Why Activating on College Campuses is a Smart Move for Brands

Find out how Trojan, McDonald’s, and Bumble tried to woo the student body.

Trojan Van visitors noshed on hot dogs and donned branded swag.
Trojan Van visitors noshed on hot dogs and donned branded swag.
Photo: Courtesy of Trojan

College campuses seem to have become the latest hot bed for event marketing. In part because brands are hoping to win over the coveted Generation Z demo (those born in the late 1990s to the early 2000s), many of whom are now matriculating at universities across the country.

But how do brands grab the attention of busy college-age kids? Lesson No. 1: Tap into their common interests: food, football, and, well, sex.

Condom brand Trojan recently went on the road, hitting colleges such as the University of Maryland and Penn State, as well as highly foot-trafficked areas across Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and the surrounding areas. The purpose of the Trojan Van tour was to encourage conversations around sex and condom use to prevent both STIs and unintended pregnancies.

“We wanted to meet our key demographic where they already were—at high-traffic events such as concerts, college and professional football games, and key nightlife areas near downtown areas that had high concentrations of universities,” explained Ashley Purdum, director of PR and marketing for Night After Night, the agency that produced the tour. “Setting up near campuses ensured we got a higher percentage of the age group we were looking for.”

The company handed out free condoms (and hot dogs) and hosted sex-positive karaoke, along with sex-ed classes in partnership with local sex-positive influencers. “Since our main K.P.I. was to normalize conversations around sex and condom use, rather than going for a huge national reach, we worked with local sex educators and sex health shop owners,” Purdum said.

The brand hosted sex-positive karaoke during its stops.The brand hosted sex-positive karaoke during its stops.Photo: Courtesy of Trojan

“These influencers all had smaller reach but we knew their audiences already over-indexed on positive attitudes towards sex since they were already publicly following these accounts. And, by choosing local partners, [the influencers] were also easily able to have a natural banter with the Trojan Van attendees, making those sometimes awkward conversations flow even easier as they cracked about team rivalries and school traditions.”

The activation included a re-creation of the Trojan Man lair, transformed into a “sexie” photo booth with suggestive props.The activation included a re-creation of the Trojan Man lair, transformed into a “sexie” photo booth with suggestive props.Photo: Courtesy of TrojanShe also explained that the brand timed the activations around other highly anticipated events like football games and an esports festival.

In order to capture the largest audience possible, it’s common for brands to piggy back off big games such as the McDonald’s Magic City Classic, for example, which is the largest historically black college and university football game in the U.S. Taking place from October 24 to 26, this year’s game at Legion Field in Birmingham, Alabama, along with related events like concerts, parades, and tailgating, attracted 60,000 people.

As the title sponsor, McDonald’s promoted its Black & Positively Golden initiative, a new movement by the fast-food chain to uplift communities through education, empowerment, and entrepreneurship.

Throughout the weekend, McDonald’s promoted its Black & Positively Golden platform, including a float in the Magic City Classic Parade.Throughout the weekend, McDonald’s promoted its Black & Positively Golden platform, including a float in the Magic City Classic Parade.Photo: Darius L. Carter“McDonald’s goal with the Black and Positively Golden platform was to shine a light on black excellence, celebrating the stories of black consumers achieving success,” said Garlanda Freeze, vice president, group account director at Walton Isaacson, the agency tasked with producing the activations. “Our goal with the activations was to give the positive narrative of black consumers a place to be amplified.” To that end, attendees were encouraged to write affirmation statements on a custom wall in the McDonald’s space as a way to share their narrative.

Similar to activating in a particular city, each college campus holds its own unique energy and vibe, something that event producers need to take into consideration when designing activations.

“When you’re on campus, you have to be aware of the essence, the philosophy of the school,” Freeze explained. “You want to be authentic to the student body and be the brand that celebrates them by showing appreciation for their efforts and perseverance of success.”

This mentality also applies to where and how brands set up shop. Purdum explained that “religious-leaning schools can be less open to certain messages about sex but, in those cases, we just permitted public blocks surrounding those campuses because we felt it was still important to provide them with a platform for these vital conversations.” Also, because brands typically need to adhere to stricter guidelines for on-campus activations, creating a space just off campus can simply be easier.

“Our bet paid off, and we were told by students how their campus wasn’t providing ample education services and, even more shocking, when we heard from more than one student that the condoms at their health centers had expired,” Purdum said.

This type of social good aspect is another important element to keep in mind when activating on college campuses. In November, Bumble partnered with Feed Projects, the fashion brand started by Lauren Bush that provides school meals to children in need around the world. The networking app brought its Food Truck for Good to campuses across the U.S., encouraging users to stop by the truck with their Bumble match. Those who showed their profile got a treat for two.

Samantha Fulgham, Bumble’s chief creative marketing officer, said that the brand is “always looking for meaningful ways to engage with the college community…. Bumble’s biggest priority when engaging with college communities is making sure that we’re educating college students on the power of making meaningful connections and empowering them not just in their digital lives, but also in IRL.”

Host Young Wayne handed out samples from the McDonald’s Snack Truck during the McDonald’s Magic City Classic weekend. The tailgate space was designed to feel like a traditional HBCU yard. Menu items included spicy barbecue glazed tenders and fries.Host Young Wayne handed out samples from the McDonald’s Snack Truck during the McDonald’s Magic City Classic weekend. The tailgate space was designed to feel like a traditional HBCU yard. Menu items included spicy barbecue glazed tenders and fries.Photo: Darius L. Carter

Image008(1)DJ Ms. Nix and Young Wayne pose with Ronald McDonald. Giveaways included Black & Positively Golden branded lanyards, t-shirts, and McDonald’s gift cards.Photo: Darius L. Carter

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