HIGHER EDUCATION: Lecture-skiving beer monsters are an increasingly important audience for today’s advertisers. But how do you reach these media-savvy cynics? Scott Billings reports

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 university.

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

campaign altogether.

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

than themselves.

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

the inside.

’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.


THEN                           NOW

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

Cassettes                      Minidiscs

Grants                         Loans

Masturbation                   Sex

Viz                            The Face

Computer room                  Laptop

Overdraft                      Credit card

Rollies                        Marlboro Lights

Youth hostelling               Ibiza

Marijuana                      Cocaine

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

whatsoever ...


Do ...

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

Paul Phelps.

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 ...

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.


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