MAKING THE GRADE
Precious de Leon assesses how brands are connecting with the region’s $2 billion student sector.
AT NO OTHER point in time has engagement between brands and consumers been as high as it is now. And no other demographic expects brands to do more than the youth. Besides, this expectation isn’t exclusive to youth-oriented brands alone.
Products or services that want to build long-term brand loyalty could gain more by understanding the next generation of consumers and changing purchasing habits.
However, to be part of the youth conversation is like entering a complex consumer journey. Today’s 14- to 25-year olds not only have comparatively more purchasing power, their buying habits are also different from the previous generations’. So digitising conventional marketing strategies alone isn’t enough, at least for this generation – known as Gen C – because they are always digitally well connected.
Dealing with a target market that is frequently online can lead to dramatic results. The impact of a marketing campaign – good or bad – is instantly amplified as consumers have no reservations about sharing their brand experiences. They willingly endorse the brands they care about and those that care about them.
Equally, a negative brand experience will not only result in the damaging of a singular consumer relationship, it has the potential to sour a brand’s reputation within that individual’s network of peers, which has been multiplied, thanks to the web and social media.
The human network “For this particular generation, everything they think and do is immediately shared. This generation has created a very powerful human network that didn’t exist in the past and has become phenomenally influential in a consumer’s journey,” says Vasudevan KS, director of global business at the UAE-based information management firm Navo, adding that “up to 60 per cent of purchase decisions among the youth are influenced by this human network”. Navo’s clients include Dubai Duty Free and Virgin Megastores.
So just how does a Gen C’s consumer journey differ from its predecessors’? Vasudevan illustrates: For Gen C, the first step is to go on social media platforms and announce its intention to buy and ask peers for brand recommendations. Then, go to third-party websites to compare prices between competitive brands. After narrowing down the options, Gen C take to video sites, such as Youtube, to watch product demos and reviews. After that, it looks for news and articles on its product of choice, and only if satisfied will they finally decide to buy the product.
“Where is the brand engagement in this entire consumer journey? In most cases, they don’t speak to a brand representative or visit the brand’s website at any point before purchase and that’s a missed opportunity,” adds Vasudevan.
Deeper engagement is key to capturing this missed opportunity. And you can’t have more engagement without truly knowing your customer, their motivations and values, how they search for information, connect with your business and even how they don’t.
School life For Gen C, motivations are generally centred around life at school and it offers many chances for brand engagement – addressing students’ needs are more likely to create loyalty and a stronger relationship.
“We describe the youth [as having] various characteristics, such as passionate, fun, challenging, irresponsible and insecure.
When it comes to students, they’re not entirely different, but they’re determined by the role or duty they have within the society. So I would define the youth by age and character, and students by the role they play,” says Jinny Ki, planning director at creative agency Cheil.
“It’s also worth taking a look at the student segment within the youth [category] not because they have different characteristics, but due to the fact that they can be easily accessible from a marketer’s point of
He says that there’s an average of 2.5 million students in the GCC region entering university this year. Their average spend in preparation for undergraduate life is nearly $800, which, he adds, is broken down into approximately 50 per cent for technology products and 50 per cent for other needs, such as clothing, entertainment and academic accessories.
And this market is continually expanding. In Saudi Arabia alone, the Ministry of Higher Education reported year-on-year
With the right approach, brands that market to students are potentially tapping into a $2 million market this year.
view. They love to gather at certain places, which makes for an attractive prospect to a marketer [who wants to] meet and engage with them. Another point is that they share common values and goals as students, so marketers can focus on that. And definitely, it’s worth it.”
According to Vasudevan, brands that market to students with the right approach are potentially tapping into a $2 billion market this year. enrolment growth of more than ten per cent in 2011, with women accounting for more than half of it.
In the UAE, Dubai’s International Academic City and Knowledge Village are set to welcome more than 16,000 and 19,000 students in 2015 respectively, increasing the region’s growing student population to 35,000. Women make up 44 percent of this figure and Emiratis account for 15 per cent.
Potent consumers Naheel Abdelall, marketing communications manager at Beiersdorf MENA – makers of Nivea – sees students as a potential boon for brands. They are, she says, an example of “intelligent consumers”.
“We are in an era where students enjoy the main factors that promote them as potent consumers, such as having relatively good purchasing power in conjunction with a high tendency towards trial.
“This category is also more empowered, being granted the freedom to make their own decisions and choices in terms of consuming activities.
“Moreover, the expansion of the digital world has granted students even more power which, as a result, forces international and national brands to market to students; leaving marketing information only a few clicks away,” she says.
Usually run in conjunction with a larger youth-centred marketing strategy, studentfocused initiatives present an opportunity for brands to become a more ubiquitous partner – a predominantly useful strategy in the Middle East, where brands compete heavily for prime positions among the young population.
“In this day and age of globalisation, convergence and connectivity, it is more
resourceful to encompass students within a brand’s strategy versus targeting only them, unless, of course, the proposition is purely catered to students,” says Hassane Yamak, group media director of Carat.
“Think of them as a community of effective whisperers and instigators that you can integrate within your marketing mix in order to drive chatter and strengthen communication propositions.”
