Students are settling back into their dorms, and marketers are following them back to their campuses.
According to research by Chicago-based IEG, Inc., marketers will spend $39 million this year on mobile tours to college campuses, up 15% from $34 million. IEG says marketers want to reach 18- to 24-year-olds to build mind share and product preference.
Which is a big reason why marketers want to sample their goods to college students either on- or off-campus.
“Sixty-five percent of kids go on to buy a product that is sampled to them,” says Derek White, executive VP of media/marketing business Alloy and general manager of 360 Youth. “And brand managers know this.”
While White points out that kids are making brand decisions at younger ages — and are perfectly willing to tell their parents where to shop and what to buy — it doesn’t mean college sampling needs to be ignored.
“Sampling to college students hasn’t gone away, but high school students are now on the radar. Consumer savvy is starting at a younger age,” White says. “Kids are taking more responsibility for what they purchase. They’re ready to make their own purchasing decisions in middle school, and brand loyalty starts there.”
Parental and peer pressure that might steer teens to choose the trendy “right” brands fades when those young adults get to college; increasing individuality means students tend to develop their own buying habits.
“Today’s college students have more significant disposable income than ever. They also believe that for the first time they are out from under their parents eyes, and they can make their own brand decisions,” says Brad Bryen, president of New York-based U.S. Concepts, a subsidiary of CoActive Marketing Group. “There’s no question that when you reach today’s college student, especially at the 50 largest colleges, you’re reaching a demographic that is relatively affluent.”
Marketing to college kids has evolved from the simple yet effective Campus Trial Pak, 360 Youth’s product sampler that is distributed through university book stores (and received a face-lift through a partnership with Paramount’s The SpongeBob Square Pants Movie) to sampling events tied to on-campus concerts and bus trips that take students off campus for their back-to-school shopping.
This year, 2.4 million Campus Trial Paks will be distributed through bookstores at about 900 universities. The SpongeBob boxes include samples from brands such as Clearasil, Vick’s NyQuil, Clairol Herbal Essence shampoo and the old standby, AOL CD-ROMs.
“Most of the sampling to college students is about getting them hooked on a product, because they will then buy it,” says White. “Compared to a control group, it has a very positive double-digit effect on their actual purchases.”
At the opposite end, U.S. Concepts brings entertainment tours mtvU and FHM Comedy Fest to campuses across the country. The mtvU (formerly College Television network) tour allows a range of MTV sponsors — such as Listerine and Schick Xtreme3 — to sample products on the day an event takes place, building excitement for the brands and the shows.
Best Buy, the presenting sponsor of both tours, also distributes coupons if one of its home entertainment stores is in range of the school. This year, it will take couponing a step further by bringing students by bus to the closest-available Best Buy at 10 different universities. (U.S. Concepts is basing the experiment on the Rimmel double-decker bus tours it took to Wal-Mart parking lots for cosmetics firm Coty, Inc.)
Then there’s the problem with getting on campus. Not every college and university welcomes brand sampling, says Matt Britton, executive VP-sales and marketing for Mr. Youth, New York. Mr. Youth, which handles the Consumer Electronics Association’s TechKnowOverload (TKO) Tour, follows local rules.
“We don’t like to crash campuses because it hurts relationships with our sponsors and it hurts our own image,” Britton says. “If there’s a campus we’d like to target that we’re not allowed on, we’ll align ourselves with an off-campus event, or a nightlife event where students like to congregate.”
Students who visit the TKO Tour experience more than 7,000 square feet of high-tech exhibits, including The Ultimate Dorm Room; technology demonstrations and raffle prizes occur throughout the day. Students can also make purchases at TKO Tour and bring products straight to their rooms.
Some schools, especially state universities that are subject to budget cuts, may accept deals from brands to establish a year-round presence on campus. Although Mr. Youth likes to align itself with a school’s student activities department or another on-campus group, “You have your Coke schools and your Pepsi schools, and you have to take that into account,” Britton says. Aligning with students, however, gets word of mouth to the target audience — even from off campus.
For brands like Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim, it’s not just about word of mouth, but about peer-to-peer marketing and educating students about its off-the-wall programming. The best marketing, the network says, doesn’t tip off students to the network’s involvement.
Buzz on Adult Swim parties typically leaks out via 60 student ambassadors (who can receive internship credits as well as pay) attending 30 universities across the U.S. Some of the party-goers are rabid fans of Adult Swim, but a majority are not familiar with the programming block. Once at a party, they get “baptized” with the Adult Swim brand, says Greg Heanue, senior marketing director for Cartoon Network.
Cartoon Network’s objective is to hit a person looking for anything fun, and anything that represents late night, to the 18-24 age group. They encourage trial of Adult Swim in a non-evasive, indirect way. The student reps host viewing parties off-campus at bars or restaurants and in some cases on on-campus venues.
“We’ve given the students complete creativity to promote and run the events the way they want to,” Heanue says. “We’ve had student reps who have shown up to events in costumes of Adult Swim characters. It may look completely homemade and it may not even look official, but it’s the look we want.”
At the events, sampling includes viewing of Adult Swim programming. The student reps talk with party-goers about the characters and the shows, and stage games like “Pin the Beer On Carl,” a character from the Adult Swim show Aqua Teen Hunger Force. Pre-event on-campus sampling includes free posters for students’ dorm rooms.
An “undercover” Cartoon Network rep ensures the parties have proper signage, decent turnouts and are held in appropriate venues. Such reps are rabid fans who are passionate about the show.
While peer-to-peer marketing works well for Cartoon Network (the student interns are employees of SJI Promotions, St. Louis, which handles), hiring students to sample is not for everyone. For example, Mr. Youth makes sure people doing demos during the TKO Tour are trained professionals who understand the finer points of the tech products.
Bryen says that U.S. Concepts uses students to promote programs on campus, but prefers to use a mix of students and trained event marketers. He says the reliability of student employees, at times, has been an issue.
“Our staff tends to be young, but we find when we hire students exclusively, there’s a problem with their reliability. What’s very important to the brand may not be as important to the student. When you’re 19 and you face the prospect of working or studying or doing something else on campus, not working wins.”