew is all about passion, authenticity and fun. And they make sure their brand ambassadors reflect those values and have the product knowledge to speak in detail to consumers about what makes the company unlike any other brewery.
Crack open a cold one from Willie’s Superbrew and listen in to the latest episode of our influencer marketing podcast.
- Willie’s Superbrew succeeded in influencer marketing by integrating its brand ambassadors and influencers with its marketing team.
- You need your influencers and brand ambassadors to know everything about your products so that they never get caught in a situation where they don’t have the answer.
- Influencers want to work for companies that they can get excited about and for brands and ideas that they believe in. Willie’s did this by donating 3% of their profits to an environmental cause.
Interview with Willie’s Superbrew
Perlu: Hello, and welcome to the Perlu Podcast: Influencer Marketing Reimagined. Today we are speaking with Bruce Downes, head of marketing at Willie’s Superbrew. Willie’s Superbrew makes hard seltzer blended with real fruit instead of artificial flavors or synthetic sweeteners. Willie’s sticks to simple, real ingredients in every flavor, and it all started when a goat farmer and a surfer met over a game of beach volleyball on Cape Cod. And to honor that legacy, the company has committed to donating 3% of its profits to protecting the beaches and coastlines that made Willie’s possible.
I’m your host, Alexis Trammell. If you enjoy today’s episode. We hope you sign up for Perlu to learn more about how you can grow your influencer marketing career. Thank you so much for joining us today Bruce.
Bruce Downes: Yeah, thanks for having me.
Could you tell us more about yourself and your role at Willie’s Superbrew?
Bruce Downes: Yeah, for sure. So as you mentioned, I run marketing for Willie’s Superbrew. It’s a small company, and I handle a little bit of everything. I run the creative and the brand side, PR, packaging, digital — very much a many-hats situation. And luckily, now I have someone on my team helping with social and some of the influencer stuff, which has been great.
Before that, I got my start in marketing through studying social and decision psychology. That was my focus in college, and I loved the analytical nature of that work. But I got the itch to do something more tangible, so I started working part-time at an agency in Providence, and it was kind of a catch-all agency with really funky clients — everything from environmental conservation to rifle barrel manufacturing.
So I got hooked on that, but I wanted to go in-house. I went to a high-growth tech company. We had massive lead goals, and we were seeing 2800% year-over-year lead growth, which is wild.
Bruce Downes: But I wanted to own something. I really wanted to take something from the ground up, own a product end to end, because that’s kind of the dream challenge in marketing.
That’s when Nico reached out about Willie’s. He had been building this thing for a couple years, and he saw the opportunity to really transform alcohol and do something special. On the Willie’s side, there was this crazy, funky story where Nico, a surfer, met Willie, a goat farmer on the Cape. They met over a game of beach volleyball. What’s not to love about that story? I was instantly hooked. What are they capable of, and what can we do with this amazing drink that Willie had been brewing on his goat farm?
They started selling it out of their cars on the Cape at Farmers Markets, and then they signed with one distributor, then two distributors, and it started growing and growing. And then they saw this opportunity to create the perfect hard seltzer. It’s a hard seltzer, but it still has flavor, and it’s got something you can actually enjoy and sip instead of something that you just crush to get drunk. It was the perfect opportunity as hard seltzer to get a foothold in the market.
Perlu: Yeah. And you’ve worked with Willie’s from beginning to end. I mean, you’ve got that dream marketing position.
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You also led a rebrand for Willie’s as well, didn’t you?
Bruce Downes: Yeah. I came on about two and a half years into the original Willie’s, and I came on a week before we started the rebrand. That was my trial by fire — leading the rebrand from end to end, and we only had 12 weeks to do it, which if you talk to most people in marketing, it’s a suicide project.
But, we knew what we wanted. We knew we wanted to capture the essence of the drink. We wanted to move a little bit away from the craft beer, which we were really worried pigeonholed us, even though we were gluten-free and fruit and cane-sugar based. It’s this really light, refreshing drink, but it looked like a beer. We had a lot of work to do, and we didn’t have much time to do it. But I think it turned out well. It took a lot of work, and if I had to do it again, there’s a lot of things I would do differently, but it was very much the dream project.
Perlu: Wonderful. Well, let’s talk about influencer marketing.
How does influencer marketing fit into the Willie’s Superbrew marketing strategy?
Bruce Downes: Yeah, it’s funky because Willie’s is in this interesting spot between consumer packaged goods and alcohol. We can’t do “direct to consumer” because beer, alcohol-level things, can’t be sold online. It’s this weird middle ground where we have a very interesting brand that people like to engage with, but we don’t have a platform to deliver it directly to them.
