The refresh wheel spins after I pull the screen down with my thumb. It’s intermission at a popular ski movie and the break in pillow slaying cuts stimulation to my brain, signaling me to draw my phone from my pocket and check for important updates that might happen at 8PM on a Thursday night.
Surprisingly, there is an update when an unread email pops into my inbox.
The title reads (1) ****Brand Ambassador_Sponsored****
I forgot mostly, until then, that I applied to be sponsored by a sports nutrition company that fuels outdoor athletes. That summer I had my first experience in a race and some longer rides that really fired up my stoke level. It’s not that I did well at the race at all, but it was motivating because it meant I was getting to a level where I could perform on the bike, whether it was out of a start gate, or a shuttle to an all-day ride.
Being sponsored meant to me that an organization was investing their name into your ability. As a kid, being sponsored was the pinnacle of achievement because it meant that you had something in common with Ryan Nyquist or Mat Hoffman, who both reached elite levels of BMX riding, as well as elite levels of sponsorship.
This email meant that I had now reached the level of a 40% discount off all of the companies apparel and nutrition products. It was nothing special, but it was a start. My naiveté was that I was selected because I creatively worded my application and that my Instagram photos at the time weren’t complete shit, and not that the growing trend of using brand ambassadors is an effective, yet inexpensive way to market and grow brands these days.
There were a few stipulations in the email. It was encouraged to use certain hashtags on social media that were associated with the brand and were also used by their social media accounts, assuring that viewers of the hashtag will come full circle to an official page.
Because I’m a curious person I browsed the hashtag on Instagram and looked at the profiles of others who were sponsored.
There were a lot.
Dozens of others had already posted updates with pictures of the product and “#sponsored,” inserted somewhere into the caption. A few looked like experienced athletes, but most were inexperienced– like I was.
A few days later I went on the website and ordered a jersey, a water bottle and some of their nutrition products.
I texted my riding buddy as well.
“Dude, check it out. I got sponsored!”
This fired him up and he applied for the program also. I was excited for him, but had a shred of skepticism, because it’s not like they’re gonna sponsor just anyone, right?
Two weeks later, even sooner than I got a response, he called to tell me that he’s now sponsored too. Hey, the more, the merrier.
A few weeks after this he calls me and tells me about how on his ride earlier that day he ran into two other riders, both wearing the same jersey and both having trouble cleaning a modest section of trail.
“Yeah, we both ride for [Brand X],” they say, with unwavering confidence after my buddy asks them about their jerseys.
It’s after hearing this that I realized that being a brand ambassador wasn’t the kind of “special” I had gown up with and being sponsored wasn’t what it used to mean. In a world that increasingly expects more free content, free news and free art, startups are capitalizing on the status quo to market their products at a very low cost without really verifying how solid their billboards are, metaphorically speaking. Being a brand ambassador has become less about associating a brand with high athletic levels and outdoor accomplishments and more about the width of the audience it can reach.
This doesn’t mean that I am anti-brand or anti-sponsorship. There are apparel brands I prefer to wear, bikes I prefer to ride, nutrition brands I prefer to eat, that if given the chance, I would take heavily discounted or free product from without thinking twice. But, when the status of being sponsored or being a brand ambassador is reduced to posting a picture of me holding up the packaging of Brand X in a trailside photo in order to validate my sponsorship, I just don’t think it holds a lot of weight.
It’s been a few years since my experience as a brand ambassador and I haven’t applied to anymore. When I started mountain biking, ignorance was bliss in that all that mattered was that I had a bike to ride and something to eat when we stopped for a break. Knowing what the sport has done for my quality of life made me realize that what I want to see is people getting stoked to ride their bikes, no matter what brands their using to do it.