In my last post, Brands as Functional Friends for Millennials, I opined on the potential to create brand trust, and subsequent loyalty, among Millennials by becoming functional friends, i.e., by actively providing useful resources and support. This is differentiated from the notion of “faux friends,” that is, brands that build excitement, if not real attachment, by being a part of the “gimme culture,” wherein your brand is only as good with its audience as its last offer, daily deal, freebie, or other “gimme.” (For more thoughts on that subject, check out Marketing to Millennials: Brand Trust or Transaction?)
So I’m wondering where on that brand friendship spectrum you would place the involved parties featured in last Sunday’s New York Times article On Campus, It’s One Big Commercial.
Can you sell more soap in an Ivory Tower?
The piece talks about the growing, if not new, marketing practice of not merely reaching out to kids on campus but actually becoming part of institutionalized college life. Besides the well-established outreach of “brand ambassadors” and “campus evangelists” (the commercial kind), the article describes how brands are now even creating events on official school calendars:
“Just how far one big company — Target — has permeated [the University of North Carolina] was evident at freshmen welcome week in late August, at what students and administrators alike characterized as a touchstone party for the class of 2015. As part of the official university program, Target sponsored a welcome dinner on a Friday. Then, on Saturday, for the first real social event for freshmen, it hired buses to ferry students to a Target superstore in Durham for late-night shopping, says Winston B. Crisp, the university’s vice chancellor for student affairs.”
As a parent of not-quite-old-enough-for-college kids, I cringed a bit at the thought of the hallowed halls of higher learning becoming the hollow halls of hyper-selling. As a marketer, however, I have to admit that my initial reaction was “Wow, Target does it again!”
Brand Trust Winners and Losers
Nonetheless, I think there are brand winners and losers in this scenario. The UNC brand (and that of the 65 other universities in the Target program) is at risk here, at least with tuition-paying parents who may look askance at paying for the privilege of turning their kids into a captive marketing audience. (And then there’s the question of maintaining trust in an educational brand’s commitment to unfettered academic inquiry and intellectual honesty, but that’s a whole ‘nother post.)
And even the Marvelous Marketing Machine from Minneapolis faces the long-term risk of being seen as a faux friend. After all, no matter how fun and involving the events may be, they are, at their core, selling opportunities dressed up as social occasions. To this crucial demographic group of which one noted survey says “… nothing matters more than authenticity…” events that purport to build school spirit and aid student life, while being commercial at heart, may over the longer term undermine a brands image as an authentic “friend.”
Then again, college kids may just not care – Target’s program is now rockin’ the freshman welcome week ritual at 66 universities across the country. But the business of buying consumer love is a fickle one, as the final quote in the Times article implies:
“Back at Target, Nitin Goel, a wiry, gum-chewing 18-year-old in low-slung jeans, is loaded down with free mac and cheese. He’s carrying a friend’s new beanbag chair. Earlier that night, waiting for the Target bus by the campus bookstore, Mr. Goel had pledged allegiance to Wal-Mart, where he had shopped all his life. Now he doesn’t seem quite so sure.”
My money says that as soon as ol’ Noel gets a free ride and a gaggle of gimmes from former-favorite Wal-Mart, he’s out the Target door once again.