So, in that sense, we had to get really creative. We had to flip the brand ambassador model on its head. Normally, you hire social media influencers and get them really excited about your brand and they have national presences, but we aren’t a national brand. Or you can outsource your brand ambassadors. You have third-party agencies contract out labor, and this is not at all the case with every company. There’s plenty of good companies out there, but oftentimes you end up with someone who’s wearing a sweatshirt, doesn’t want to talk to customers, doesn’t know anything about your brand and is sitting on their cell phone. So, it’s kind of the nightmare scenario, because it also costs $75 an hour.
We had to think really, really differently about what we wanted brand ambassadors to be and how an influencer could look. And for us, that became a very local, very engaged — effectively an employee of the company.
We got really lucky because early on we started to see success with that. In fact, one of my first experiences with the company was in college, picking up a couple extra dollars doing samplings as a brand ambassador. Then I kept up with the company from there, and it led to this really interesting program where we had these deeply, deeply engaged influencers that go all around their local area — to bars, to restaurants, to liquor stores. They host events, so they host samplings. It was a really fun way to interact with consumers and get around a lot of the obstacles that we have in our industry.
Perlu: That’s awesome. So you’ve sort of tied your brand ambassadors and your influencers into your team actually.
You’ve really integrated influencers with the Willie’s Superbrew marketing team, wouldn’t you say?
Bruce Downes: Absolutely. And early on, we had a little bit of trouble with that, just because of the legwork required to engage influencers at a deep level so that they’re excited about what the company stands for and what they get to do with their time and how it relates to the company. You have to have that person that really stands behind it and rallies the troops. We found that person. We actually hired Ellen McNeill who leads our brand ambassador program. She had been helping out with some interesting brand ambassador programs and recruiting people to do local events in college, and you very much need that spiritual leader, that absolute cheerleader, for a brand.
She could make a dance party start anywhere, and she has transformed our program so that now — and unfortunately I can’t make it — there’s a happy hour at the Thirsty Scholar where we’re going to have 30 brand ambassadors coming to catch up with our team, hang out with Nico, get some new point-of-sale assets and get excited for the next few months of tastings.
So, you can really create interesting connections in person with people if you put in the effort and facilitate a person to be that cheerleader and that anchor for the whole program.
Perlu: That is so fun, and I love how it just sounds like it’s completely changed the culture or added to the culture at Willie’s Superbrew as well.
Bruce Downes: To some degree, it also holds us accountable, because we talk internally about things that we’re doing and changes we’re making, and then once a month, or once every other month, everyone in the leadership team gives a presentation. It’s five or ten minutes, but it’s a presentation of what’s changed in the pitch, what we’re changing, what new flavors we’re launching, how we’re changing our marketing message. And you’re giving that message to 25 people who are looking at you who arguably know the consumer better than you do. They’re interacting with thousands of people with our t-shirt on, and sampling our products. So when I say “Hey guys, here’s a way I want to phrase this,” I immediately get feedback that says, “I guess you could do that, but that’s not how I’ve experienced success.”
It’s a really great way to engage with consumers through a proxy that has far more experience than I ever could have.
Perlu: What valuable insight that is. That’s amazing.
Bruce Downes: Yeah, it’s a lot of fun, and it also just leads to a good conversation. You find out so much about consumers that way when you have people that are excited to tell you. I’ll get an email with a picture of somebody who says, “Can you believe this person got rid of their Coors Light? They love the pomegranate so much. They watch their calories and that’s why they like light beer, but they never would have thought they would like a hard seltzer.”
What is so unique about your relationships with influencers and your approach to influencer marketing programs?
Bruce Downes: Yeah. I mean an obvious difference is the offline side of things. We recruit from Indeed boards to coffee shops to grocery stores to other events we do. We have referral programs, and we really try to engage people who are in the exact right place to be interested in this, effectively, part-time job. They get paid hourly. They get to attend these fun events, and they get to pick what times and where they go, and they choose their schedule. But they show up and they do their best for us at every single place that we need them to be, which is critical.
The other side of it is that I think we probably train our brand ambassadors more than almost any other program. It’s really like the Red Bull Army, and it’s very much the Red Bull playbook, where we need people to know everything about our products so that they never get caught in a situation where they don’t have the answer.
This is a big decision for some people. Alcohol is something that people have entrenched opinions on, so they like to ask the hard questions. You’ll get the “Is it gluten-free?” And they say “Yeah, it’s gluten-free.” And they’re like “Is it produced in a gluten-free facility?” We’re like, “Well no, not always, but we do deep a cleansing process and we’ve made sure all the kettles are completely gluten-free, but we like to have that beer knowledge, so we produce at a facility that also has beer.” That kind of answer you’re not going to get from someone who’s hired on a contract basis. They don’t have that kind of insight.
