Justin Breton, a 21-year-old senior public relations major at Boston University, spends a lot of time talking about PUR, a water filtration system from Procter & Gamble.
Breton is among 100 college "ambassadors" P&G is paying to pitch the company's brands--namely, PUR, TAG deodorant and Herbal Essences hair products--at 50 colleges and universities year-round. Through a program P&G calls ReadyU, these students create their own marketing plans for promoting the company's products to fraternities, sports teams, and extra-curricular groups.
P&G pays the students to work 15 hours a week, meaning some kids can earn up to $2,500 a semester. (P&G will pay around $500,000 to kids before graduation next spring.) To make sure students are putting in their time on behalf of one or two brands they are assigned, P&G and RepNation, a unit of marketing outfit Mr. Youth, organize daily conference calls and require ambassadors--65% are women--to file reports every two weeks that include 25 pictures of their academic advertising attempts.
The ReadyU program is part of P&G's move to dabble in new types of marketing, including online retailing and sports sponsorships. Now, at universities, it's letting go of its tight grip on brand messaging and allowing students to craft pitches.
Mohammad I Sheikh, a senior studying advertising at the University of Texas at Austin, another PUR pitchman, says he spends up to 15 hours a week teaming with active campus groups that care about boosting water quality in developing countries. They plan to attend international student fairs and events near dorms, Sheikh says. Emily Kieczykowski, a junior majoring in business at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C., says she passes out coupon books while walking from class to class. When football season is in full swing, Breton says he's considering plugging TAG deodorant by holding a body odor contest to find the stinkiest college athletes.
"This was a big risk to put the branding power in someone else's hands," says P&G spokesman Glenn Williams, "but we know it'll be successful." While the Cincinnati company relinquishes some marketing control to students, it still requires them to execute corporate ideas. On freshmen move-in day, each of the schools' ambassadors was asked to organize groups of movers to help hoist futons and boxes into rooms and pass out samples of PUR. Over Labor Day weekend, P&G required students to arrange free bus trips to Target, where students could buy P&G products with coupons they had been given.
P&G tested the program last year at three universities--University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, University of Tennessee at Knoxville and the University of Texas at Austin--and decided to expand based on increased regional sales results, on which the company declined to disclose, and the creativity of the students. One Tide ambassador, for instance, held a campus mud battle and offered to wash dirty clothes (with Tide, of course) to anyone who participated.
To talk up PUR to BU students, Breton is organizing free concerts featuring popular campus musicians who will drink PUR-filtered water on stage and have samples on the sidelines for the audience. He works with one other ambassador on campus and meets with her a few days a week to hash out marketing ideas that they pitch daily to RepNation.
Still, pitching filtered water can be challenging, confides Breton. "It makes me wish I had gotten Tide as my brand," he says.
Laurie Burkitt, Forbes.com. September 9, 2009
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