Marketing Brand Strategy Influencer Marketing

How to create brand connections with gen Z, starting with university freshers’ week

By Louise Millar | Senior creative strategist



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September 26, 2022 | 8 min read

As they form habits and allegiances for the rest of their lives, are university students an undervalued marketing audience? Louise Millar of student marketing agency Seed (part of the Amplify group) thinks so. Here’s Millar’s course synopsis for student marketing 101.

A party scene

How do smart brands engage university students at freshers’ week – and beyond? / Anthony DELANOIX via Unsplash

For many brands targeting the UK youth market, students and their £12.7bn annual spending power are a no-brainer. With an annual intake of 600,000+ new students, freshers’ week is prime time, with fairs providing the biggest arena for brands to target up to 10,000 students IRL at one time, with no audience wastage.

Hitting them when that first loan drops, when they’re getting their first taste of ‘spendependence,’ is a tactical opportunity to get on their right side. But it’s a highly competitive market, and savvy students aren’t instantly converted to brand loyalty by one-off activations. So brands need to look beyond freshers’ week if they want to truly engage on a long-term basis.

Over the three years (minimum) that they spend at university, students shape social and financial habits that last to graduation and beyond. Brands can take advantage of their receptive mindset, and the condensed target market, by building an approach that plays into their values and their predictable behavior patterns, connecting with the next generation at the most formative period of their lives. Here’s how.

The term-to-term mindset

Each term across the year sees different core behaviors at play – and, therefore, distinctive brand opportunities:

Term 1: It’s an exciting but turbulent time. It’s a period of immense personal change where they’re trying to find their own identity and are no longer tied to family habits. They’re experimenting with boundaries and habits, and are learning core life skills for the first time. They’re also forming new relationships, seeking belonging by exploring different communities, and enjoying new experiences. Brands should consider how to welcome, celebrate and support them during this time. It’s about being fun and offering practical support.

Term 2: They’ve found their feet and have established relationships to set them up for the next three years. Time is more precious as study gets more serious and they’ve settled into a routine. As habits start to become more rigid, it’s essential that brands maintain a presence to ensure customer retention and stay front of mind. This term should aim for regular engagement opportunities to build relationships.

Term 3: It’s a term of two halves, going from peak academic pressure to relief and celebration that it’s over (and school’s out for summer). Money is tighter; loans are running dry; pressure is mounting. Exams are imminent. They are stressed. What they need from brands is to feel supported, offering moments of relief to raise a smile with minimal value exchange expected. Consider how to tackle the life elements that fall to the wayside when everyone is studying (eating well, sleeping, wellness) or how to go where they are to connect: libraries, halls and shared flats.

Once the worst is over, it is time to party. Brands should play into holiday hedonism and deliver a memorable experience to celebrate the achievement of a year done and dusted. Go big.

The power of value

While students have a strong desire to connect with brands that reflect their ethics and identities, there’s a huge intention v behavior gap. Principles cost something, and students acknowledge limitations based on their financial pressure points. Brands should understand where and how they can offer value, but don’t be blasé about standing for something. 25% of students have changed which brands they buy from; 17% have boycotted a brand based on ethics.

Students may have a lot to spend, but they make very conscious decisions about how, where, when and why. They’re much more likely to trial and sample if they feel brands understand that they habitually budget and then thoughtfully splurge. Discount offers and long-term deals make them feel like they’re being invested in. Give them the little things they don’t spend on, or samples to entice them. Product and brand engagement will increase.

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Peer-to-peer reigns supreme

Peer-to-peer recommendations remain one of if not the most powerful tools for ongoing targeting with students. 78% of Seed’s 10,000+ student and youth network said that a recommendation from a friend was the number one influencing factor in recent purchase decisions. With fierce competition from brands, it can be the difference between a one-off purchase and deep-rooted allegiance. By tapping into this power of community, brands can drive exponential reach and engagement through individuals’ networks and connections.

That’s where Student Brand Ambassadors (SBAs) come into play. SBAs can facilitate continuous touchpoints across the year as genuine advocates that emanate brand love because they have an authentic passion for it. When seeking a dream team, brands should be clear and confident about who their ideal ambassador is, prioritizing legitimate representatives over someone with a lot of followers looking for a pay cheque.

Once they’re established, it’s time to hand over ownership. SBAs know how to talk to their peers, adapting brand activity and communications to be hyper-relevant to students at their university. It’s as close to having brand communications tailored to each individual as it can get.

Seed will be diving into this and more at IRL event: On Campus, In Culture and Beyond: Creating brand connection with gen Z beyond Freshers’.

Marketing Brand Strategy Influencer Marketing

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