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How to Sell to College Students When Campus Is Closed

Brands like Aerie and VS Pink relied on in-person student events and campus ambassadors to drive sales. Can they replicate that success online?
College students at Boston College | Source: Getty Images
  • Chavie Lieber

NEW YORK, United States — During an ordinary school year, Jayla Johnson, a 20-year-old college junior at Drexel University in Pennsylvania, would have a jam-packed social life.

On top of attending classes for her entertainment and arts management major, events at the Black Student Union and parties, Johnson is also a campus representative for Victoria’s Secret Pink. About every two months, she’d host workout classes, coffee shop hangouts or girls’ night, which all came with freebies and coupons, enticing students to shop at the lingerie giant’s Gen Z-focused line.

But Drexel’s campus is closed for the fall semester, along with many other college campuses, to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Next week, she’ll host her first virtual event for Pink when classes start — a girl’s hang to meet fellow students — and she’s planning to host other virtual events for Pink throughout the year, including meditation hours and paint classes. Johnson said her room looks like a Pink store, it’s so stocked with samples and goodies that she intends to mail out to classmates this year.

Still, it’s hard to get people excited about free samples over Zoom.

“I’m a social butterfly so I definitely miss the human interaction,” said Johnson.

Victoria’s Secret isn’t the only brand scrambling to market to college students who won’t be returning to campus anytime soon. Before Covid-19, companies ranging from H&M and American Eagle Outfitters to Rent the Runway and Sephora operated sprawling networks of “ambassadors,” hired to convince their peers on the merits of distressed jeans and clean makeup.

But those programmes relied on on-campus interactions; there’s much more competition for their target customers’ attention online. American Eagle Outfitter’s Aerie, for instance, typically sends pop-up truck shops to campuses and organises breast cancer prevention events to attract shoppers on campuses, all of which are promoted by the brand’s college ambassadors.

The loyalty of an entire generation may be at stake. Consumers aged roughly 18 to 24 studying in universities have an annual discretionary income of $130 billion, according to Refuel Agency, a marketing firm. The spending habits formed in college can also last a lifetime.

Students that find a brand in college that they really like will stick with that brand and recommend it to friend.

“Students that find a brand in college that they really like will stick with that brand and recommend it to friends,” said Janie Smukler, managing director of 28Row, a public relations firm specialising in college marketing. “They’re out of their parent’s house for the first time, spending their own money and brands want to capture them while they’re becoming real consumers.”

Some college students say they’re spending less on fashion, now that they can wear pyjamas to Zoom classes and have no parties to attend. Brands like Rent the Runway have even paused their college ambassador programs, given the current climate.

“Usually, I’m shopping at Revolve for dresses and sweaters to wear to bars and parties, but I’m not seeing friends and I’m definitely not going out,” said Lauren Baumholtz, a recent Drexel college graduate who has worked as an ambassador for Free People and Madewell.

Still, experts say it’s important for brands to continue targeting college students.

“This demo still wants to consume and shop, but like everyone else, they are shifting purchases to live within the constraints of what they are dealing with,” said Cindy Krupp, a veteran fashion publicist and chief executive of 28Row. “No, they are not putting on dresses, heels, or tons of makeup but there are still small group get-togethers, and they are shopping for an at-home lifestyle. The categories that matter really matter.”

Peer Pressure

Back in March, Baumholtz was planning a charity event with her local Madewell store as part of the brand’s ambassador program. Members of her sorority, Phi Sigma Sigma, were supposed to attend a party at the store and shop, with Madewell sending some proceeds to charity.

The event got cancelled with the Covid-19 lockdowns, but Baumholtz still promoted Madewell on social media, highlighting her sorority’s charitable component. Baumholtz said her followers and classmates shopped Madewell via her posts, although mid-lockdown they were more interested in the company’s sweats than its denim.

“I still feel like college kids can be marketed too because they are getting up and getting ready for Zoom classes,” Baumholtz said. “They are still buying new clothes and new styles.”

College kids can be marketed too because they are getting up and getting ready for Zoom classes.

Krupp added that college ambassadors’ engagement rates can often be stronger than other influencer groups.

“College is a sweet spot because the community is authentic,” said Krupp “It’s a peer community, where they influence their friends from high school, camp, class. We’ve found that they’ll buy anything priced $250 and under that’s recommended to them by friends without doing any further research.”

College students are still shopping.

“Many Gen Z-ers are spending on discretionary items and luxury because they feel it’s a treat,” said Hana Ben-Shabat, founder of research and advisory firm Gen Z Planet. “They aren’t going to parties any time soon and so it’s their small dose of normalcy.”

Aerie has been instructing its ambassadors to highlight a stay-at-home lifestyle.

“We are doing more at-home posts, more about sweats,” said Stacey McCormick, senior vice president of marketing at Aerie. “We're doing more things about self-care.”

Aerie’s revenue rose 32 percent during the second quarter of 2020, with digital demand growing 114 percent. E.l.f Cosmetics, which is known for its pigmented beauty products, began promoting skincare to college-age shoppers during the pandemic.

Shopping is honestly all we are doing because we want to pass the time.

“Shopping is honestly all we are doing because we want to pass the time,” said Johnson, who added that she has swapped out going-out dresses and shoes for athleisure.

How College Ambassador Programs are Adapting

Chloe Miller, a junior at Los Angeles’ University of Southern California who is an ambassador for brands like Smashbox, Amazon Prime and e.l.f. Cosmetics said she’s been able to keep her fellow classmates and members of her sorority, Tri Delta, engaged by hosting interactive events, like makeup tutorials on Instagram Live for Smashbox.

“Doing makeup over Zoom is not as fun as doing it at a sorority house or at a girls night, but it’s still giving college kids something to do,” she said. “They want to learn about new products from brands.”

Johnson said offering Pink giveaways has helped her engage better with audiences while she’s forced to hold her brand events online.

“Virtual goodies are exciting, and all they have to do is comment and share something,” Johnson said. “A lot of it is trial and error, but we’re trying our best.”

McCormick said Aerie ambassadors are hosting virtual events like panels featuring “role models giving advice,” as well as other digital content about “food, lifestyle and DIY projects like tie-dye that drives interest in our product.”

Ben-Shabat, of Gen Z Planet, said virtual events might not make up for the loss of sales amongst college students, but maintained they are still important.

“This isn’t a period to maximise sales, but it’s still a great opportunity to maximise relationships,” said Ben-Shabat. “Gen Z is very sensitive, and they keep up with how brands behave in the world. They are going to reward brands that they felt were supportive during the pandemic.”

The Do’s and Don’ts for College Ambassador Programs

In the wake of college students across the US getting punished for throwing parties and violating other Covid-safety rules, Smukler said it was important for brands to send the message that their ambassadors must follow rules like social distancing.

This isn't a period to maximise sales, but it's still a great opportunity to maximise relationships.

Aerie is instructing ambassadors to follow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Covid guidelines, which means posts cannot feature groups socialising. Johnson said a similar message has been delivered to brand ambassadors from Pink.

"We’ve transitioned events and activities to virtual because safety is our priority," a Pink spokesperson told BoF over email. "We miss getting to bring everyone together but have ramped up our content to focus even more on career development plus diversity and inclusion."

Even without the opportunity to post with friends, much less hang out with them, Johnson still believes she can connect with students online.

“Now’s a chance for us to network like crazy because we aren’t just connecting with people on our campuses, we’re Zoom-ing into events across the country,” she said.

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