As a new intake of students settles to a life of learning this month, brands are gearing up to persuade these young recruits to part with their cash. While a recent Department for Education and Skills study estimates that students' average annual expenditure is a mere £7,000, as 2.4 million people currently pass through higher education, this market is worth a massive £13bn a year - a figure that can only rise as Government looks to hit its 50 per cent higher education target for 18 to 30-year-olds.
At the start of the academic year, the prime trap for attracting those experiencing their first taste of independent living is freshers' fairs, traditionally seen as an opportunity to entice new students into a lifetime of brand loyalty through give-aways and promotions. While students inevitably spend part of their meagre budget on alcohol, cigarettes and mobile phones, other brands are looking to ensure students become loyal consumers for life.
Endsleigh Insurance, which was set up by and is still 15 per cent owned by the NUS, positions itself as the insurer for busy professionals. 'Our policies and services are for career people, so we are at freshers' fairs in a sales sense, as this is where we hope to attract and keep students through graduation,' says student promotion manager Carol Watkins.
In September, activities on campus were backed by a media relations campaign, targeting personal finance journalists on the nationals with facts, figures and case studies highlighting the advantages of young people insuring their goods and belongings.
'The majority of students underestimate the value of their possessions, so helping them avoid a potential insurance shortfall is a big theme for us this year,' adds Watkins.
Likewise, voluntary organisations view freshers' fairs as a timely opportunity to explore and tap in to young people's social consciences. 'There is a resource issue, but we tend to hit freshers' fairs as a fundraising thing,' says Terrence Higgins Trust (THT) PR manager Mark Graver, who points to students' propensity for sponsored jumps out of planes and endurance in the face of cold baked beans baths. This year, for the first time, however, the THT is hitting the University of London's Freshers' Weeks to sign up e-campaigners. With an online resource that finds students' local MP, it hopes to engage this audience in lobbying activities for some of its human rights issues.
In addition, as students become more concerned about statistics claiming that the average degree comes with a £20,000 debt, so an increasing number of employers such as JD Wetherspoon and Domino's Pizza are visiting freshers' jobs fairs with a view to finding part-time staff.
However, some view these freebie fests as an environment where PR messages are most likely to get lost in a crush of carrier bags and logo loot.'I disapprove of freshers' fairs, as only people with the biggest budgets achieve cut through,' says youth marketing agency Beatwax MD Michael Brown.
Instead, his firm prefers to embed itself in the fabric of every-day student life. This includes running a Campus TV service, which showreels the latest music and film releases for clients including BMG, Miramax and 20th Century Fox in student unions. This is matched by club nights, where DJs flag up new albums and offer CD samples and vouchers for money off in stores.
Buzz on campus
To create an on-campus, word-of-mouth buzz around films such as the recently released Super Size Me and Open Water, Beatwax also runs a Firstmovies club through a dedicated website, which entitles student members to a range of advance screenings in return for online feedback.
Putting aside the growing number of mature students, for many first-time homeleavers, Freshers' Week is a time of making friends, partying and snogging, not picking up new brands. 'We advise clients to steer clear of Freshers' Week, unless they are genuinely looking to sign up large groups of people,' adds brand experience agency Virgind3 managing director James Layfield. 'It's OK for credit cards or gym subscriptions, but for brands to go in to that emotionally charged arena - particularly alcohol, fashion or music labels who want to build loyalty through a relationship - it's not going to happen.'
Once the initial fun factor dies down in the fourth or fifth week of term, brands can find that they are suddenly the next big thing on campus.
When clothing firm Republic wanted to launch stores in Reading, Cardiff and Southampton two years ago, it put posters around city centres - with free T-shirts attached - distributed doorhook flyers to students' bedroom doors with pant-o-meters on them and organised a competition to win free knickers.
That example aside, university and college campuses do provide the perfect enclosed environment for brands to reach their target audience. For the past three years, Layfield's organisation has worked with client Virgin Mobile on its Big Red House campaign, whereby students around the UK can win one of ten rent-free houses for a year for themselves and three friends.
Last October and November, KPMG increased its visibility as a graduate employer on 20 campuses around the UK, including Birmingham and Edinburgh, with an 'All Bright Minds Welcome Tour'. Designed to attract the highest calibre students to consider a career with the accountancy firm, this involved four interconnecting white dome-like pods, which appeared overnight.
Maths and economics students were then directed to the site to undergo a series of exercises to challenge their thinking, while meeting some of the previous year's KPMG graduate intake.
While campus activities effectively ring-fence student audiences, the ever-mounting cost of living expenses, tuition and forthcoming top-up fees means that an increasing number of undergraduates are choosing to live at home. In addition, many more brands now recognise that as consumers of mainstream media and experiences, students are also an integral part of the overall youth market.
For example, this April, easyJet promoted its two new daily flights from Gatwick to Prague to students in Brighton with an event at a city-centre club, Event II. Using a game-show device similar to the Mr and Mrs format, it gave all young people there the chance to win one of ten trips for two to the Czech Republic.
Similarly, this summer, GCI has been working with Mates Healthcare to promote safe-sex messages and a new Xplore range of condoms to 16 to 21-year-olds, with a campaign fronted by hip-hop star DJ Sassy, which rolled out across clubs in Ibiza, Majorca and Ayia Napa. It has photoshoots of DJ Sassy lined up for the mainstream youth media and a ten-date university tour planned for later this year.
As Ajay Teli, PR manager of NUS Entertainments' student marketing agency, Making Waves, highlights: 'Brands will only appeal if they provide a connection and a gateway to student lifestyle choices. Giving away some free product and putting up a couple of banners is no longer enough.'
And as students become an increasingly diverse group, who value their free time and money highly, so brands need to deliver information and experiences that are relevant and worthwhile.
PROMOTING BRANDS: WHAT STUDENTS THINK
JESS LEACH, 20, CAMBRIDGE UNIVERSITY
"I hate having text messages sent to my phone, especially the ones that ask you to ring back. I also don't like things where you have to spend money to save money. However, I like getting a student discount for stuff you're going to buy anyway, like clothes or drinks. But I would be very wary of having something pushed upon me.'
BEN WERBNER, 23, MANCHESTER METROPOLITAN UNIVERSITY
'Student marketing doesn't annoy me, because I I don't like to stick to the same things for too long. There are no brands I'd actively steer clear of because of what they represent, as I'm not passionate about things like that - except if it involved seriously hurting animals. I don't mind vouchers and money-off deals, because hey, I'm a student.'