Last week, I attended my nephew's high school graduation. As I watched the students toss their caps into the sky and pose for photos with family, it struck me how profound that moment really is ... the beginning of the rest of their lives. The next few years is where they truly learn independence, how to fend for themselves, manage a budget, soothe themselves when they're sick, choose what products to buy, and the list goes on. Academics are a primary component, but the college experience runs so much deeper. Such an influential period in their lives, it's no surprise that the college consumer is incredibly sought after by marketers. These brand choices often establish a loyalty that remains true for years to come. Collegians are not only the consumers of the future, but they are highly influential within their families today – often impacting what cars, electronics, and groceries their parents buy.
There are a number of brands utilizing creative approaches to earning the favor of college students:
- American Eagle (AE) has student ambassadors waiting on arrival day to help incoming freshman – and their parents – navigate the campus and carry heavy items from the car to dorm rooms. Meanwhile, the reps are donning AE clothing and are often times handing out free AE loot and/or coupons. Brand reps may be paid the old-fashioned way, or via a combination of cash and products.
- Apple sets up tables at freshman orientation on campuses across the nation demonstrating products and handing out literature. In addition, it has student reps who host events integrating Apple products – like tailgate parties during college sports games where students can play Guitar Hero from Apple laptops.
- Zipcar's focus on the 18-34-year-old market prompted it to build a strong on-campus presence for the brand. In an effort to drive awareness, Zipcar hired reps to devise and host a range of on campus promotional activities, it created an app that allows students to make/modify Zipcar reservations directly via Facebook, and, of course, last year's investment in car-sharing start-up Wheelz.
For brands looking to gain preference with this crowd, here are a few things to think about:
- Guerrilla tactics can work wonders. While there is a time and a place for traditional marketing, try something more authentic and engaging. Check out RedBull's 2013 Airdrop campaign where oversized crates of product were dropped by helicopters onto college campuses around the country at undesignated times. The approach created anticipation, got new flavors into the hands of their prime target and was an innovative approach that resulted in major buzz.
- If you have a cause, let it be known. We all know that college students are passionate about a variety of causes and more likely to buy from a brand that has a charitable component. Toms Shoes' philosophy resonated so strongly with students that they started what is now known as Toms' Campus Clubs – self-organized, self-run groups all over the country that host events dedicated to raising awareness (for both the cause and the brand).
- Help them out ... collegians need a lot of stuff. While utilizing brand ambassadors is nothing new, it's less about giving away free t-shirts (though they will definitely fly) and more about integrating your brand into the needs of this audience. Target not only hosted a welcome dinner for incoming freshmen at the University of North Carolina, but also bused them to a nearby Target superstore for late-night shopping.
- Think outside the campus. A fraction of students live on campus, and the college experience extends far beyond the school itself. What resonates most is marketing that is successfully integrated into both the on- and off-campus experience. Leveraging events like Spring Break is one of the oldest tricks in the book, but there's a reason for it – it works. For instance, Fuze Beverages created Fuze Beach in Panama City Beach, Flas., last year, where it hosted sporting tournaments, sampled products, and integrated beach activities with an online presence.