So it means that we can really train them to have the right answers and be deeply engaged with our process and know our consumer really well.
Perlu: And how do you find these people?
How do you find the right influencer partners?
Are these influencers that you have found on platforms such as Perlu, and they came with their own following? Or are these just people who are just fans of the brand that you realized would be a good fit?
Bruce Downes: These are absolutely fans of the brand. I was playing around with Perlu, and I think we can touch on it a little bit later.
One question we have is how do we convert these influencers to digital? How do we get a group of digital influencers as deeply engaged as our brand ambassadors? For now, we’re growing so fast and we need that right type of person for these events so we rely heavily on referrals. We rely on finding them at events. If someone walks up and loves the brand and loves the sampler that they met, the brand ambassador, and they’re looking for a fun gig, that’s the perfect person. Because they just heard the pitch. They just fell in love with the brand. And now they’re excited to do it themselves.
Perlu: Yeah, definitely.
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What successes have you seen or experienced with this approach to influencer marketing?
Bruce Downes: It was the only option for us early on. So the success was that we had a way to reach our consumer, unlike any other brand. Now, over the course of the last year, we sampled over 150,000 consumers in person.
Perlu: Wow. That’s so powerful.
Bruce Downes: Yeah, and to have that ability, to have that power to magnify what we’re trying to do is really wild. I came on as employee number four, and to think that in 24 months we’re now sampling 150,000 people a year is pretty wild.
And the other side of it is, we really do have deeply engaged ambassadors. Normally, for something like these sampling roles, if they’re treated like passive employees that come and go, you’ll see two or three months before they filter out and find another gig. We see six, eight months a year or more, and they’re excited about what they do. They’re doing hundreds of hours of tastings. They’re giving us priceless consumer insight, and they’re also just people who love the brand and want to tell all their friends and family about it.
Perlu: That is so cool. What a great setup that you have there.
What new influencer marketing events are you looking forward to in 2020? How do you plan to expand this?
Bruce Downes: That’s the big question. That’s where I’m really excited because we now know who loves this brand ambassador program and we know what gets them excited and now we’re kind of turning that lens around and thinking “Okay, how do we use that?” Because, there is something really, really unique about the fact that we’ve been so successful getting 60 people to work 15 hours a week for our brand. That’s pretty wild, especially when it’s weekends and nights. It’s hard to get people that excited about something.
So, what is it? What is it that got them excited? We’ve seen that it’s an interesting story. It’s the weird, quirky founders and the funny idea they had and what they wanted to do. It’s the unique drink. It’s fundamentally different.
It’s the idea that people are itching to get behind something. People want to work for companies they can get excited about and for brands and ideas that they believe in.
So to translate that into digital, the first thing I posted on Perlu was, “Hey, would you guys be interested in helping us choose what nonprofits to donate to?” Is there a project we could do where we get X number of influencers involved and they choose a nonprofit they’re excited about and then when their consumers engage, that’s the amount we donate? That way, we’re engaging them in our unique mission — the fact that we’re giving back to these coastlines.
Last year, we gave over $20,000 to the Coral Reef Alliance, and this year we’re hoping to give even more, and we’d like to split that between unique interesting causes that represent our mission.
So, is that how we get them involved? Or is it just the idea that you’ve never seen something like this, and I promise, you’re going to be really, really into it once you try it?
Perlu: Well awesome. That’s such an exciting venture that you’re going into. Thank you so much Bruce.
Is there anything else that you’d like to add and speak to for our listeners today?
Bruce Downes: You know, we made a decision early on that this was a priority, and that it was the best way to reach consumers. We knew finding those few super-engaged super fans and getting them to help us build this thing was our best route to success, especially because we were doing it with such a limited budget. And then we just stuck to that. We never let that slip away. As we had opportunities to outsource things more and more, we still just stuck with what we knew was the best way to engage our customer, and we just have to figure out a way to scale it to the point where we have two brand ambassador program managers because this program’s growing so fast for us.
Perlu: That is so cool. Well congrats on that. I’m really looking forward to seeing you guys scale and really happy to see that Perlu is helping you do so.
Bruce Downes: Yeah, absolutely. I’m excited to dive more into it too.
Perlu: Cool, cool. So everyone, go check out Willie’s Superbrew products. They’re also active on Perlu if you want to go connect with Bruce there.
Thank you so much to everyone listening. We hope you really enjoyed hearing from Bruce Downes at Willie’s Superbrew. If you like our show and are interested in what it takes to succeed in influencer marketing, you should check out our blog at blog.perlu.com for more podcasts and blog posts, and sign up for Perlu at perlu.com to meet, mingle, connect, collaborate and grow your career. We hope you join us for the next installation of the Perlu Podcast: Influencer Marketing Reimagined.