Laurel Mayes, a tall, blond sophomore at the Georgia Institute of Technology, occasionally given to sprinkling her speech with Southern courtesies such as “sir” or “ma’am,” is talking about what she finds appealing lately.
“Skirts probably,” she says, thinking aloud. “I like skirts and dresses right now. I’m also seeing pink a lot in the magazines. So, something pink. In terms of what I like, I just go to the mall and see what I see.”
Mayes maintains that appearance and fashion are important, and that you need to find the “right” items much the way you would shop for the right courses. She reads Cosmo and In Style. She watches “Friends” and “Sex and the City.” She’s keen on how companies market to her. Shopping, in its fully ontological sense, is essential to Mayes, and it’s a skill she applies with the same alacrity as her schoolwork.
The Georgia native shops about once a month and spends anywhere from $50 to $100 on each trip. All together, the nation’s undergraduate women spend $193 million every month on clothes, more than on anything else, including food ($167 million), music ($42 million) and, yes, even school supplies ($45 million, excluding books), according to a recent study by Student Monitor, a New Jersey-based company that surveys college undergraduates.
But what exactly do they buy? Mayes, for one, couldn’t tell you in terms that indicate a single taste. Her style, she says vaguely, is “classic.” Indeed, campus consumers are rarely understood and largely untapped, according to researchers. As a group, they tend to vary wildly in their interests, often confounding marketers in their transition from wide-eyed, impressionable teens to overthinking, jaded and occasionally antiestablishment sophomores — the standard issue weltanschauung among most campus dwellers. And marketers often dump college students into the 18-24 age group, which doesn’t account for the fact that 68 percent of that demographic does not attend college. So, the billion-dollar question remains: How do you market to college students?
Sarah Muehlbauer, a sophomore and visual arts major at the University of Wisconsin, usually wears band T-shirts featuring rarely heard or seen acts. She is loathe to find herself shopping at places like American Eagle or Abercrombie and Fitch, popular haunts for many of her campus peers. She would have you believe, however, that she is not such a fussbudget or a brooding misanthrope, the kind that is normally associated with her aesthetic — a stereotype to be sure. But succinctly, and with matter-of-fact candor rather than disdain, she says, “I hate designer culture and pop culture.” She prefers looks that are “eclectic” and “punk.”
“Marketers should emphasize things that allow you to create your own style,” Muehlbauer says. “College students want to differentiate. High school is when you need someone to tell you how to dress. Not college.”
Harvard junior Allison Tanenhaus, while not easily impressed, is occasionally open to suggestion. She buys a range of clothes, from vintage and H&M to Nanette Lepore and Three Dots. She claims to have a strong sense of self, which, she will tell you, is not part of some Harvard conceit. She finds her sense of style equally strong. While she can be influenced, it doesn’t happen via traditional marketing methods. “I don’t go for ads,” she says. “If the item is shown in a nonadvertising setting, that tends to work better for me. Because then you can see it in your own way.”
Tanenhaus once saw an advertisement in the New York Times for the very skirt she had bought at Barneys. She describes it as an “Oh-no!” moment, a sharp reminder that her taste might tend toward the plebeian, or, at least, that it could become so by mass marketing. But when she happened to spot a particular skirt worn by the Rory character on the TV show “Gilmore Girls,” that was much more appealing. “When it’s in a real context,” she says, “that works for me.”
In an age when short attention spans are considered common pathology, some marketers say narrative-based approaches are effective ways to target sleep-deprived students. One common technique is product placement. John Fees, chief executive officer of Y2M Networks, a marketing firm specializing in reaching college students, says content is important to this generation, and more so in recent years. “They watch less TV, and are less influenced by advertising,” he says.
Realism is the marketing philosophy today, especially among undergraduates aiming for stable careers. “Four years ago, students thought they would be saddled in a Mercedes when they graduated after seeing all the money in the Internet and tech boom,” says Josh Weil, vice president of Student Monitor. “But today, they’re merely hoping for a job.” That shift requires marketers to strike the difficult balance between aspiration and realism.
Georgia Tech’s Mayes, a marketing major, concedes that fashion advertising purposefully bears little resemblance to reality, that its goal is to aspire to some lofty aesthetic. She finds such campaigns alien and off-putting. “I think some of them are not good for college students,” she says. “The models look unapproachable in those pictures. Some look angry. Some look sad. Too serious.” She pauses for a moment to consider an alternative. “Make it approachable,” she explains. “Make it more comfortable, more fun. That is what we really like.”