Bloody students. Nothing better to do than sleep all day and party
all night. Even I say that now, and I’m only three years out of
The bitterness sets in fast. It is perhaps this feeling of sour-grapes
that sustains the stereotype of students as stoned, pot-noodle-slurping,
cheap lager-swilling, smug little tykes. However, if you’re in the
business of selling something to them - as an advertiser, media or
creative agency - harbouring these preconceptions can be very costly.
Even more costly, in the long-term, is to exclude students from your
Received wisdom has it that students are a pain in the arse to advertise
to. They are cynical, fickle, smart, very conscious of marketing and,
according to data from the Roar youth survey, not particularly
materialistic. To make matters worse, it’s very easy to piss them
’As an audience, students are one of the most media literate and they
tend to hold a definite view on whether any piece of communication is
actually speaking their language. If the message is delivered in the
wrong tone of voice or even within an ’uncool’ media environment, the
advertiser risks alienation,’ says Paul Phelps, managing director of AMS
Media, the agency that holds the account for Red Bull and a number of
other youth-orientated brands.
As a result, advertisers have traditionally either steered away from the
group completely or have made clumsy and stereotyped attempts at
reflecting student humour and lifestyle in their advertising.
However, marketers are becoming increasingly interested in the sector,
as university students make up one of the fastest-growing demographic
groups in the country. In the past ten years, the number of people
entering higher education has risen by 70 per cent; these 1.8 million
students represent 30 per cent of the core youth market. Not only that
but they have an estimated pounds 10 billion expendable income a year,
according to NUS Services, and they’ve got little more to spend it on
So how do you get their attention? Phelps believes that using
traditional mass-audience media is not a viable approach: ’In order to
reduce wastage, it is essential to adopt a specialist planning
approach,’ he says. Possible channels include student radio, campus
posters and postcards, websites and, in a few cases, campus TV
The Student Broadcast Network syndicates programming and advertising to
45 student radio stations across the country. Since it was bought by
music specialist Channelfly.com, SBN has tightened its accountability
and effectiveness measurement. The number of clients using the network
has risen from five or six when the company was established in 1996 to
more than 40 today.
Meanwhile, More Group’s outdoor youth division RockBox offers
illuminated six- and four-sheet sites, as well as washroom panels, on
campuses throughout the country. RockBox also sells space in clubs and
music venues and has developed a portfolio of ambient media, including
beermats, mousemats and handstamps.
Cinema is a very effective medium for reaching large numbers o f
Ninety-two per cent of students visit the cinema at least once a month -
a much higher figure than the UK average - and they revel in the whole
experience. ’Students regard the commercials and trailers as part of the
cinema experience,’ says Jo Rigby, consumer insight manager at OMD UK.
Annie Lambert, group account manager at Total Media, is responsible for
student holiday company STA Travel: ’STA’s campaigns, although quite
small, have used cinema primarily and have been very effective,’ she
However, the watchword throughout is credibility; this, it seems, cannot
be over-stressed. ’Students are acutely aware of when they’re being
marketed to and, as a result, they don’t like being patronised by
advertisements,’ says Jo Redfern, sales controller for The Independent’s
Which Way? magazine, which is aimed at student readers. Students are
actively aware of commercial messages, so the effect when a campaign is
well executed can be very powerful.
In the last couple of years, clients and agencies have come to view
students as a viable marketing proposition. A notable confirmation of
the value of this market is the launch by FT Business of Strapt for
Cash. FT Business is gearing up for 100,000 copies of the second issue
of the magazine to be delivered to the top 100 universities in
September, the start of the academic year.
Ad manager Grant Collins sees the magazine as a perfect bridge for
clients who normally advertise in the Financial Times and would not
necessarily consider, or indeed know how to tackle, the student market.
These advertisers can now approach students in association with the
respected FT brand.
Clients in the first issue of Strapt included JP Morgan and Merrill
Collins is at pains to stress to advertisers how significant today’s
undergraduates - particularly the top 10 per cent targeted by Strapt -
are to businesses.
’Twenty-five year olds can attain the lifestyle previously reserved for
40-year-old managers; they are being offered positions of greater
responsibility and higher salaries than ever before,’ he explains.
’For Strapt and its advertisers, it’s all about thinking ahead and
moving away from a quick-fix mentality,’ says Collins. He believes that
if tomorrow’s graduates aren’t now aware of a company’s brand, they will
have plenty of knowledge and scope to find alternatives in the world of
niche television channels and specialist websites.
