By  on September 17, 2009

It used to be just the star athletes who brands wanted to recruit in high school. Now it’s the trendy kids, too.

From denim to designer, fashion labels are looking at a new frontier for marketing: high schools. Their aim is to outfit the trendiest kids in class in hopes their peers will imitate their wardrobes. Think of it as “Gossip Girl,” real time.

“It’s no longer enough to have a celebrity wearing your clothes — it’s time for us to look at new ways to reach and engage the consumer,” said Deke Jamison, executive vice president of licensing at YMI Jeanswear, a nine-year-old Los Angeles-based junior sportswear company. “It’s about making sure that the kid is actively involved in the brand through new marketing efforts.”

So beyond Facebook, MySpace, Twitter and other social networks, fashion labels are adjusting their budgets from spending large numbers on more traditional print advertising and going directly to high schools and college campuses as a stomping ground for marketing initiatives. Junior labels in particular are looking at marketing to students in nontraditional ways — forgoing the banners and billboards in favor of more behind-the-scenes actions. Others are looking at partnering with particular schools, working together to benefit the schools, students and the brand. Multibillion-dollar brands like Pepsi and Toyota have been marketing in schools for years — with banners at sporting events or at various other on-campus activities — and now fashion brands are as well.

And there are plenty of schools to choose from — there are almost 28,000 public high schools in America.

“Marketing to kids in school isn’t exactly something that parents are excited about, but if a brand does something that is a true benefit to the schools, then it could be OK,” said Jane Buckingham, president of Trendera, a marketing and media consulting firm focusing on digital and nontraditional trend forecasting. “If a brand decided to sponsor a speaker series on social responsibility or something like that, that’s much more beneficial to students and the schools.”

At the retail level, Buckingham said stores can also benefit from this increase in in-school marketing by planning in-store events around major academic milestones — offering a “treat yourself” discount after getting through final exams or the SATs, for example. Firms may also want to consider aligning themselves with a particular charity, something that makes consumers feel a little less guilty about spending money.

“People want to shop, but it’s almost like they need an excuse or permission to buy,” she said. “Back-to-school just isn’t a good enough excuse anymore. Looking ahead, it’s going to be all about events or giving them a special reason to treat themselves.”

Jamison of YMI Jeanswear said reaching teens where they live is what marketing is all about these days. And, he said, since teens spend a great deal of their time in school, reaching them there is where they want to be. YMI is looking to recruit teens to be its ambassadors so they end up wearing the clothes to school. He also said that in the process, the company is in the early stages of looking at ways to help the schools.

“Giving back to the community gives us a real reason to do this,” he said.

Ryan Garman, president of AllDorm, a San Francisco-based marketing firm dedicated to reaching students on college campuses in nontraditional ways, sees the recession is leading many companies — particularly in the fashion business — to school marketing.

“A recession doesn’t affect a student in the same way that it does an adult, students are still spending money and many of them are spending their parents’ money,” Garman said. “Which is why we’ve seen a spike in apparel brands approaching us.”

Garman said luxury brands like Christian Dior and Giorgio Armani have contacted them looking to get their brands on campus, but it was a major Lucky Brand Jeans campaign that recently brought the company promising results.

“Everything we do is on a peer-to-peer level. It’s really the only way that students respond,” he said. “There is no better way than having one student or a group of students communicating to other students.”

So, with Lucky Brand, AllDorm connected with various college student groups nationwide at the top 250 colleges, reaching out to sororities, fraternities, dance teams and student government groups and decked the students out in Lucky Brand. Those students were then mobilized on their campuses and given gift cards and discount certificates to hand out to their friends. In return, Lucky Brand gave money to these student groups which helped them raise awareness for their particular groups or throw their own events on campus. AllDorm also worked with students to have Lucky Brand door hangers (that looked like men’s neckties) placed on dorm room doors with Lucky’s “Lucky You” signature phrase printed on them. In addition, AllDorm worked with students by sending text messaged surveys to their cell phones, which better helped the brand understand what types of fashion students were interested in or just to find out more about a particular student.

