There are very few minds more complicated than those of the American teenager's. The next two months will bring with them the biggest moment in the short, fragile lives of millions of high school students around the country – graduation day. Whether they downplay it or not, even teenagers realize that the steps they take after leaving high school are some of the most important decisions of their lives. With that said, it leaves colleges responsible for some of the most clever and attention-grabbing branding of any product out there. Let’s face it, a college is just that: a product. It is no different than the latest mobile phone technology or the newest clothing line at the mall. So why should we view it any differently when it comes to branding. The answer is, we shouldn’t! If anything, we should be looking to colleges to see how they go about engaging teens at the crossroads of their lives.
The college major is just a fancy way of saying “so what are you interested in right now?” Well heck, these are teenagers. They are interested in a million different things. What is appealing today might be totally uncool tomorrow. Did you know that over 50% of college students change their major at least once, according to Purdue University’s Center for Career Opportunities? While some colleges specialize in a certain major, usually the largest (and most successful) ones offer a wide array of majors – a little something for everyone. That indecision doesn’t stop at the campus gate, which means that offering options is just as important for a brand as anything else. Think of a teenager buying a new mobile phone. Just as a college offers those major options, that phone must cover all aspects of the complicated interests of a teen. Sure, they need to be able to talk on the phone and text, but what about when they want to play Draw Something with a significant other, or watch their favorite show while waiting for the bus? The point is, you never know what tomorrow’s infatuation will be, and that is something that brands have to keep in mind.
In its most recent survey of college pricing, the College Board reports that a "moderate" college budget for an in-state public college for the 2011-12 academic year averaged $21,447 while a moderate budget at a private college averaged $42,224. Naturally, with the stark rise in tuition over the past decade, words like “scholarship” and “financial aid” are becoming a bigger part of the high school graduate vocabulary. Now apply that to teen purchases. In a study conducted by Charles Schwab in 2011, 66% of teenagers ages 16 to 18 said they consider themselves more knowledgeable about how to find the best deal when making a purchase than previous generations. That means that things like discounts and coupons are not lost on teens, despite seeming aloof about such concepts.
Finally, teenagers are most influenced by what their peers find cool (Whoa! The cat is out of the bag now!). Take a quick look at a college brochure and you’ll be bombarded with images of teens hanging out at the school quad, playing intramural basketball with a couple of friends, or face-painted maniacs at last year’s biggest football game (oh, yeah, and a couple things about the education you’ll get). With communication so easy and accessible now, counting on one teen to influence others is one of the most reliable tactics to put your chips in on. With social media sharing, teens have the opportunity to give their opinion and believe that it will be heard – and other teens will listen. Nowadays, brands can try to influence teens from every angle they want. But remember, in a time when giving your two cents is easier than ever before, it’s about your product making one teen happy so they can be your direct marketer without even knowing it.
Yes, we can learn a thing or two from college outside the classroom. To equate college branding to that of products is not so far-fetched. Going back to school will certainly give your brand a passing grade.