Soft corner Two particular sweet spots for students that brands would do well to address are their social life and concerns about employment. For instance, P&G addresses the former through its initiatives under the Head & Shoulders brand.
“We want to engage with our consumers at the right life stage and that is why student engagement is so important... Students are new users, they’re an important market segment and we aim to make them lifelong brand devotees,” says Sana Khan, brand operations integration manager for Pantene and Herbal Essences at P&G Arabian Peninsula.
“We aim to ensure that all of our marketing activities have an online component,” adds Khan. “We also look to engage faceto-face in locations such as universities when we have an opportunity to, but also in places that are popular with students such as the malls.”
For Pantene, P&G ran an in-mall and on-campus roadshow in order to promote healthy hair checks for women.
“We go beyond the product to talk about issues such as health and wellbeing that students appreciate. During our in-store and university based activations, we have nutritionists onsite to talk about and advise students on a healthy lifestyle.”
These activities are coupled with digital content that is designed to encourage ‘fun’ brand-consumer engagement.
Another example of a student-focused initiative by an FMCG brand was by Beiersdorf. During the GCC launch of its Nivea Stress Protect Deodorant – based on stress-induced sweating – it
used the exam period as a specific situation and 60,000 samples were distributed at universities across the UAE and Saudi Arabia.
As for addressing concerns about employability, Cheil’s Ki shares a case study about a programme called the Young Samsung. It was project tailored exclusively for university students that addressed the issue of employment. One if its activities was the Passion Talk Concert, which was held in universities in Korea. It saw the company’s C-suite executives and professionals from other industries meet with students to exchange knowledge and give advice not only about employability, but also on how to achieve other life goals.
“Sympathise with what they’re worried about and what they’re frustrated with,” says Ki, who suggests that brands must “stimulate a sense of belonging” within the student community and look at ways for enriching the learning experience.
“Find out what they’re struggling with and see if the product or service, or even the brand itself, can sympathise and help them lighten their worries.”
In London, another tech brand applies current consumer insights to traditional ways of marketing to students.
Microsoft uses university roadshows which, it says, does not sell or push products, but uses demos and student ambassadors to talk about technology trends and address students’ tech-related issues. These ambassadors are not paid, but they are the first to try products and have a better chance at getting an internship or employment in the company.
In the Middle East region, students remain a big focus for Microsoft. During the product launches of its Windows 8 and the Windows phone, Microsoft partnered with universities across the UAE, Qatar, Oman and Saudi Arabia to create studentspecific initiatives. These included skill building, innovation training and even a talent acquisition programme.
“A lot of what we do highlights to students and educators how technology
can benefit them. We also bring certified Microsoft trainers to be part of our marketing events. We are very conscious that students today have access to a wider array of technology, so when we have the opportunity, we combine marketing with skill building,” says Miriam Farshoukh, regional PR lead at Microsoft Gulf.
The company also holds roadshows in the region. In one of its recent tours in the UAE, Microsoft interacted with 3,500 students and the professors of the Higher Colleges of Technology.
However, several brands, including Mircosoft, know that such initiatives come at a price. During a youth marketing strategy forum, Lucy Needham, Windows marketing executive for Microsoft in the UK, spoke about how running a student ambassadorship can be “very expensive”. Without quantifying the budget, she says that substantial resources are put into training students, supplying them with kits and creating the facility to regularly monitor their performance every month.
Meanwhile, the Middle East region is no stranger to brand ambassadorship. Google activated its MENA Google Student Ambassador – GSAs – programme in July, for the second time this year.
More than 700 students applied, with Google selecting 234 students from 70 universities across Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Palestine and Iraq, including ten from the UAE and Saudi Arabia.
The programme offers the chance to receive training from Googlers on various areas of work, from technical sessions about its products to more theoretical ones, such as talking to the media.
“The numbers speak for the success of the programme and the cumulative events relating to GSAs… The outreach endeavours conducted throughout the Mena region last year alone reached out to more than 350,000 students and many were awarded scholarships and internships around the globe,” says a spokesperson for Google.
According to Siham Arif Syed, a GSA from the American University of Sharjah, Google’s University Programmes Specialist for the Middle East and Africa held a lecture on the opportunities of ambassadorship and asked students to apply online. Similar to Microsoft, there are no financial incentives, although GSAs have a higher chance of being selected for internships and jobs.
A GSA’s responsibilities include hosting lectures, workshops and trainings at their respective universities and to “encourage the use of Google technologies, such as Google Drive, Google + Hangouts and Google+ Communities”. Each GSA represents Google for one academic year only.
However, Carat’s Yamak cautions that ambassadorship isn’t an end-all solution. Ideally, using a resource (the students) that is already an avid fan of the product would have naturally helped in endorsing the product, and this is sound concept.
To limit reach, schools impose fees on brands that want campus presence.
So with the support of the company, the ambassador’s reach would only be amplified. However, there is an element of risk in making sure that the content shared by the ambassador is not perceived as biased or disingenuous.
Yamak says: “[Brand ambassadorship programmes] have grown recently and they do work to an extent, however, if it is not perceived as genuine and the brand lacks value outside this scheme, then it would fail and could possibly backfire. So the focus should always start with building credibility before pushing the brand into their playground, so to speak.”
