Once upon a time, companies that wanted to sell their products hired authentic experts, authority figures or authors with advanced academic or medical degrees, who seemed incorruptible, ethical and thoroughly reliable. They possessed a high degree of credibility and their own notoriety rubbed off on the brands they endorsed, either blatantly or subtly. They were and many still are powerful influencers of human behavior.

A lightning-fast Darwinian evolution has taken place and those dependable credentialed “spokespersons” have been supplanted like the Neanderthals by a subculture of hominids that could be called “the new mavens.” They are an amalgam of uncredentialed and credentialed authorities who are curating their fiefdoms, their own tight little worlds, for micro-audiences on social media. Frequently, they are passionate individuals who are completely absorbed in their fields of interest. Don’t make the mistake of overlooking their power.

Smart brand managers pursue them for third-party endorsements that tap into their core audience, the same way journalists’ “endorsements” are constantly sought after.

Things are not always as they seem, or as we think they are. The old saying—“perception is reality”—continues to ring loud and clear. We are not who we think we are. Instead, we are who others believe us to be. What they see and hear is what they know and believe to be accurate. The same holds true for brands.

Your brand is not what you tell people it is. It is what others tell people it is. Brand advocates are 70% more likely to be seen as solid, dependable sources of information by the people around them. When they are liked and respected, they are seen as friends. Who do we listen to as much or as frequently as our friends? Who is more influential than those we see as our friendly “mentors,” peers and those who give us advice we trust and can rely on? Consider these recommendations:

• For your brand, identify who are the genuine influencers. Whom do the media quote? Those who pop up frequently in stories and articles, or appear as commentators on TV are influential thought leaders.
• How can you partner with those influencers to become brand ambassadors? Look for the synergies. Discover where the common ground is and how your brand’s mission blends with what they are trying to accomplish. Use that to your advantage.
• What are the incentives that will resonate with your ambassador’s followers to lend their support to the brand? Many relish the opportunity to gain even greater notoriety and would be happy to be an ambassador in exchange for the opportunity to obtain added publicity.
• How can you increase sales through an ambassador program? Many ambassadors would love to increase their own income by selling products. Develop a system for tracking sales that are based on the ambassadors’ direct referrals. It’s easy for them to get credit if the consumer says your ambassador sent them. WF

Nancy Trent is a writer and speaker, a lifelong health advocate, a globe-trotting trend watcher and the founder and president of Trent & Company (www.trentandcompany.com), a New York-based marketing communications firm. A former journalist for New York magazine, Nancy has written seven books on healthy lifestyles, serves on the editorial boards of several magazines and travels around the world speaking at conferences and trade shows on trends in the marketplace. She is a recognized expert in PR with more than 30 years of experience creating and managing highly successful campaigns. Nancy can be reached at (212) 966-0024 or through e-mail at nancy@trentandcompany.com.

Published in WholeFoods Magazine, March 2013