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Marketers Target College Kids -- But is it Effective?

Posted by Alex Pearlman  October 7, 2011 06:20 PM

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campusambassadormarketing.jpgBy Angela Stefano

American Eagle helped students move in to their new dorms. Target sponsored a late-night shopping trip. Microsoft set up product demonstrations. Through partnerships, sponsorships, and “campus ambassador” programs, these and so many other brands are ensuring their presence on America’s college campuses. They’re helping students get adjusted, appealing to them through their peers, and trying to fulfill their needs -- all in hopes of creating lifelong customers.

“Corporations have been pitching college students for decades on products from cars to credit cards,” wrote Natasha Singer in a Sept. 10 New York Times article. “But what is happening on campuses today is without rival, in terms of commercializing everyday college life.”

But do the students -- the companies' targets -- think it works?

“If companies do [campus marketing] well, it can be really successful, but there’s a fine line between overdoing it and doing it well,” said Liz Sisson, a Bentley senior. “If companies overdo it, it’ll completely have the opposite effect.”

On-campus student marketing isn’t very prevalent at Bentley, Sisson said, but accounting firms often send former students to recruit. “If you have people our age saying positive things about the company, that’s like, ‘Wow,’” she said. “I can only imagine if bigger brands came to campus.”

College students are at the very start of the coveted 18-34 demographic. They’re newly on their own and, thus, generally making more autonomous purchasing decisions than they did in high school. But they're also cash-strapped, fickle, and very careful to not just take an advertisers’ words at face value.

“Our generation doesn’t stick to one brand....Our attention spans are so short...and price is a huge factor,” Sisson said. “We see through the clutter so quickly because it’s been that way our entire lives.”

That’s why free swag only goes so far, said Tina Yip, a Boston University senior who previously worked as a campus rep for Microsoft Windows 7 and ABC Entertainment. Students are looking for people like those American Eagle ambassadors -- the marketers who will “change your life,” Yip said.

“I think we make the effort to choose...a brand that improves us as people, makes us feel better, makes us look cool,” she said. “We have so many sides that we want to take care of -- personal, professional -- and we just want to look good to other people.”

And yet, Yip said, a company can do everything right, can offer that life-changing help, or can pull off a memorable stunt and still not reel Millennials in because they know “it’s still all about the product.” Marketing is still about convincing the targeted group to part with their (in this case extremely precious and) hard-earned money -- and that’s not going to happen if the product’s not what those people want.

“I think it’s super-awesome that [American Eagle] took their program to another level where they’re trying to help us, but [if I bought into it], I’d still be buying clothes from American Eagle -- and I don’t buy American Eagle clothes,” Yip said.

Photo by keatonmarcustaylor (Flickr)

About Angela -- It's "Ang," if you please -- or, alternately, Bill, Penny Lane, or (begrudgingly) Angus to some. I've been with TNGG since the site started and am now the TNGG Boston editor for Boston.com. I graduated from Boston University's College of Communication in 2009 and am a huge fan of live music, hockey, and Thai food. I'm also a bit of a klutz, but that's only because my mind and body are always going in approximately a zillion separate directions. Twitter: @amstefano988

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