Influencers and Ambassador Programs in the Paddlesports Industry: an Op-Ed from NRS’s Mark Deming

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We got this note from our friend Mark Deming over at NRS last week, and wanted to share it with you here. We welcome our reader’s input and correspondence — if you or someone at your company would like to speak to us about penning an Op-Ed, please send us an email.

Mark Deming on the state of influencers and ambassadors in the paddlesports industry:

“Yo, I’ve been kayaking for ten years and competing since I was 14! As I take my paddling
career to the next level, I am looking for sponsors. I love your products and will spread your
brand throughout the kayaking world!”

I suspect nearly every marketing manager in the action sports industry has received a call or
email along these lines. In my ten years at NRS, I’ve received hundreds. I don’t blame groms for
trying to earn a living doing what they love. But I do blame marketers like myself for creating an
environment in which hollow relationships with influencers have become business-as-usual.
In a world in which outdoor brands are called to create value for their customers and
communities, and to engage in the pressing issues of our times, can’t we do better?

Ambassador marketing has been a mainstay of action sports for decades. Before the internet,
the marketing formula was simple: recruit elite athletes to appear with your products and then
feature those athletes in your advertising. The logic was that consumers would choose the gear
used by their heroes. But, today, shoppers don’t need a professional athlete to tell them what to
buy; they can learn all they need to know online. And the ubiquity of athlete marketing largely
cancels out any one brand’s advantage.

NRS, like its competitors, has long played this game. Many of our athletes are personal friends,
and all have made positive contributions to NRS marketing and product development efforts.
But, over time, handing out gear and cash to have pros rep our brand and products became
less effective. We needed to make a change.

We asked, “What if we shifted the focus of our ambassador marketing from athletics to
activism? And what if we redirected more of our resources to support the work of influential
changemakers in the paddlesports and conservation community?”

And so the idea for our Leaders in Environment, Access and Diversity (LEAD) Athlete and
Ambassador Program was born. Aimed at supporting the work of changemakers in the outdoors
to advance causes that align with our values, we’ve changed how we evaluate athletes to
prioritize contributions to conservation, participation, and diversity, equity and inclusion in the
outdoors. We’ve also added a new team of paddle-activists whose nonprofit work we will
support with financial contributions, gear and communications.

With this formula we’ll generate inspiring stories to share with our audience, advance worthy
causes, and create a forum of talented and engaged people to help improve our company and
products. And maybe we’ll help change outdoor industry marketing for the better.
I urge outdoor industry leaders to question the influencer marketing status quo and ask whether
there is a better way to serve your company, customers and community. I believe you will
conclude that the answer is yes.

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