It's move-in day here at the University of North Carolina, and Leila Ismail, stuffed animals in tow, is feeling some freshman angst.
A few friendly upperclassmen spring into action.
But wait: there is something odd, or at least oddly corporate, about this welcome wagon. These U.N.C. students are all wearing identical T-shirts from American Eagle Outfitters.
Turns out three of them are working for that youth clothing chain on this late August morning, as what are known in the trade as “brand ambassadors” or “campus evangelists” — and they have recruited several dozen friends as a volunteer move-in crew. Even before Ms. Ismail can find her dorm or meet her roommate, they cheerily unload her family’s car. Then they lug her belongings to her dorm. Along the way, they dole out American Eagle coupons, American Eagle water canisters and American Eagle pens.
Ms. Ismail, 18, of Charlotte, welcomes the help. “I’ll probably always remember it,” she says.
American Eagle Outfitters certainly hopes so, as do a growing number of companies that are hiring college students to represent brands on campuses across the nation.
This fall, an estimated 10,000 American college students will be working on hundreds of campuses — for cash, swag, job experience or all three — marketing everything from Red Bull to Hewlett-Packard PCs. For the companies hiring them, the motivation is clear: college students spent about $36 billion on things like clothing, computers and cellphones during the 2010-11 school year alone, according to projections from Re:Fuel, a media and promotions firm specializing in the youth market. And who knows the students at, say, U.N.C., better than the students at U.N.C.?
Corporations have been pitching college students for decades on products from cars to credit cards. But what is happening on campuses today is without rival, in terms of commercializing everyday college life.
Companies from Microsoft on down are increasingly seeking out the big men and women on campus to influence their peers. The students most in demand are those who are popular — ones involved in athletics, music, fraternities or sororities. Thousands of Facebook friends help, too. What companies want are students with inside knowledge of school traditions and campus hotspots. In short, they want students with the cred to make brands seem cool, in ways that a TV or magazine ad never could.
“We are the people who understand what kinds of things the students will be open to,” says Alex Stegall, a Carolina junior who recruited about 20 members of her sorority for the American Eagle promotion. “It’s marketing for the students, by the students.”
It’s a good deal for the student marketers, who can earn several hundred to several thousand dollars a semester in salary, perks, products and services, depending on the company. But the trend poses challenges for university officials, especially at a time when many schools are themselves embracing corporate sponsorships to help stage events for students.
Just how far one big company — Target — has permeated this university was evident at freshmen welcome week in late August, at what students and administrators alike characterized as a touchstone party for the class of 2015.
As part of the official university program, Target sponsored a welcome dinner on a Friday. Then, on Saturday, for the first real social event for freshmen, it hired buses to ferry students to a Target superstore in Durham for late-night shopping, says Winston B. Crisp, the university’s vice chancellor for student affairs.
From the school’s point of view, Mr. Crisp says, the excursion is both social and practical. It’s a convenient way for freshmen to pick up last-minute items. Equally important, he says, is that shopping at midnight keeps freshmen away from alcohol-fueled parties on their first weekend. University administrators supervise the event, he says, and control the marketing messages.
But Mr. Crisp says he was unaware of the American Eagle effort on his campus. He worried aloud that students and parents might mistake such promotions as having the university’s imprimatur.
“They are not supposed to be using the opportunity to help people move in as a way of forwarding commercial ventures,” he said, standing near the cash registers at Target that evening, as upperclassmen handed out free VitaminWater, Combos and packages of macaroni and cheese. He added: “So it’s a bit of a dilemma.”
In an e-mail message on Friday, Jani Strand, a spokeswoman for American Eagle, wrote: “We all were under the impression that U.N.C. officials had been contacted and were aware of the event. We apologize for any confusion.” She said the company views its on-campus activities as beneficial for students as well as the brand.
MANY college students are the heads of a household of one. But if a company can hook them early, it often has customers for life. And the choices students make — about shampoo, clothing, computers, smartphones and so on — can become the lifetime habits of future families or business executives, says Lisa Baker, director of education marketing at Hewlett-Packard, which has long promoted its laptops to universities.
What’s more, she says, college students tend to maintain deep connections to their parents, siblings and high school friends, so their likes and dislikes can influence purchases back home.
“We think of them as a bridge,” Ms. Baker says of undergraduates. “They will have influence back in the home and influence going forward.”
Traditional marketing techniques — like national advertising campaigns on MTV or in Rolling Stone — don’t resonate with college students the way they used to, says Matt Britton, chief executive of Mr. Youth, a marketing agency in Manhattan. Nowadays, companies need student ambassadors to create marketing events, like mural painting or video contests, that are relevant to their particular schools, he says. Students who participate tend to promulgate brand messages.
