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Marketing to the college crowd is taking on a new urgency.

Fortune 500 companies, ranging from Coca-Cola to Citibank, are spending millions of dollars on exclusive campus marketing rights, sponsorships, access to students' email addresses and personal information, and nationwide on-campus promotional tours. An assortment of businesses is aggressively seeking to take advantage of students' yet-formed brand loyalties. They are seeking to build brand preference among the valuable market.

While these businesses have been successful at creating innovative methods of reaching students directly on college campuses and getting their message out, they are unable to grasp the unique culture of college students—what students value, their attitudes, needs and behaviors.

Understanding the unique culture of college students offers businesses the necessary insights to help make their brands relevant to the student market and effectively communicate to students compelling reasons to buy their brand over others.

Whereas businesses entering foreign markets understand that connecting with consumers is dependent on communicating brand benefits that reflect the local culture (think PepsiCo in China and MTV in India), most businesses targeting college students neglect this strategy.

Instead, they simply focus on trying to reach the greatest number of students by outspending their competitors. Case in point: Bank One has reportedly won a $16.5 million exclusive contract with the University of Tennessee to market an affinity credit card featuring the school's logo—a perfect example of brain-dead, lazy marketing!

Bank One could save millions of dollars and simultaneously acquire a significantly greater number of customers by diving deep down into the culture of the college student market to understand the various emotional and functional brand benefits that students want from a financial services institution. Bank One would then be able to use these insights to differentiate its message and leverage the key brand benefit that will drive brand preference among college students for a financial services institution.

With this concept in mind, here are seven strategies that reflect the unique culture of college students:

  1. Communicate lifestyle, not age relevance: Speaking to college students' age ("You're in college, obtain your first credit card") is ineffective, because it does not inspire them or grab their attention. Marketers must create a link between their brand and students' lifestyle, which includes attending concerts and movies, snowboarding on weekends, eating at off-campus restaurants, traveling and more. Remember: college students don't just study and attend class all day—they are extremely active.

  2. Attach your brand name to current trends: Snowboarding, surfing, skateboarding, underground rock bands, rock concert festivals and the ESPN XGames are considered "cool" among the college student market. Businesses can attach their brand name to these activities, events, products and associations that have earned "street-cred" among the student market, and thus share in their emotional appeal.

  3. Tap into students' emotional needs for empowerment, privilege, and status: College students are attracted to goods and services that empower them as consumers and individuals. Examples include the Internet, mobile phones, MP3 players, online file sharing and credit cards. Additionally, products and services that enhance social status are successful at winning students over.

  4. Don't try too hard to win students over: College students greet most product claims with skepticism. Students are aware that they are a highly desirable market. They don't want to be overtly sold or pitched. Instead, they simply want to be educated about products and services and told how the offering matches their unique needs.

  5. Reach students at key transitional periods: At certain transitional periods, college students exhibit a need for certain products and services. It's a marketer's job to reach students at these points of need. Key transitional periods for college students include the beginning of freshman year, summer breaks, moving to off-campus living, studying abroad and graduation.

  6. Become an authentic brand: Ad-weary and marketing-savvy college students value authentic brands. Authentic brands exhibit the following characteristics:

    • They develop trust among potential customers—trust is the foundation of brand authenticity.

    • They are perceived as not trying too hard to sell or actively win customers over.

    • They continually deliver value and convince students that they have students' best interests at heart.

  7. Play-it-straight: College students immediately sense hype and do not accept brands that they consider fake. Businesses must talk straight to students and deliver real value. A great example is Richard Branson's Virgin Group Ltd. In 2002, Virgin Group understood the youth market's growing frustration with cell phone providers' lengthy contracts, hidden fee, and extra charges during peak hours. Thus, it responded with Virgin Mobile, a highly successful pay-as-you go cell phone service aimed directly at the youth market; it plays it straight by offering a single minute charge and no contract or hidden fees. And you can't get more straight talk then Virgin Mobile's initial marketing slogan: "Exposing young America to the joy of no bulls**t cellular."

It's clear that businesses are allocating a significant amount of time, effort and money on the college student market. However, it's time for them to develop enduring relationships with students by diving deep down into their unique culture and tailoring marketing efforts accordingly.

Those that succeed will capture a golden opportunity—students' brand preference and potential lifetime loyalty. Now that's priceless.

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Robert F. Hogeboom is principal and owner of BBP Marketing Group. Reach him at