This week, 1.5 million young people will be leaving home for the first time to become students. For many it will be their first taste of independence and the first time they have had complete control over their finances.
Companies are heavily targeting students at this time of year. Many say they are seeking to gain long-term brand loyalty, but cynics claim large corporations are just looking to cash in on students’ notorious lack of control over their spending habits.
This youth exodus is accompanied by initiatives aimed at students from two big brands. Unilever is launching a web-based soap opera, called Foam & Away with the backing of its Surf brand and Iceland is to launch a new home shopping package for sympathetic relatives to send to hard-up students (MW last week).
Unilever and Iceland are not alone in their desire to sell their brands to students. Mobile phone companies, such as Vodafone, target students intensively at this time of year.
Banks have already made it their business to target students and have seen the lucrative returns in attracting customers at an early age – most of us know how infrequently consumers change banks.
The UK’s 3.1 million students are no longer pigeonholed as political activists, or as layabouts who stay in bed all day watching television, eating pot-noodles – impervious to marketing. With up to £5,000 each to spend every year, they have an annual spending power of £15bn.
According to Paul Russell, publisher of student lifestyle magazine Fresh Direction, students have been perceived wrongly as a market that is hard to reach; so, in the past, companies have not considered marketing to them. He claims students are a lucrative group to target, particularly in the packaged goods sector: “This is the first time they have lived away from home, so this is the first time they have had to buy razors, washing powder and even aspirins.”
Fresh Direction, which is circulated among 225,000 students, is testimony to the fact that companies are showing their faith in students as an important target market. Heinz, Sony and the obligatory alcohol brands, such as Bacardi, have all taken ads out in the autumn issue.
Students have access to an average of £2,500 a year in student loans, which they top up with an overdraft of about £1,500 from their banks. Although many have jobs on the side, it still does not leave them much in the way of surplus cash.
On the one hand, these cash-poor students will have had little experience in dealing with their own finances and are ripe for exploitation. Also, they do not venture far from their campus rooms, so they are easy to advertise to.
All the same, industry insiders say targeting students is not a matter of using a scatter-gun approach.
Ian Milner, managing partner of youth marketing agency Iris, claims students view their time at university almost as a break from life, and have almost no concept of the future, making them unpredictable purchasers with low brand loyalty.
He says: “Students are aware that there is no such thing as a job for life. They do not necessarily feel there is much to look forward to and view the future as rather bleak. In some cases, going to university is more about breathing space than anything else.”
According to Milner, companies such as Diageo and Bass, which offer cheap promotions in Student Union bars, are wasting their time if they are looking to gain brand loyalty. “Students will lap up anything that is free, but they won’t develop brand preferences.”
Milner believes students are extremely hard for packaged goods brands to target. “Quite frankly, Unilever and Iceland will have to go through the same process again when they have finished university. Students are not loyal, they are extremely promiscuous purchasers.”
Unilever’s Foam & Away soap opera, available for viewing on www.surf.co.uk, is unlikely, say observers, to create much excitement. As one puts it: “A finger on the pulse is not what springs to mind when you view the site. It [Unilever] just hasn’t got a clue about what is cool.”
The site’s soap opera is a photo story and not unlike the Sun’s Deirdre’s Photo Casebook. Its opening episode is an introduction to students living in a shared house. After this week, it will invite students to submit their ideas for scripts, with a chance to win a digital camera.
Stealing a march on other soap brands?
Surf consumer brand manager Shahla Rushworth claims that the data capture the Web soap will gain on students will have “substantial value”. She also believes that, as it is the first time these students will have had to do their own washing, there is an opportunity to steal a march on other soap brands yet to target this market.
Milner is critical of Unilever’s strategy: “Soap operas are extremely successful with students, but the most appropriate place for them is television.”
He claims that because students have only limited access to computers, the time they have to use them will be taken up with college work and sending e-mails.
Milner also suggests that students are only susceptible to marketing from “credible” brands such as Levi’s; “Students tend to spend every penny they get,” he says. “Fashion claims a disproportionate part of their budget, because they are defining themselves.”
According to an Iceland spokeswoman, its student’s package, which comprises 14 evening meals and various other comforts, is a way of raising the supermarket’s profile in students circles. She claims that Iceland’s anti-GM food stance will ensure it is viewed sympathetically by students: “They are aware of the issues, and the fact that we are on the high street makes it easier for students to do their shopping.”
Trying to build brand loyalty
At present, there is little evidence to show that students buying a washing powder brand in their first year at university will still buy the same brand in ten years, or that a food parcel from Iceland will conjure up cosy feelings towards the Iceland brand.
Whether or not Milner’s judgement is correct, marketers are indisputably showing more confidence in marketing to students.