Call them tastemakers or trendsetters, fashion arbiters or brand evangelists. As more and more companies look to break into the coveted market of 18-to-22-year-olds, businesses are using college sudents to directly preach their gospels. Each year, brand ambassador programs attract thousands of eager college students looking to promote the “next big thing” at their respective institutions. Typically, students sign up for a flexible gig that provides cash, free swag, and a resume-boosting way to meet new people. In the process they also get to build up work experience and gain professional skills in marketing and brand development. It’s a smart strategy for companies as well. After all, what better way to build up credibility than by hiring cool college kids as living, breathing embodiments of your brand?
Nian Hu ’18 is a brand ambassador for Secret, a social media app that allows people to post messages anonymously within circles of friends or to the general public. “It’s like Yik Yak, but with a fox mascot instead of a yak,” she explains.
Looking to make some money during the semester, Hu, an active Crimson blog editor, found out about campus brand ambassador programs through a jobs and internships group on Facebook. After applying for a position with Secret, she heard back immediately. “Basically, with the phone interview I was already in,” Hu says. They paid her $250 at the beginning of the semester and will pay her another $250 at the end, with a bonus depending on the number of downloads on campus.
In terms of marketing, many brand ambassadors have a ton of creative license— they can advertise however they want, from hosting events to displaying the company’s promotional paraphernalia. As the snow whirled in torrents outside the window of Lamont Café, Hu shared the story of a fellow Secret ambassador who used the weather as inspiration for advertising: “Our logo is foxes, so she drew foxes in the snow along with the message, ‘download Secret app.’”
Repping an app is not an uncommon role for students. This past semester Nathaniel B. Horwitz ’18 was a brand ambassador for Classy, an app that facilitates a peer-to- peer student marketplace through a mobile platform. He describes it as “a Craigslist specifically designed for college campuses, where all of the buyers and sellers are also students on campus.”
Horwitz, an inactive Crimson editorial editor, relates the story of how he came across the position. “I was at a cocktail party on a Thursday afternoon when I met this venture capitalist,” he recalls. As it turns out, she was a part of one of the VC firms funding Blade, the consumer technology company that founded Classy. Taking a liking to Horwitz, the venture capitalist offered him a job: a 10-week position that paid $1,000 with $250 bonuses for extra work, like attending an app fair or getting more people to sign up.
At the time Classy had brand ambassadors at Boston University, Northeastern, and other schools in the New England area—but not at Harvard. They gave Horwitz several boxes of clothing and other merchandise in order to get the marketplace started. The rest of his job consisted, he says, of “general promotion of the app to friends and acquaintances, explaining what it did and encouraging people to engage.”
Once he got started, Horwitz was disappointed by the difficulty he faced when trying to engage his peers. “I generally encountered people who were enthusiastic about the idea, but who couldn’t actually be bothered to download [Classy] and upload items to the market,” he says. He believes that the market for apps is saturated to such a large extent that if a new idea doesn’t represent a breakthrough, it could easily get lost in a sea of other apps.
Hu echoes a similar sentiment. “I’ve been trying to get people to [download Secret],” she says, “but it’s not exactly the easiest thing to do.” Still toying with ways to increase brand recognition at Harvard, she admits that she is “kind of waiting for the weather to settle down first” before starting any serious brand promotion.
Overall, however, the experience has been a positive one for Hu. “It’s good, it’s fun, it’s pretty low commitment,” she explains. “A lot of people [represent brands] because it’s an easy way to be creative while also balancing coursework and extracurriculars.”
Derek E. Ponce ’18 is a brand ambassador for Fresh Prints, a clothing design company that offers consumers deals for purchasing customized apparel in bulk. His role consists of both promoting the brand and convincing clients to switch from competitors.
Ponce radiates warmth and excitement about the product. “While I was interviewing with them, they told me, ‘If you get the position, it’s pretty much your company from here. We’re here to let you do whatever you want without having to worry about money or funding.’”
Much like Hu, Ponce also found out about the opportunity through social media. After applying and completing all rounds of the interview, he was offered the job. Now, Ponce is one of 50 Fresh Print campus managers worldwide, working to make college students aware of the deals offered by the company. In exchange for his work in marketing, he earns 7 percent commission on each deal he closes.
“My first impression was that they were going to expect a lot,” says Ponce. “They wanted to know about time commitment, if I was OK with reaching out to random people, things like that.” However, he was unfazed by the company’s expectations. Between speaking with the CEO, checking out the company website, and reaching out to organizations on campus, he’s made progress marketing Fresh Prints. “I enjoy being social, and the job isn’t a lot extra. I can do a lot of the work on my own time...and I think it lines up really nicely with my schedule.”
Skip L. Rosamilia ’17 operates on a more traditional schedule. He is the ambassador for Jack Wills, a British clothing company with 11 stores in the United States. “What’s unique about [Jack Wills] is that they don’t do any print publishing, so being a brand ambassador mostly consists of getting people to go into the store,” he says. Rosamilia, who is a former clothing model, is “supposed to wear the clothes a lot and channel the energy” of the company, run in-store events, and promote brand awareness, both in person and over social media.
Rosamilia started as an in-store sales rep with Jack Wills the summer after his senior year of high school. He stayed with them during his gap year and was promoted to supervisor before starting college. Because they knew he was going to Harvard, they offered him a marketing rep position on campus.
“I get paid $12 an hour, plus a $500 allowance at the beginning of each season to buy whatever full-price items I want—so that we get clothes to show off,” Rosamilia says. “At midseason, they give us an additional bonus to revamp our wardrobes.”
The job required Rosamilia to commit eight hours a week, half of which had to be spent in the store. “Finding that balance is really challenging,” he says. “The biggest thing about being a brand ambassador is realizing that people who aren’t at school run on a very different schedule than students.” Nevertheless, it has been an invaluable experience for Rosamilia. “The connections I made, the fun I had, being able to network, being the face of the company and being able to make these people aware of the brand, especially at Harvard...is really gratifying.”
Last semester, Belinda L. Zeng ’17 worked as a brand ambassador for Pymetrics, a start-up that “is trying to revolutionize the way we search for jobs.” Pymetrics matches students with compatible careers using a series of fun, neuroscience- based games. Students can sign up for free, play games, and get jobs offers in the process.
As the start-up’s brand ambassador, Zeng worked hard to talk to students about Pymetrics. Zeng went to the Office of Career Services to get their endorsement for the company, pubbed the site over various email listservs, and put up posters for Pymetrics in dining halls. She also met with the leader of the Pymetrics campus ambassador program to brainstorm different ways to make the company better known on campus.
Zeng joined term-time after having interned with Pymetrics, much like Rosamilia joined the brand ambassador program of Jack Wills after working there in the past. She described the role as “flexible” and “pretty low time commitment,” but was pleased with the results. Zeng received a $150 Amazon gift card for her efforts in promoting the startup. She was also happy to hear that a friend of hers got a job offer at a financial firm through the site.
As companies market through students, rather than to them, the ambassadors are able to tailor the brand towards their community of peers.
“As a brand ambassador, you inherit the reputation of the company,” Roasamilia explains. “I think that’s a very valuable lesson to have.”