“With computer surveys, we have to wait for the student to physically sit down in front of their computers, but they always have their phones on them,” Garman stressed. “It’s so easy for them to just text back their answers.”

Throughout AllDorm’s 10 years in business, Garman said it has done various things for these student groups — even providing enough money to Boston University’s dance team to send them to nationals.

“The real reason they are participating is because they are getting paid. With something like Lucky, they were getting free clothes and they were getting the funding for their groups that the universities just couldn’t provide,” he said. “Anytime you give something free to a college student, it’s a win-win situation.”

Looking ahead, Garman said AllDorm is currently looking at building a social media team to help it get its clients’ news out via Twitter and Facebook.

“Students spend a lot of time online, and they also do a great job at blocking advertising online,” he said. “So it’s our thought that these ads need to be peer generated. Any brand can create their own Facebook page, but that doesn’t mean it’s beneficial to do so.”

This network of students working on the social media team will post videos on their own pages, leading their friends to see these videos and comment on them on a peer-to-peer level.

“If you or I were to post the video, no one would care, but if a student was to post it and have his or her friends see it, now that’s the biggest value anyone could ask for,” Garman said.

Marketing to students while they are in school can be a good thing, said Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst of The NPD Group. However, if it’s not done right, it can also do some damage.

“There are those companies who are into guerilla marketing and have been trying to get their product on celebrities in hopes of influencing consumers,” he said. “I like to call this kind of marketing chimpanzee marketing. It’s really the same kind of an idea where companies are striving to influence the influencer through word of mouth. But, these kids are really, really smart and they will figure it out if they are marketed to in the wrong way. It could do some serious damage to a brand.”

Even Garman admitted that while AllDorm is concentrated on marketing to college students, they have done some work in high schools, which tends to be more challenging since many of the students are under 18 and high schools usually have a stricter list of rules. With that said, there are a bunch of brands in the junior category which are jumping in.

Alden Halpern, president of the Tyte brand, said that for the last 10 years he has been working with a group of high schools in New York, California and Florida to survey students. Before each collection is shown to retailers, a concept line goes to the schools and the students are left with the clothes in a room with no adults present. While the kids know they are being filmed, Halpern said the students are always willing to speak their minds about what they like and what they don’t like about the clothes.

Now, Halpern is looking to take this focus group strategy to a new level, hoping to influence these students even further. Halpern has teamed with about 200 high schools nationwide to conduct a series of essay contests and raffles, where school faculty members decide which student wins a particular prize from Tyte. Also, after spending hours on the junior floor at Macy’s Herald Square and getting feedback from over 200 teens and their parents, Halpern has gathered a sizeable database. He sends these kids free jeans (no more than one free pair per kid within an eight month period) and even sponsors a Tyte party for them and 10 of their friends, where they are able to order their jeans.

“These kids go to school, tell their friends that they are going to have a party where they can get free jeans,” Halpern said. “I even throw in $60 for pizza. Our business has grown because of this and we get a real read on what these kids like and don’t like about the product. Also, $60 for pizza is peanuts compared to what I would spend on a magazine ad. It’s been a great way to get into these kids’ heads.”

Looking ahead, Halpern said that for 2010, he is looking into the idea of targeting college campuses.

While only in the beginning stages of marketing in high schools, New York-based Pink Cookie chief executive officer Howard Levy said that once Sears in Chicago opens Pink Cookie shops in three of its locations there on Oct. 26, he is planning a big marketing push in Chicago area high schools.

“Ultimately, it would be great to have Pink Cookie ambassadors who wear the clothes to school,” Levy said. “But we are going to start with holding various design contests with art classes and get these consumers to connect with our designers — get them to be more actively involved with the process.”

Levy said that since the Pink Cookie brand is based heavily around the graphic designs they create for their clothing, he is planning for this to be a positive tie with education. He said that this will also help the company save money that would have been spent on larger advertising initiatives in the process.

“There are so many new ways to get these kids’ attention and we really believe that reaching them at school is a great way to get feedback,” he said.

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