Helping them help themselves

Marketing to young people in education is difficult and controversial, and the consumers can be cynical and fickle, but vouchers and coupons are powerful tools if used wisely. By Richard West

Just as with reality-TV shows and make-over programmes, when it comes to free gifts and promotional offers it seems that we Brits can’t get enough of them. Britain, and England in particular, has the reputation as the “freebie” centre of Europe.

According to the Institute of Sales Promotion, promotions are worth more than &£20bn annually and account for about 2% of the UK’s gross domestic product. Of course, most people realise that by collecting points or coupons you’re not really getting something for nothing, but even so, people just can’t help falling for them – even when the rewards are comparatively small in relation to what consumers have to do to get them.

For example, a report by the Consumers’ Association in 2001 showed that under the Tesco Computers for Schools scheme, 21,990 vouchers were needed to buy a personal computer costing around &£1,000. Parents would have to spend nearly &£250,000 to obtain the necessary vouchers.

Catch them young

The whole point of sales promotion is to offer an incentive for people to change their behaviour. If comp-anies catch consumers young enough, the chances of keeping them as regular customers are significantly improved. And, judging by the bulging welcome packs being handed out at university freshers’ fairs during September and October, companies are wising up very quickly.

If campuses were once hotbeds of left-wing idealism, the very opposite is true today. Brand managers are falling over themselves to reach the elusive youth market. However, today’s students are proving to be every bit as discriminating and media savvy as their parents were once radical. Tapping into the student market is perhaps more difficult than ever – arguably because so many companies are trying to do it.

Managing director of brand-experience agency Link Communi- cation, Joel Kaufman, believes that for the average marketer, identify- ing with teenagers and understand- ing what turns them on is so far off their normal radar, it’s no surprise that most of them get it wrong.

Kaufman adds/ “Psychologically, brands have a great opportunity to get into the young consumer’s mindset. However, on college campuses there may be dozens of different campaigns going on and it’s easy for brands to get swamped. Differentiation is key, and effective use of vouchers and coupons can help products to stand out from the rest. Some of the more astute newspapers have been very good in this respect and it’s a model that others could follow.”

Spotting a gap in the market, the Universities & Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS), the organisation that processes applications for full-time undergraduate courses at universities, now has a business arm – part of whose function is to help brands communicate with Britain’s student population.

In 2004, UCAS teamed up with a number of leading companies including Orange, the Financial Times, Top Shop and Vue Cinemas, to launch the “ucascard”, a plastic card aimed at 16- to 18-year-old university applicants that offers discounts via a voucher booklet or downloadable form.

Phenomenal success

Business development manager for UCAS, Anne-Marie Dabrowska, says the scheme has been a phenomenal success, claiming that there are over 150,000 registered users of the ucascard, adding that the UCAS website now includes an “undergraduate offers” microsite, where registered applicants can benefit from offers during the crucial six-week window between the publication of A-level results and the first week of college.

The fact that students like freebies won’t come as a shock to anyone. These days, burdened with loans, tuition fees and living expenses, the majority are glad of anything that saves them money. For many, schemes such as the ucascard are the first time that many experience vouchers.

What’s hot and what’s not

More difficult is trying to keep up with youth culture, which is a fast-moving and changeable entity. For example, everyone knows that most teenagers are into music, but using the wrong band or singer to promote your product could be disastrous. Making promotions and vouchers more appealing to the target market requires a good understanding of what’s hot and what’s not. An insider’s knowledge helps.

Luke Mitchell is a former content developer at the National Union of Students and is now a managing consultant with student marketing consultancy Reach Students. He says/ “As a rule, students love free stuff, but in recent years they have become fussier, and any discount or voucher has to offer something of genuine value to them. They are also fickle consumers and liable to flirt with whoever is offering incentives, so vouchers are an ideal – and perhaps necessary – way for a brand to establish a relationship.

“Discount offers that require them to spend a lot before they get something back are not popular,” Mitchell believes. “The student market is saturated with these types of offers and students are suspicious of them. One thing that really turns them off is the suggestion that they can be fooled.”

An intelligent offer

So which brands are getting it right with their student promotions? Mitchell says unequivocally: “A great example of a well-run voucher scheme is Orange’s “Orange Wednesdays” two-for-one cinema ticket offer, which is delivered via mobile phone. Students love it and it’s easy to understand why: it brings together three things that are close to their hearts. Firstly they are massive film-goers, with 92% of them going at least once a month. Secondly they are probably the heaviest users of mobile phones and new technologies. Thirdly, they relish freebies. Orange Wednesdays is a very intelligent offer.”

A trickier proposition is deciding how best to implement and promote a voucher scheme so that it actually gets used. The student marketing environment is unique and there are plenty of pitfalls as well as opportunities. Detailed research is therefore vital.

All that is new is perfect

Henry Lambert, an account manager with Tullo Marshall Warren and a commentator on trends and youth marketing, makes the point that timing is crucial. He says: “The key to marketing to the youth sector is remembering that they want things to be pretty instant. The internet and mobile telephony means they expect immediate response, so any promotion that embraces all that is new in technology is perfect.”

Even so, many marketers who grew up in the 1960s and 1970s probably find this a little baffling. Not so long ago there was barely such a thing as a specific teenage market – today, as well as the “youth market” there are also markets for “pre-teens”, “tweenies” and “tinies”.

Voucher schemes aimed at younger, impressionable audiences are causing unease, particularly among the teaching unions. They also prompt a good deal of head scratching across the Channel.

Britain’s continental neighbours wonder at our “something-for-nothing” culture. Many European countries have tight rules in place that restrict the use of consumer promotions. However, in the less-regulated, free-market UK, we are following the US lead, where vouchers, coupons and other related promotions have become an integral part of their culture.

Conforming to best practice

In the past few years leading companies and brands – including Tesco, McDonalds, Walkers, Pringles and Cadbury’s – have launched promotional offers for free school equipment in exchange for wrappers, tokens and coupons. Although these schemes conform to best-practice guidelines agreed in 2001 by the Consumers’ Association, advertisers and the Department for Education, the question of whether such techniques are acceptable has divided public opinion.

While some schools have welcomed the schemes for helping to boost their resources, others have pointed out that when the ⢠promotions are scrutinised in detail, the offers are pretty meagre in comparison to the outlay. Worse, say many of the critics, some of the schemes encourage children to eat the wrong kind of foods at a time when health agencies and nutritionists are trying to improve the eating habits of school children.

Enormous amount of work

But putting that to one side, teachers have discovered that coupon collection schemes also entail an enormous amount of extra work. Dr Rona Tuff is the former president of the National Association of Head Teachers. She says: “Promotions that involve coupons and vouchers are not actually very straightforward. Co-ordinating their collection is an enormous amount of hassle. Participating in a voucher scheme might mean the use of teachers’ time to cut out and dispatch coupons, and they place a lot of wear and tear on the school. If these companies want to help schools, there must be better ways for them to do so.”

However, the motivational power of vouchers – long recognised by company incentive schemes – is now being applied in the classroom. Greenwich Council recently launched a scheme to encourage school students to attend revision sessions, rewarding them with Leisure Vouchers and other incentives. The council says the revision centres are working, with 80% of students taking part attending at least six out of ten sessions.

Mitchell adds: “It’s important that brands communicate their offer in a way that resonates with their audience. Brands rarely get it right, too often relying on stereotypes or clichés. Students appreciate good design, original ideas and language that speaks to them, and will reject creative campaigns that misunderstand or patronise them.”

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