With a record number of people being accepted into university in the UK last year, more and more brands are starting to realise the potential of students as both a key target market and as a marketing tool in their own right. 

An increasing number of brands are looking to students to become ambassadors, with the aim of boosting awareness and driving engagement in university campuses and beyond.

So, how do they do it, and what are the benefits? Here’s a bit more on the subject.

A lucrative market

Despite the majority of students relying on loans to get through university, research suggests that many will still spend their money on non-essential items such as clothing and drinking.

For brands, this presents a clear opportunity, especially considering that many students will be living away from home for the first time – also becoming financially independent, and forging brand affinities in categories such as finance, travel, and lifestyle.

So, with many brands in the UK focusing on sales – promoting discounts and deals to capture student attention – many are failing to recognise that they could be building affinity based on defining moments. This means tapping into university ‘firsts’ such as learning how to cook, doing laundry, setting up household utilities, and so on.

Meanwhile, brands also forget that students care about more than just money. According to a survey by Chegg, 88% of students said they are more responsive to brands that give back to the community, reflecting the fact that brands need to do more than just overtly sell their product.

The power of influence

According to research, 88% of consumers now trust the opinions of influencers as much as they do their friends. Similarly, micro-influencers – who have a smaller reach but a more authentic reputation – can generate four times the engagement of larger influencers.

Why is this important? Essentially, brands are now recruiting students to act as micro-influencers in universities. Instead of faceless ads, students are advertising to other students, effectively building advocacy for the brand or its products on a more personal level.

In this sense, brand ambassadors can also act as social proof. This means that if a student sees one or a group of influential peers wearing a particular brand, there’s a chance that they’ll want to follow the crowd. The hope is that this could also create a snowball effect, with students going home and influencing friends and family away from their university circle.

Gaining insight

Student ambassadors can also act as eyes and ears on the ground, gathering insight about students on behalf of a company – i.e. what they want from a brand as well as their general perceptions and opinions.

One popular ambassador activity is to hand out product samples, which can be effective for gaining instant feedback. This one-to-one communication can enable brands to gather more meaningful insight.

Another benefit is that student ambassadors will sound exactly like the people they’re trying to target, taking away the danger of cringey brand communications.

Long-term loyalty

Another reason to use this strategy is the potential to instil long-term loyalty in student consumers.

First, ambassadors themselves are likely to stay brand-loyal long after they leave university – this is because they tend to feel part of the businesses that they are representing.

In turn, they can also help to generate long-term loyalty in others. Again, this is down to the fact that students tend to be forming opinions and brand affinities for the first time. So by creating relationships with students at such an important and influential stage in their life, brands can increase the likelihood of sustaining affinity until later on in life, or perhaps even benefit from sentimentality about student days.

So which brands have succeeded with student ambassadors? Here are a few examples.

1. American Eagle Outfitters

US retailer American Eagle previously enlisted ambassadors to help new students settle into their dorms at universities across the US. Dubbed the ‘Move-In Crew’, the ambassadors were there to carry and unload boxes, but also took the opportunity to hand out special American Eagle merchandise such as water bottles, pens, and coupons.

By doing a good deed, the idea was that American Eagle would stick in the minds of new students, also promoting it as more than just a corporate brand.

2. Nestlé

As well as turning students into customers, brands also look to universities to target potential future employees.

A few years ago, Nestlé was struggling to attract talent from US universities, specifically in the Midwest. As a result, it used an ambassador programme to generate buzz about Nestlé careers, using a combination of on-campus promotions and events to do so.

Nestlé ‘street teams’ distributed Nestlé chocolates along with event information at business and engineering schools, simultaneously promoting happy hour nights and the company on social media.

The initiative was a success, resulting in 600 student attendees per event and a 64% increase in annual applications to Nestlé jobs compared to the previous year.

3. Lucozade

Last year, Lucozade launched its first ever student ambassador campaign to help increase sales of its new Lucozade Zero drink.

Recruiting students to be the face of the brand on university campuses across the UK, ambassadors were put in charge of ‘brand stations’, whereby students could taste samples of Lucozade and get involved with a ‘Hit Zero’ game.

With 66 events held, more than 100,000 samples handed out, and 330 game winners, it was a successful example of how to increase exposure and build buzz about a new product.

4. Tinder

In its early days, Tinder took a top-down approach to marketing, recruiting influential college ambassadors to promote the app to friends and fellow students.

In fact, Tinder was first launched at the University of Southern California with a birthday party thrown for a co-founder’s brother and his friends (who were students at the time). In order to attend, guests had to download the app – a stipulation that resulted in the number of uses increasing to over 4,000 by the end of the week.

From there, Tinder continued to capitalise on the highly social environment of university, recruiting ambassadors to continue promoting the app, often during fraternity parties and big college events.

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