You are enormously desirable. More desirable than you realize, even if you have an excess of confidence in your own good looks and god-given pheromones. In fact, you could be horribly maimed and they would still want you – not because of your brains or your family yacht or even your Princeton pedigree, but simply because you are a college student and you are forming life-long purchasing habits as we speak.
Or maybe not as we speak, but all the time. You buy one brand of toothpaste instead of another because it promises you three shades of white in one tube; you become addicted to diet caffeine-free Dr. Pepper; you just love OB tampons because – well, doesn’t everybody love OB tampons? And this love for one brand over another is exactly the reason that you, too, are loved. You are loved because you are a number, a number with purchasing power and still-nascent shopping habits, and numbers with purchasing power and malleable shopping habits are very desirable.
According to one 2006 study conducted by Alloy Media and Marketing, a New York firm that has adopted the tactic of hiring campus representatives, United States college students as a group have $182 billion in purchasing power. Other studies, such as the one done by Campus Monitor in 2004, cite lower figures like $99 billion, while some, like the Harris Interactive study done in the same year, cite higher figures, claiming that the college market accounted for $231 billion. This study also noted that there were more college students than ever before – about 16.5 million in that year – both in terms of sheer numbers and percentage of the population.
In short, you’re part of a big market – but also a notoriously fickle market.
General rules for marketing to college students go as follows: the somewhat tired ten percent discount will always give some results. Everyone likes saving money. Focus on intake times (the beginning of the school year). Money savings offers will be most appreciated in the early stages of the school year because students quite simply have a lot of stuff – or feel like the have a lot of stuff – that they have to buy. Student purchasing power is actually strongest – and most resistant to traditional marketing techniques – during the summer term. Students tend to take advantage of product giveaways, but they don’t seem to build product loyalty. I take advantage of that same, tired product giveaway Clinque runs in the U-store every year, but I’m not a Clinque customer.
Over the years, tactics for marketing to college students have grown more aggressive. One popular technique is to hire college students themselves to serve as on-campus representatives. Companies as diverse as Microsoft, JetBlue Airways, Red Bull, Sprint, Sony Music, The Cartoon Network, Playboy, and Victoria’s Secret have adopted this scheme, which embraces all of the most effective elements of marketing to young people: it’s peer-to-peer, word of mouth, flexible and different from the other media with which college students are semi-constantly inundated. The on-campus representatives are generally chosen for their social networks and skills first and their good or, at least, solid looks second. They are often as not trained in corporate headquarters and are generally expected to spend ten to fifteen hours a week doing their job. Doing their job involves any number of things – posting flyers, sponsoring campus events, trying to have their company’s name mentioned in campus newspaper articles, and talking to their peers – all of which come under the title of “guerrilla marketing.”
One on-campus representative, who asked not to be named so as to avoid a negative reaction from his employer, said, “In training, I was encouraged to use alternative and – to be honest – not far from illicit marketing techniques. If facebook-stalking was involved, so be it. If I needed to take someone out to lunch to woo them or get information from them, I could put it on the company credit card. My boss wanted results, and didn’t particularly care how I got them, so long as his company didn’t get into trouble.”
Still, on-campus representatives are far from the most aggressive marketing tactic. Red Bull has also gone so far as to give away a car and distribute free energy drinks in university libraries during exam periods. Coca-Cola is currently running a promotion that allows students to download two songs for free when they purchase two bottles of Coke zero (everyone, make a mad dash to Frist!). Other companies offer career advice as a lure.
University policy prohibits any vendor from soliciting or marketing products on campus without prior approval from the Purchasing Department. Any approval is granted only with the understanding that on-campus marketing is subject to oversight by this department. However, there have been cases in which a vendor has violated this policy. “We may learn that a vendor is in a department or a lab, at an athletic event, or in a student area without permission. In those instances, we act to stop the activity,” Princeton University’s Media Relations Manager Cass Cliatt said.
