Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, effectively translates its brand in the campus store.

Branding the campus store

Apple, Google, Facebook, Beats, Amazon, Chegg, Starbucks, Forever 21. These are iconic brands that instantly bring to mind the companies that they represent and resonate in a positive way, especially with college students. What does your college store brand bring to mind with your customers?

Apple, Google, Facebook, Beats, Amazon, Chegg, Starbucks, Forever 21. These are iconic brands that instantly bring to mind the companies that they represent and resonate in a positive way, especially with college students.

What does your college store brand bring to mind with your customers? Many campus stores haven’t gone through the process of identifying and promoting themselves as a “brand.” But the good news is that self-operated college stores—regardless of size—are in an optimal position to create and publicize a strong, vibrant, and lasting brand image.

The first challenge is to identify your unique brand. Branding is all about differentiation. Ask yourself how your store is different (better) than Wal-Mart or Target. How will the experience of shopping in your store be more positive than a convenience store? Is your online checkout experience as user-friendly as Amazon? What image do you want your customers to have when they think of your store?

This process requires strategic decision making to ensure the brand can stand the test of time, and is one that will be supported by the store and staff into the future. Is the message one of trust, low pricing, affinity to the institution, loyalty, or another emotion? Should the store brand be tied to the mascot?

First, we’ll first take a look at a few of the strategies you should consider when planning your approach.

Begin at the beginning

It may sound trite, but it’s good advice to start the branding process on the student’s first visit to your store. Brand recognition translates into customer loyalty, and the sooner your customers know your brand, the stronger the loyalty.

The opportunity to create customers for life begins when they are considering whether to attend your institution. Typically, the students visit your campus with a parent/parents and are immersed in the campus environment. They receive plenty of marketing messages from the school as well. Catch them early, make multiple impressions with your brand, and support the brand by letting them know they are important.


A well-branded store at Colorado University in Boulder, Colorado.

Know your audience

What can we do to make our brand “stick” in a positive way with our customers? We need to focus on our students; what they like, what they are passionate about, what they don’t like, which brands they immediately connect with, and why they think the way they do.

We know they gravitate to some brands that are not inexpensive because they believe in the product or the company, and we know that they can smell phony from a mile away. We know that they are influenced by their peers. We know that they complain about the prices of course materials but they buy expensive, top-of-the-line technology. Every store, small or large, must develop and use methods to know their customers, then market the brand to them in every way possible.

Part of this process is knowing what their KVI (Key Value Items) are. Items that are required or popular among customers have a high KVI. If we can create a market perception that our brand is price competitive on popular or highly advertised items, that perception can bleed into the overall perception of the store. Then, other items can be promoted at pricing more favorable to the store while still maintaining the perception of value. Certainly it is more difficult to manage pricing by item, however the payoff is a brand that has a more positive perception in the customers’ eyes.

If you’re not sure what products are most important to your customers, conduct a survey and ask them. Use an informal format if you’d like—a short email questionnaire or in-store form can do wonders to help determine your value, strengths, and weaknesses in the eyes of your customers.

Be distinctive!

What does your brand stand for that other brands can’t duplicate? Some of the differentiators that campus stores have been successful with include:

Convenient location and flexible hours of operation
Knowledge and expertise of the staff
Friendly, helpful service that goes the extra mile
Authenticity in the buying experience
A valuable loyalty program that customers feel is worthwhile
Unique product selection, technology kiosks, etc.
Exceptional promotions that drive traffic
Competitive pricing on grocery items and snacks

What makes your store different from all the other retail brands out there? If customers trust your store more than Amazon or Chegg, the more likely they are to shop with you despite a difference in price.

Yes, we all know the campus store can be perceived as having higher prices, certainly on textbooks and often on supplies and merchandise. Not everyone can be the low-price leader and, in fact, that is precisely where a high-value brand comes into play.

Now, plug into their passion. Students buy brands that are not inexpensive because they are passionate about those brands. Think about the technology brands that students buy—Apple, Beats, and Bose are not the least expensive. Can your store create a brand that draws the students back through engagement from orientation through graduation? Can your store be the place (physical or digital) that always has the correct information and guidance for the products they highly value?

The OnCampus Research division of indiCo, a subsidiary of the National Association of College Stores (NACS) produces the twice-yearly Student Watch™ survey of student attitudes toward course materials. The Fall 2014 Survey revealed that, without price as a factor, 66 percent of students said they would prefer to purchase their materials through the campus store. During rush, the majority do choose the campus store to purchase materials, citing knowledgeable, helpful staff as a motivating factor.

Promote your brand

The college bookstore is in a prime position to reach its student population with targeted messages designed to promote specials, activities, and new products. According to the April 2014 Student Panel survey conducted by the OnCampus Research, 50 percent of participants indicated that an email offering a special promotion was moderately to very effective in getting them to shop at the campus store.

Seventy-two percent of students indicated that a free giveaway was an effective technique for the store to use, and 55 percent said a special store event would draw them in to shop.

Consistency of branding in all communications is vital. Your verbiage and graphics should be consistent throughout your store, in your promotions, on social media, and on your website. It’s critical that all of your communications reflect the brand image you’ve worked so hard to create.

The brand can follow the customer through their lifetime of buying. If they value the college or university brand and want to identify with that brand, the store must position itself as the primary place and brand to provide the products that the alumni want and need.

Independent retailers have every opportunity, no matter their size, to create a valuable brand for their store within their community. There are lots of resources available to help you formulate and maintain your store branding strategy.

Dennis Mekelburg
Dennis (Denny) Mekelburg is a veteran and has several decades of experience in college store operations. His experience includes operation of self-operated, contract managed, and private stores. Denny is currently Senior Consultant with indiCo, a wholly owned subsidiary of NACS.

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