“They are engaging in real activities to move the needle on major brands,” he says.
His company has developed Internet and on-campus campaigns for dozens of brands, including Nike, Microsoft, H.P. and Ford. It charges corporate clients $10,000 to $48,000 a campus per semester for brand-ambassador programs, he says. (American Eagle works with a different firm, Youth Marketing Connection, on its ambassador activities.)
This fall, Mr. Youth plans to hire more than 5,000 college students among the 150,000 who submitted profiles to its student recruitment network. The company uses behavioral profiling to match the personalities of brands and students.
Consider Alyssa Nation, 21, a junior at the University of Central Florida in Orlando and a brand ambassador for H.P. laptops with Intel processors. Even when she is not officially on duty, she puts on her H.P. logo shirt, takes her company-issue laptop and positions herself at a campus Wi-Fi hotspot.
“I love technology, and I love interacting with people, so it’s perfect,” says Ms. Nation, a communications major.
Among her duties: setting up a laptop display table in the student union. First, she says, she tells freshmen who ask for advice that she is paid to promote H.P. products. Then she makes recommendations, depending on the student.
“I can tell they believe me,” she says. “There’s a completely different trust level when it’s peer-to-peer marketing.”
She also posts to H.P.’s Facebook site for students and uses her own Facebook account, with more than 1,300 friends, and her Twitter account to promote H.P. student discounts and contests.
“I am constantly marketing on Facebook and Twitter,” she says, “to the point where my friends threaten to block me because I am constantly posting about H.P.”
Last semester, Ms. Nation painted the H.P. logo and Web site address on her car, using washable markers. She posted photos of the car on Facebook and recruited 15 friends to paint their cars, too.
The University of Central Florida is only one of several dozen colleges where H.P. has ambassadors.
“It would be difficult for a brand to be able to tap into all those unique activities at all of those schools,” says Ms. Baker of H.P.
JUST before 10 on a Saturday night in August, hundreds of U.N.C. freshmen line up outside the campus bookstore, waiting for a fleet of buses to take them to Target. At the front of the line is Dasia Robinson, a senior and, for the day, a Target brand ambassador. She has a soft spot for Target, she says. On her first weekend at U.N.C., she met four students during a similar Target event. They became her best friends.
“Target incorporated their brand into the fact that we are college students,” she says. “I really do appreciate that.”
She revs up the new Carolina Tar Heels. “Tar!” she yells.
“Heels!” the crowd yells back.
The Target student reps stand out: they are wearing red T-shirts that say “COLLEGE,” punctuated by Target’s bull’s-eye logo.
“This is our first big college experience,” says Viraj Patel, 18, standing in line next to freshman friends from high school.
When the first bus arrives, the students rush forward as if it were Black Friday. Twenty minutes later, the first bus arrives at the SuperTarget. Mr. Crisp, the U.N.C. vice chancellor, greets the students and alerts those following on Twitter.
“First bus load at Target!!! Let the fun begin!!” Mr. Crisp posts @vicecrispy. A little later, he posts: “Target is rocking!!! Come on out!”
By midnight, the store is crowded with freshmen pushing shopping carts full of lamps, pillows, cases of soda and free junk food. “Mac and cheese, everyone!” an upperclassmen yells, tossing packages at passing students. One student wins a refrigerator and a year’s supply of Coca-Cola.
This year, 66 universities and colleges are taking part in private shopping events at Target as part of welcome weeks for freshmen. At U.N.C., where the company has been sponsoring the event since 2007, the night is already a tradition. Upperclassmen drop by to party with the freshmen.
A D.J. spins tunes between clothing racks. Students dance the wobble. Target’s mascot, Bullseye the Dog, joins in with Carolina’s Rameses the Ram.
Over the course of the evening, about 2,200 Carolina students make their way through the aisles. Mr. Crisp describes the party as the school’s “signature event” for the start of the school year. “It’s late night. It’s fun,” he says, adding: “It’s an opportunity for us to gather them together on a Saturday night in a healthy, safe environment.”
STUDENTS at Chapel Hill — there are nearly 19,000 undergraduates this semester — do things the Carolina Way. Many often wear the school color, sky blue. Few ever wear Prussian blue, the color of Duke, Carolina’s archrival. They stand up throughout sports events and root — loudly — for the Tar Heels. They like to pitch in.
