Activating for Back-to-School Season? Here Are Some Things to Consider

College summer break is more than halfway over, which means it’s crunch time to figure out how your brand is going to reach college students in the coming 2019-20 school year. While Back-to-School time is often a solid mix of overwhelming and exciting for new students and upperclassmen alike, it’s actually one of the easiest times of year for brands to not only access and engage with college students where they already are, but also make a significant impact for your brand.

In our 15+ years of experience in the college space, we’ve seen first-hand how much of a game-changer Back-to-School can be for brands looking to enter or maintain their share in the college market, but we’ve also learned that brands sometimes underestimate this time of year. Why? 

College students are on campus for eight or nine months out of the year, so it might seem like reaching college students doesn’t need to be prioritized at any particular time, but Back-to-School is when students are fired up and ready for changes, whether it be new classes, making new friends, or changing their habits and products they use. Putting your brand or product in front of students when they are most open to embracing change is key.

For example, in 2016, Newbridge activated the Brita Stream Campus Tour, which set up shop on 15 different college campuses during move-in weekend to help keep students and parents hydrated during a stressful and bustling time at the beginning of the school year. This brought a new and useful product to students as they look for last-minute additions to their dorm room or college life. 

Another reason it’s important to activate and engage with students on their campus during Back-to-School is that GenZ cares about face-to-face (and peer-to-peer) engagement and is usually more receptive to unique marketing tactics which step outside the noise of digital advertising. Digital is still an integral part of any successful marketing campaign, but putting something unique and fun in front of students is more likely to drive purchases or direct engagement. 

While every brand will have different needs and a different approach to college student engagement at Back-to-School, there are some easy tactics any brand can use to find success on campus this fall, like student ambassador programs, sampling programs, and integrating a charity element to marketing.

Student Ambassador Programs

One of the biggest lessons we’ve learned over the years is that students trust other students above almost anything else. If a peer is advocating a product or service, students are more likely to want to try out that product and, ultimately, make a purchase. 

In 2017, Newbridge launched and managed L.L.Bean’s first ever student ambassador program, which supported the launch of its “Be an Outsider” brand campaign. Over the first three semesters of the program, L.L.Bean had 57 student reps on 29 unique college campuses armed and ready to share their love for the outdoors – and L.L.Bean’s outdoor products – with other students in their communities. Garnering over 212,000 on-campus event impressions, L.L.Bean found a unique way to reach students during the school year and build their loyal customer base even more. We are now going into this Back-to-School season planning our 4th semester-long student ambassador program for L.L.Bean.  

Sampling Programs

Like Brita did with the Brita Stream Campus Tour during move-in weekend, any brand with a tangible product or service can allow students to try it out and engage on campus through a mobile tour or sampling event. Generation Z is impacting consumerism because, unlike Millennials and to a greater extent than older generations, Gen Zers actually enjoy and value a genuine retail experience or chance to engage physically with a brand. 

While any brand can go to a college campus, hand out product samples, and educate students about a brand, it’s sometimes daunting and difficult to get a good ROI on these programs if not executed properly. This is why it’s as important as ever for brands to find unique and engaging ways to activate on campus, especially during the bustle and excitement of Back-to-School. 

Combining a classic sampling program with a mobile tour experience can be a great way to accomplish your brand’s engagement goals. Whether you’re a food and beverage company looking to hand out product samples from a bright and colorful food truck in the quad or an apparel company allowing students to customize products to match their school spirit, thinking outside the box can only put your brand ahead of the game.

While Newbridge can run any kind of sampling program depending on what individual brands need, utilizing our extensive network of over 1,300 campus bookstores and fitness centers across the country is one of our favorite ways to give sampling programs a special edge. Both bookstores and fitness centers see thousands of students and parents during Back-to-School season, making them ideal locations on campus for brand visibility and sample distribution. 


Another unique aspect of Gen Z is their genuine care for community and charity, especially the environment and social causes. With this in mind, partner with an organization on campus to help them raise funds for an upcoming event, their club’s general day-to-day activities, or cause they’ve identified.

It’s hard to argue against a charity aspect to any type of marketing, especially if the target market will respond positively and be prompted to engage with the brand. Campus Causes, Newbridge’s college shop-to-raise fundraising platform, is an easy way to engage with college students and meaningful causes, like THON or College Mentors For Kids. Making your brand available for shop-to-raise or investing in a Campus Causes sponsorship can help your brand gain new customers while putting a local twist on your charitable giving. 

In planning and execution of any Back-to-School experiential program, it’s incredibly important to align your brand goals with the program you’re executing. Pick your time and location strategically and don’t overdo the spend to run a successful program. 

If your brand is looking to reach students in a unique way for Back-to-School, now is the time to start forming your game plan and making strategic partnerships to help make your program as successful as it can be. Not sure where to start? Contact the Newbridge team today to start crafting a unique program that will fit your brand and its goals.