Marketers Hitting Campus Harder Than Ever

Brands Hope to Seize on Students' New Spending Power, Seed Loyalty for the Future

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Tuition costs are skyrocketing, rising by double digits at some major campuses. About 47% of students receive financial aid and 57% are working at least part time to make ends meet, found textbook-rental company Chegg in a recent survey. So, it's no surprise that today's college students are more budget-conscious than ever.

The Class of 2010 was into "labels, branding and bling," said Matt Britton, CEO of Mr. Youth, which runs campus marketing programs, while the Class of 2015 is more value-conscious. "They lived through the recession," he said. "They watched their parents coming home every day, worrying about their paychecks."

By reaching students now, brands such as Zipcar hope to stay top of mind in the future.
By reaching students now, brands such as Zipcar hope to stay top of mind in the future.
Even so, students are spending almost $500 monthly on food, clothing, personal care, travel and other categories unrelated to school expenses, said Elizabeth Harz, VP-brand partnerships at Chegg. Many are deciding for the first time what type of shampoo , soap and toothpaste they want to buy, not to mention the purchase of new clothes, electronics and dorm furnishings. Bed Bath & Beyond is giving students the ability to create a college registry, in the same vein as a bridal or baby registry, and Target created an interactive checklist meant to help students stay on budget. All in all, 19 million college students account for $38 billion in discretionary spending.

"Brands can't afford to cut back [on marketing to college students]. Even at the end of 2008 and beginning of 2009, there were still a decent number of brands [on campus]," said Mr. Britton. "The student audience will always be important to marketers, because they see it's not just what they purchase today, but what they can purchase tomorrow."

That's why marketers like Chevrolet and Ford have a big on-campus presence, even as fewer students take cars to school. Millennials' whole attitude toward car ownership has shifted, said Rob Weisberg, chief marketing officer at Zipcar. The company's university program has exploded in recent years, with 40 campuses added last year and another 30 this year. Zipcar promotes its presence on more than 250 campuses with guerrilla marketing and social media.

In late August, Zipcar announced a two-year partnership with Ford, adding up to 1,000 Ford vehicles to its fleet. Subsidized by Ford, Zipcar will reduce its annual membership fee of $35 by $10 for the first 100,000 new university members who sign up.

Chevrolet is also working hard to reach students, getting products in front of them, so that when they're ready to purchase a vehicle, Chevrolet is part of that consideration set. "Like many other automotive brands, this audience is critical to the growth of our business," said Phil Caruso, national promotions manager for Chevrolet. "The beauty of targeting millennials is there's not a negative or very positive perception of the brand. They're very neutral about our product." The cornerstone of Chevrolet campus marketing is a curriculum program that sees students in advanced marketing courses conceive, develop and implement marketing programs for Chevrolet vehicles.

Likewise, Microsoft's John Dougherty, director-marketing for Windows, said his team was recently on a campus where the athletic director pointed out that athletes practice 30 to 35 hours a week and stay on campus during the summer, limiting opportunities to build their résumés. Microsoft is working to develop an internship program for those students.

"There's an elevated awareness and drive for greater employability. It's definitely caught the attention of faculty and the administration," Mr. Dougherty said.

Microsoft also has a growing network of more than 500 student reps that promote its products on campus. HP, Zipcar and Victoria's Secret's Pink are just a few of the brands that use student reps. Mr. Britton says the concept is a fast-growing phenomenon as marketers look to capitalize on word-of -mouth and students jump at the chance to add a Fortune 500 company to their résumés.

"Students are realizing right now that they're in college in order to become marketable to corporate America. They have to have more than a job or internship today," Mr. Britton said.

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