My best friend's iPod

Observations on marketing

The social superstar in your Spanish class suddenly seems to live and breathe Red Bull and offers you a can after an all-night study session. But is this empathy, or is she being paid by the company?

An established marketing strategy in the US, viral marketing as it is called, is now being used in the UK by brands such as Red Bull, Apple and Jack Daniels, which recruit "campus representatives" or "student brand managers" to be their "eyes and ears".

Red Bull currently has 120 "Wing Cadets" at UK universities paid to have "face-to-face contact with the consumer", report on student trends and generate "buzz" for the drink. Apple has campus representatives at about 20 universities, from Middlesex and Bristol to Oxford and Cambridge.

Salivating over the prospects of the fickle yet lucrative student market - which, according to the National Union of Students, has an estimated annual spending power of £10-15bn - large companies are hiring students to work as embedded sales representatives.

Their task is to generate hype for products through demonstrations and sponsored events, but they are also paid to exercise more informal pressure, such as setting up Facebook groups and striking up "casual" conversations.

Campus Group - the marketing agency that recruits student brand managers for Jack Daniels - calls the strategy "tell not sell".

"People trust the people around them the most," says Dhara Thakerar, a medical student at Imperial College, who compares the strategy to the success of the "old boys club".

"I think it's good to approach students at a student level rather than having a big company going after them," says Joe Stubbs, the Apple Campus Rep at Leeds Metropolitan University. Stubbs has worked for Apple for more than a year and says his job has increased his visibility; he is known as the "Apple guy".

Apple representatives are paid to live the "Apple experience". According to its website, a campus rep is "an iPod wearing, concert throwing, iTunes giving, music blasting, MacBook toting, savvy talking, iMovie editing, pavement pounding, iLife living, Apple evangelising, student sales and marketing guru".

Red Bull campus reps in the US are required to have the drink on them at all times, ready at any moment to promote it to fellow students. Former Apple campus rep at the State University of New York, Chris Zeigler, admits: "I wasn't able to separate my personal and work lives." Conversations with friends about Macs were billable hours worked for Apple.

But things might not work out as planned in the UK. The tried and trusted strategies on US campuses might not be so easy to import. Red Bull, for example, is looking for "the super kid on campus", who "gets invited to every party".

But it might be harder to identify the popular and influential "movers and shakers" at UK universities. Unlike US campuses, with their highly concentrated student populations, many UK universities, such as Imperial College, Thakerar explains, lack a "cohesive campus". No campus, no overarching social hierarchy or epicentre of social power.

This article first appeared in the 19 November 2007 issue of the New Statesman, New best friends?