How College Ambassadors Can Revamp Your Brand

Even though I’m in college, where everyone should be studying, partying, and eating ramen noodles, it seems like half the people I know are repping some sort of product.

Companies are always striving to reach the coveted market of 18- to 24-year-olds, and for the latest marketing fad, they’ve decided to get us involved. We are the new magical marketers. We are brand ambassadors.

However, even though a number of brands are using college campuses as an advertising arena, only a few have managed to master targeting millennials in a fun, non-intrusive way. How have they accomplished this? By actually paying attention to what their consumers are thinking. It may seem like a simple factor, but as you’ll read below, bringing students into the marketing process is all about trust.

What are ‘brand ambassadors’?

Almost million different pages pop up when you Google “brand ambassador.”

According to John O’Brien, president of the AroundCampus Group, these ambassadors are college students who are “influencers on campus.” Attack! Marketing describes them as a “walking and talking personification of your brand.”

Sure, college students might not have a ton of disposable income, but they’re willing to spend money on things they value. According to Nationwide, college students spend $1,200 per month. Forty percent of this budget is spent on discretionary items like cosmetics, food, and clothes. As you can see in the graphic below, that adds up to a whole lot of cash that could go directly into your company’s pocket. Plus, you can turn college students into lifelong consumers of your brand if you target them the right way.

college ambassadors

According to Uber’s blog, reps “get hands-on experience growing the brand on your campus and in the community.” There are a few more tangible benefits as well: Brand ambassadors get a small hourly salary and, more importantly, fodder for their résumés.

Jack Schuleman, a sophomore at Boston University who served as an ambassador for Uber last summer, said, “It’s cool seeing what’s going on behind the scenes at such a quickly-growing company. Uber is launching in so many cities so quickly, so watching a company take on a higher workload without stuttering is great.”

For other brands, it might seem difficult to attract qualified students when you can’t afford to pay them. Thankfully, there are plenty of other rewards you can use to draw in ambassadors. For example, Rohan Deuskar and Zach Davis, the heads of Stylitics, wanted to use brand ambassadors because they “comprise a close-knit group of consumers who can help bestow an aura of cool on a brand.” So instead of giving an hourly salary, they organized meetings for their brand ambassadors with top fashion executives and offered top-notch letters of recommendation.

Should every brand use ambassadors?

As obvious as this may sound, companies should avoid using on-campus brand reps if they’re not positive their product is right for the college audience. It’s easy to get caught up in targeting impressionable kids who may have disposable income.

“There was a company that had a prepaid credit card. It was rooted in the right spirit that banks are ripping students off,” O’Brien said. “However, people felt like they didn’t have a need for that type of product. The notion of credit cards for underclassmen is still a decision that they’re making with their parents.”

When I asked O’Brien how that company was doing now, he told me they went out of business a long time ago.

Elizabeth A. Corradino, a partner at Moses & Singer LLP, advises that brands should “consider carefully whether they want to use brand ambassadors, specifically when you’re dealing with pharmaceuticals,” since a heavily regulated market poses major risks for pharma companies trying to reach college students. “There are just so many hurdles,” she added. “Companies can put monitors in place to make sure that their brand ambassadors are staying on script and staying within FTC guidelines, but when you need to regulate behavior, there’s only so much that you can do remotely.”

So how do you actually market on campus?

Outside of the pharmaceutical and liquor industries, most companies can have a positive experience using brand reps at universities. For example, AroundCampus recruited girls from various sororities to promote a new line of Burt’s Bees lotions.

“We had a lot of sorority parties where the product would be utilized and samples would be provided,” O’Brien said. “The girls would give feedback which went straight back to Burt’s Bees. It was available only at select retailers, so the measurement was to see what kind of traction the product got at those stores and how quickly it went off the shelves.” After the brand rep program went into effect, stores reported that they had increased their sales of Burt’s Bees.

Serengetee, a charitable clothing company, is another example of a company that has relied heavily on brand ambassadors. A link to the brand ambassador application is featured prominently at the top of the brand’s homepage, and most of their YouTube videos highlight the students who make their promotional efforts possible:

Yet brands are also encouraged to take more extreme approaches, according to O’Brien. If the ambassadors are given the freedom to interact naturally in a college setting, the marketing won’t turn off the consumers.

“We had one company duct tape their ambassadors to trees and poles,” O’Brien told me. “The theme was, ‘You’ll do some stupid things in college—buying your books with won’t be one of them.’ Those kinds of eye-popping, what-the-heck-is-going-on campaigns can be effective.”

What’s the best way to reach students, in O’Brien’s opinion? Simple conversation. “I’m a firm believer in people-to-people interaction. We encourage brands to advertise online, but also make sure that they’ve got folks on campus as well, because that helps round out the marketing campaign. You can only do so much from your headquarters.”

Do brand ambassadors really work?

Yet you’re probably still wondering—how effective are these campaigns in reality? Do they actually increase brand awareness and sell more product? According to the data, the answer is yes. Thanks to college students, Joss Whedon’s film Serenity became No. 1 on the Amazon bestseller list after it had already been out for a year. Seamless used brand ambassadors to increase monthly sales on campuses by 320 percent. And Nestlé reps helped increase applications for their engineering and business programs by 64 percent.

“You’ve got the sweet spot of all things,” Corradino said. “You’ve got the 18-plus demographic, you’ve got some disposable income, and you’ve got a receptive audience. If you reach these people early on, you can create brand loyalty. It’s a no-brainer.”

Image by Little DTX

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