How to make the grade when marketing to university students

By Jo Hudson, Planning director



The Drum Network article

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November 2, 2016 | 6 min read

Each year, brands earmark freshers’ week as the ideal window reach out to new university students. But is this really the right time to open the conversation?


PrettyGreen implemented a year-long qualitative research study involving 100 students around the country. Through conversations, video diaries, photos and questionnaires, our recruits documented their year at university, resulting in some significant findings for the brands who seek to connect with them.

Here are 10 things to consider when appealing to the university shopper:

Think ahead

Most brands don’t engage with students until they are on campus, but the preceding summer presents a big opportunity. Following A-level results, students are busy selecting what items to take, finding which brands represent them and preparing to become independent adults. It’s a prime moment for seeking advice.

Don’t ignore practical needs

Only 32% of the students we surveyed had regularly cooked for themselves before university, while just 14% had regularly done their own laundry. The practical needs of students are well recognised, but most brands choose to engage with the student social scene. See being “unlooked after” as an opportunity.

Leave space at freshers’ week

Between sorting out their NUS cards, getting registered at the library, signing up to the clubs and societies available, making small talk, drinking and unpacking, there is very little time for brands to make meaningful connections during freshers’ week. While they may pick up some free stuff, most of the students we spoke to said they didn’t read any of the branded literature handed to them in Freshers’ Week.

Students settle in fast

The freshers we questioned felt that the first week was a very long one but, by the end of it, they were largely settled. By week two, a huge 87% claimed to feel “completely at home” in their new surroundings, due to the almost total focus on making friends. Brands wanting to aid the settling in process must be aware that this period is brief.

A mid term opportunity

A significant need arises around the middle of the first term, when 30% of the students we spoke to experienced a delayed sense of homesickness. This is the point when food supplies from home have well run out, money is dwindling and the reality of work becomes apparent. National drop out rates peak in early November. By this time, nearly a quarter of our interviewees wanted help with their academic work.

Reconciling old and new lives

Within the intense new world of university, old school friendships can get temporarily displaced. Visits from hometown friends can feel awkward and many students only feel truly comfortable with their established friends once back for the holidays. In our study, only 12% of the relationships that had begun before university survived the first year. There’s rich untapped emotional space for brands to help students reconcile their old and new worlds – be it family, friendships or relationships.

Regressing for Christmas

Leaving for the holidays is bittersweet. Students look forward to home comforts, but are melancholic about leaving firm friends and fledgling relationships. The greatest irritation of the returning students we spoke to was being made to conform to old rules. Having experienced so much, home life can seem to have stood frustratingly still. There are rich opportunities for brands that acknowledge the needs of students as they head back home, as well as during term time.

Going with the flow

Following the enormity of a sense of “new” in term one, the rest of the year has a steady flow. Routines become established and freshers are confident, settled and habitual in their university lives. At the point where insecurities disappear and rituals form, brands can easily get it wrong by staying in advice mode or by taking a generic approach to university life.

Summer gets (a bit more) serious

Although work in year one rarely counts towards the degree, the habit of exam taking and the efforts involved in getting to university push most students to focus on work more heavily in the third term. Nevertheless, the end of term is filled with celebrations and partying as the students get ready for an extensive summer break up to 13 weeks long. Rooms must be emptied, leading to melancholic moments. Brands can gain relevance by acknowledging the end-of-an-era feeling for students that occurs as year one draws to a close.

The enduring influence of home

For most students, relationships with parents flourished rather than faltered during their first year away. The value of the family opinion is something that holds. Many parent/child relationships move through an important transition when university starts and there is great potential for the home/family relationship to progress to a new level, revealing greater influence from home than many brands imagine.

University life is a rich and fertile ground for marketing opportunities, but it has to be played correctly. Pay attention to shifting the emotional and practical needs of students as they navigate the crucial first year of independence, and there are huge rewards for connecting brands.

Jo Hudson is creative planner at entertainment, sport and wellbeing agency PrettyGreen.


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