That this market is becoming increasingly significant to advertisers is
also illustrated by the success of Get Real, a youth and student
marketing agency set up in 1998 on the back of a gut feeling by founders
Alexandra Saint-Marc and Tony Harbron. After successfully working on Red
Bull’s marketing - mass awareness of the drink was founded on wide
uptake in university campuses - the pair started Get Real without any
real business and have since attracted clients such as Lastminute. com,
Virgin Mobile, FT .com and Loaded.
According to Saint-Marc, credibility is the key to success. Get Real has
attained credibility for its clients through its brand manager
Under this scheme, enthusiastic, well-connected students are assigned to
act as brand ambassadors on campus for Get Real’s clients. Already, more
than 500 brand managers work across ten brands. Book retailer Blackwells
is about to launch an internet product and has asked the agency to
assign a team of 100 brand managers to promote its business - the
largest team so far given to one account.
Saint-Marc and Harbron are palpably excited by the speed at which
clients have embraced the Get Real brand manager programme. Speaking to
students through their mates and peers is credible and not patronising;
vital insider knowledge about when and where students spend time, or
which brands are currently favoured and why, are fed to the client
directly from within the university.
Another benefit is the reputation a brand can build on campuses by word
of mouth - this has been the undoing of brands with poorly executed
campaigns but can work very favourably when an advertiser has people on
’In this respect - contrary to what is generally thought - students are
actually one of the best groups to market to if you go about it the
right way,’ says Harbron. ’It is absolutely critical to have people on
the ground at the universities,’ adds Saint-Marc.
The success of Get Real has shown that advertisers are becoming
increasingly savvy when targeting students. This year’s graduates are on
the verge of taking up their first jobs, starting salaries are rising,
and these young workers now exist in greater numbers than ever
Collins says students are a critical target market for many
’The power base of money is shifting towards the young and educated.
This group will have more influence on the way we live than any
preceding generation.’ So it pays to grab them while you can.
THE TIMES THEY ARE A CHANGIN’
Lumberjack shirts Fleeces
Bus pass Car keys
Sir John Peel Pete Tong
The Cure, The Pixies, Paul Oakenfold, DJ Spoony, Judge Jules
Nine Inch Nails
Pasta Cous cous
Viz The Face
Computer room Laptop
Overdraft Credit card
Rollies Marlboro Lights
Youth hostelling Ibiza
Newcastle Brown Bacardi Breezer
Getting out of bed at 4pm Getting out of bed at 4pm
Source: This information is based on no quantifiable research
DOS AND DON’TS
Show some respect. Students may well get drunk a lot, but they’re smart
and they know full well when the piss is being taken out of them -
intentionally or otherwise.
Endeavour to find out what students are actually interested in and what
they spend their time doing. Trends change quickly and are followed in a
sheep-like manner by the majority of students, according to AMS Media’s
Get brand managers - preferably students themselves - operating within
universities. Each university has its own character and stages different
events - it’s worth knowing about these. Most of the broadsheets use
their own campus managers to distribute the papers, obtain feedback and
develop promotional ideas.
Seek feedback. According to AdShel research, students are opinionated
when it comes to advertising and are usually very happy to tell you what
they think about a campaign.
Remember that even if students may not be very interested in your brand
now, that does not necessarily mean it isn’t worth building awareness at
this stage. Most do not read broadsheets particularly often, but will
almost certainly do so as they get older. The Guardian uses student
marketing to create a relationship with students that may only come to
fruition after they graduate.
Don’t try too hard to be cool, funny or shocking simply for the sake of
it - it can be embarrassing and costly if you get it wrong and there is
little substance to your campaign. According to the experts, the trick
is to balance humour with a demonstration of the genuine value of your
product. The Guardian, for example, recently ran a postcard campaign for
its Jobs Unlimited website. The cards read ’W**K’ on one side and on the
other the strapline reads: ’Don’t let work become a dirty word.’ ’The
joke is tied to the strapline and is not there purely to shock. The aim
was to produce a fun postcard. Once they’d picked it up, we provided
students with something useful by putting details of the graduate e-mail
on the back,’ says Jules Griffith, deputy marketing manager for Guardian
Don’t rely on your preconceptions. Marketers who do often end up
woefully wide of the mark.
Don’t create what you think is a student ad - ’they see through it
straight away and consider it patronising’, says Get Real co-founder
Tony Harbron. This is particularly unfavourable if the brand has
mass-market advertising elsewhere, as it implies students are an alien
group that must be spoken to in a special way to enable them to
understand the message.
Don’t rely on traditional mass-audience media. According to Roar,
students are not heavy magazine readers, nor do they listen to lots of
commercial radio. However, cinema is visited frequently and Student
Broadcast Network research has shown that student radio has a higher
percentage weekly reach among students than Virgin Radio.