Sometimes on-campus product or company promotion is not imposed upon students, but brought about by students themselves. Students who organize events on campus are often “unaware of campus policies on product marketing and may invite vendors to distribute products during their events,” Cliatt noted.
The main type of sanctioned on-campus product marketing that occurs is through Dining Services. Dining Services occasionally offers product samples when these products are to be sold in campus dining facilities in the future. Such product distribution, when it occurs, is part of the vendor agreement and occurs as the result of a contractual obligation between the vendor and the university.
If Princeton students are not bombarded with overt product marketing on campus, they are bombarded with covert product marketing – through their peers – and aggressive career-related company marketing. In the fall semester, a month or less before students begin donning suits and walking to 201 Nassau Street, dorm hallways are flooded with flyers, mailboxes are stuffed with postcards, and McCosh walk is papered with posters, all touting the merits of one firm or another and urging seniors and juniors to apply for jobs and internships.
In recent years “more companies are seeking visibility to Princeton students now that there are so many ways to reach this target audience,” said Anthony Chiappetta, the Associate Director for Recruitment and Employer Relations at the Career Services Office of Princeton University. Aside from the traditional paper-bound methods listed above, companies approach students by conducting information sessions or sending representatives to serve as speakers at career services-sponsored panels, contacting the Princeton Student Publicity Agency or posting ads in campus publications, email-blasting student lists, attending on-campus and off-campus career fairs, connecting with student groups and faculty, hosting site visits, and using previous interns as advocates for the company on the Princeton campus.
The efficacy of such efforts is unclear. Do Princeton students apply to more investment banks and consulting firms than other business because those businesses advertise here, or do those businesses advertise here because many Princeton students have applied there in the past and the company wishes to continue to reap the benefits of having Princeton students as employees? It’s a new take on the old chicken-and-egg problem.
But why such an overall surge in marketing? First, as Mr. Chiappetta pointed out, there has been a corresponding surge in ways to market; college students are more accessible than ever. Second, college students today have access to an increasingly large pool of financial resources. Twenty-somethings today have (proportionally as well as quantitatively) more disposable cash, more credit and debit cards – and more debt in loans – than any generation before them. They’re also becoming involved in their own investments at an earlier age. According to a 2004 survey performed by Student Monitor, a research group that specializes in studies on college and high school students’ habits, 23% of college students own savings bonds (which, to be fair, generally come from family members), 13% hold individual stocks, 11% have bonds, and 7% are in mutual funds. More and more frequently, college students have not only the experience of making independent financial decisions, but also the economic resources to do so.
Still, there are certainly concerns that college students are not prepared to manage their money well, and that on-campus marketing may be unfairly preying on their inexperience. In recent years, the government has taken steps to educate young people about how to manage their money – and the increasing pressure they face from marketing campaigns. In 2003, the Treasury Department and the American Bankers Association joined together to sponsor the first annual “Get Smart About Credit” day at high schools and community colleges, and in 2004 the government launched its first website – mymoney.gov – designed to offer twenty-somethings a financial education.
Even the government wants to get to you while you are still young. The growing attention paid to young people is largely psychologically motivated: the theory is that if you instill habits in people when they’re young, whether they be purchasing habits or saving habits, they are more likely to continue to abide by these habits for the rest of their lives. It’s not that unlike education, which seeks to instill good habits of study in students during their formative years.
What role is on-campus marketing to play in this education? While there is an argument to be made in favor of the university as a haven from such ‘outside’ influences, where people learn to think independently from forces that tell them how to think, there is also an argument to be made for the university as a place where students learn how to handle the pressures that they will face in the outside world by experiencing them on a smaller scale. On-campus marketing may have its true role here: not in convincing us to buy a certain product and continue buying it for times to come, but in teaching us how to deal with aggressive recruiters or advertising campaigns. It’s easy enough to think independently in a vacuum; it’s harder to think independently when contradictory pressures exist. So perhaps on-campus marketing is education in another form: teaching us not how to survive in school, but how to survive beyond the front gates.