Yamak emphasises the importance of creating relevant content and effective storytelling as strong foundations for marketing to students.
“We should never underestimate their intelligence. Students in the region have proven to decipher messages and information more intelligently than perceived. So addressing them with mediocre and cluttered messages may not go down too well. Enticing them to engage and showcasing the value that a brand can bring to their life is key.”
He believes that another way to reach students is through corporate governance.
“Students are emphatic and support causes,” he says, adding that they prefer to associate with brands that add value to their communities.
Navo’s Vasudevan agrees: “Today, the youth are phenomenally charity minded. They are more responsible than the earlier generation when it comes to caring for the earth. A brand’s sincere efforts to become responsible factors into a Gen C consumer’s decision-making when it comes to purchasing a product.”
Caution advised Reaching out to students in their natural environment – the school grounds – isn’t easy. Often, university administrations have stringent rules about how much branding and marketing can be executed within university premises.
“It’s difficult to adjust the level of a brand’s voice, because we’re dealing with schools and students,” says Ki.
“It’s a requirement of schools for marketing activities to not be too commercial and it should be beneficial to the organisation and its students. So having a right balance between the brand’s voice and public interest is not an easy task.”
In some cases, to limit reach, schools impose fees on brands that want campus presence. According to dedicated student portal Bab al Shabab’s account manager, Kunal Thakkur, sometimes the rates are as high as 30 per cent of the brand’s budget for on-campus promotional activities. Bab
al Shabab has MoUs with universities across the region and supports brands in executing on-campus initiatives. One of its long-term collaborations is with Fitness First. The health club recently ran an on-campus event at Dubai’s Knowledge Village encouraging students to compete on a spinning cycle in a bid to win a three-month membership.
Bab al Shabab also works with Microsoft to promote the university edition of its software to students. It has 5,500 students registered in its database and also offers a student discount card.
At the American University of Dubai (AUD), the administration has a lengthy process before allowing any brand or marketer on campus.
“It remains an educational institution. We are not a mall, so it’s quite expensive,” says Reina S. Dib, head of marketing communications at the university.
“[Promotional activities are] restricted to the cafeteria area, where it doesn’t disrupt learning. And the more promoters are added, the more expensive it gets. We haven’t made this into a business, but we make it hard, so only those who want it bad enough get approved. We also request that the promotion is tailor-made to our community, such as special discounts.”
The university is regularly approached by telco, auto and FMCG companies. Dib adds that contracts may also include a sponsorship for student-led events. For ambassadorship, students are usually approached on their own and activities do not involve the campus, while advertisers who ask to hire students part-time, co-ordinate with the university’s career services office.
When asked what platforms she finds to be the most effective with students, Dib says that promoters distributing samples “always work, but that has more of an immediate effect on our student community”. She adds that a booth, coupled with flyers and banners, are often what brands deploy on campus.
“Brands that make an effort to personalise the promotion usually get better results. The same promotion conducted in
a mall won’t work as well on campus. We have learnt, however, that if the brand is not interesting or appealing to students, then no matter how much promotion is conducted, no matter how many free items are given out, no matter how much money is spent for advertising, the average 18- to 20-year olds will not care. My advice is to seriously research and conduct as many focus groups as you possibly can,” says Dib.
Digital dilemma This is, however, the digitally well-connected generation that we are talking about. Isolated on-campus activities alone are not sufficient. Brands have started to clue in on using digital to promote student-specific activities. However, some of them may fall too short of a passable effort.
The AUD, for instance, regularly receives marketing mailers that adver- tisers request to “simply forward” to students’ emails.
Dib adds that AUD’s official Facebook page is “constantly bombarded by advertisers”, despite the page’s clear stance against spamming.
“We often have to explain that one wouldn’t just show up on campus and demand to promote a brand. So why assume that it is okay to invade our pages online?” asks Dib.
School pride It’s evident from the shifts in the students’ consumer journey that brands will have to work even harder to remain part of the consumer dialogue. And this brings us to, perhaps, one of the biggest incentives in marketing to students – you are engaging with a new set of consumers at an age where they are beginning to form brand loyalties.
To make the cut, a brand’s strategy can’t just be about gaining the right first impression. It must include follow-up events at regular intervals during the academic years and extending conversations across multiple platforms.
A brand’s main intention should be to build customer loyalty and trust over time – something that they will hopefully take into adulthood.
Khan’s parting words include advice for those hoping to build a meaningful relationship with students.
“My advice when talking to the youth and students is the same – engage, go digital, be creative and go beyond the product to talk about the issues that relate to them.
“I would always want to be the brand that creates a platform for students to talk to each other and for it to be able to listen to these conversations and learn. Our [region’s] youth are dynamic. They often change their likes and dislikes. What I did for the brand yesterday may be out of date tomorrow, so if I don’t listen, I won’t know or understand, or for that matter, learn.”
On campus: Often, university administrations have stringent rules about how much branding and marketing can be executed
Take action: Nivea distributed 60,000 samples of its Stress Protect Deodorant during the exam period