Companies that hire students co-opt such local knowledge. It’s easy for the three American Eagle student marketers here to enlist friends via Facebook and campus listservs for the move-in event. In return, the company outfits the volunteers with free T-shirts in navy blue, the corporate color of American Eagle, that read “A.E. Move-In Crew.”
“We are a welcoming community. We’re not going to let you move in and struggle,” says David Artin, 20, a senior and fraternity member who volunteered. “We are going to help you move in the Carolina way.”
For American Eagle, the strategy has the potential to increase sales not only among the freshmen but also among the volunteers. After all, people are most likely to act on suggestions from people they know and trust, says J. Andrew Petersen, an assistant professor of marketing at U.N.C.’s Kenan-Flagler Business School. In this case, the upperclassmen are already friends with the company’s student representatives, he says, and now they feel their own personal link to the brand.
“The 50 people who volunteered think American Eagle is being very nice,” Professor Petersen says.
Participating in the move-in event seems to have made an impression on Kiley Pontrelli, 20, who volunteered along with friends from her sorority.
“When you know that the company is not just there to get your money, they’re actually willing to, like, help you as an individual in whatever way possible, it makes you respect them a lot more,” Ms. Pontrelli says. “I’m definitely going to give American Eagle, like, a second thought when I go by next time.”
Not everyone is comfortable with all this student-to-student marketing.
Across campus, on a plaza somewhere between the free Pepsi truck and the free Ben & Jerry’s ice cream wagon, Rachel Holtzman and a few other students are painting a sign promoting their own group: the Center for Social Justice.
“Although you want to support your friends, you may not always be interested in supporting the company,” says Ms. Holtzman, 19, a sophomore majoring in health policy and management. “It’s hard when the two things have an unclear line.”
ON-CAMPUS marketing is intended to reach students where they eat, sleep, study and sweat.
Red Bull, which has student brand managers at 300 universities and colleges, sponsors everything from chariot races to music lectures. Student representatives for Microsoft Windows give interactive product demonstrations each week to peers on more than 300 campuses.
American Eagle plans to stage freshmen move-in events at 50 campuses and works with university recreation centers to outfit intramural sports teams and fitness instructors. It also holds an annual academic competition for marketing students and flies the finalists to its Pittsburgh headquarters to present their cases to top executives. The company has even introduced a vintage-looking U.N.C. T-shirt that comes in, natch, Carolina blue.
It’s a multipronged effort intended to make students feel they are personally involved in the brand, says Cathy McCarthy, American Eagle’s senior director of campus marketing. The events, she says, are intended to amplify campus culture, not alter it. She flew in to observe the move-in event at U.N.C.
For its efforts, American Eagle gains insight from students about how to market to them, she says. Brand ambassadors, she says, acquire skills that can lead to a job at the company.
“There’s a two-way dialogue with our core customer,” Ms. McCarthy says. “There’s opportunity for recruitment as well.”
Mr. Britton of Mr. Youth says the real change on campus is that companies are marketing through students, not to them. “The only difference now is that, as opposed to it being executed by, you know, field service reps who weren’t their age, who didn’t really speak their language,” he says, “it’s being executed by their peers.”
Some universities welcome such programs, and the career experience they may provide, but others prohibit such activities, he says.
The lines aren’t always clear. U.N.C. officials, for example, say they don’t currently have a clear handle on how many students work as brand ambassadors — but it could be several hundred or more. “I don’t think we have a good grip on it,” Mr. Crisp says. “We are going to need to get a good grip on it.”
He is blunt about the fact that student-to-student marketing has only recently come to the school’s attention. Asked how U.N.C. is handling it, he acknowledges, “Honestly, not very well.”
The challenge, he says, is to balance potential student employment opportunities against practices that could manipulate undergraduates or dilute the U.N.C. experience.
“Corporations have become very savvy about hiring students to be their representatives on campus, and a lot of the stuff that they’re doing we have no knowledge of — and so they are not things we are sponsoring or supporting,” Mr. Crisp says. “How we police that and how we deal with our students, who after all are our students, is probably something we need to spend some more time thinking about.”
BACK at Target, Nitin Goel, a wiry, gum-chewing 18-year-old in low-slung jeans, is loaded down with free mac and cheese. He’s carrying a friend’s new beanbag chair.
Earlier that night, waiting for the Target bus by the campus bookstore, Mr. Goel had pledged allegiance to Wal-Mart, where he had shopped all his life. Now he doesn’t seem quite so sure.
“This was definitely the highlight of my orientation,” he says.
It’s a great day to be a Tar Heel.
Natasha Singer, The New York Times. September 10, 2011
Copyright © 2011 The New York Times Company. All rights reserved.