In the world of consumer branding, it pays to keep up with the changing needs of your best customers, and there are few more crucial moments than that entry into adulthood when students experience graduation. The college generation is starting to grow up and a recent report published in Advertising Age reminds us that, in the next 10 to 15 years, 80 percent of Millennials will themselves become parents.
That rite of passage is not lost on brands wanting to start a relationship with the fastest-growing group of consumers — and to start it early. “Marketing to students provides some of the greatest opportunities for our partners to begin a dialogue with potential life-long customers,” explains Barnes & Noble College Senior Marketing Specialist Stacey Merkin, “and we have partners who are particularly interested in reaching them at this crucial time in their lives.”
Before getting hired for that first job, or buying that first car, students will have more pressing needs before they graduate from college. Merkin’s role at Barnes & Noble College Marketing (BNCM) is to help brands with a particular resonance partner with those students — at a time when that audience is going to need those products and services the most.
As an example, Ann Taylor, the women’s clothing company renowned for their classically styled suits, separates and dresses, might seem an unlikely match for ladies who have spent the last four years in jeans and t-shirts. “We wanted to help them shape their brand image in the eyes of our students and offer a discount to shop in their stores as a way for students to build their career-appropriate wardrobe,” Merkin points out. The Ann Taylor promotion, ‘Style for Success,’ involved a marketing piece that led students from the first impression of an interview-ready range of suits and dresses, to the first day in the office, as well as clothing options suitable for casual Friday.
Tracking the lifestyle changes students might undergo after graduation doesn’t always require a completely new brand relationship. West Elm, who has communicated to students ideas about decorating their dorm rooms, also found that the same message, to the same audience, could apply equally well to graduates starting life in new homes or apartments. Merkin points out that in previous years, BNCM has helped brands such as Chevrolet develop graduation-appropriate messages and, although not specifically targeting graduates, also created an email campaign offering a special student rate as a way of introducing a new generation of readers to the respected publication, The Economist.
Even with the prospect of their first pay check looming, Millennials as a generation are unlikely to be extravagant. Currently, 24 percent of more established Millennials earn more than $75,000 per year, another quarter earns less than $25,000, and an equal amount are likely to return home to live with their parents, according to a recent survey by Moneytips.com. Understandably, these shoppers are highly sensitive to price and exhibit a proclivity for coupons and special promotions.
Merkin agrees that price and value are good ways to build an authentic brand relationship with students, yet argues that any brand looking to engage with graduating students needs to create a valid, lasting ability to build on that relationship. “As a student, you might discover a retailer through a coupon incentive, but the real value is that you’ll continue shopping there into adulthood,” she explains. “Our brand partners are really looking to establish a long-lasting relationship with that student — beyond any individual campaign.”
As the Class of 2015 finds themselves in new jobs, new cities and new experiences after graduation, some of the lessons learned at their universities won’t just be academic. The brand experiences they enjoyed on campus will stay with them far beyond college — and that can be very good news for companies hoping to make a customer for life.