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Inside the World of BU Student Brand Ambassadors

For social media influencers: pay, free merchandise, chance to launch a career

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If you’re one of Jacob Wittenberg’s 1,363 Instagram followers, you’ve no doubt seen photos of him strolling the streets of Boston, picking apples in Stow, hiking in New Hampshire, visiting a café in Manhattan, and leaping into the air and kicking his heels on a pier at the Seaport.

In each photo, Wittenberg (’21) looks as stylish as if he’d walked off the pages of an Abercrombie & Fitch catalog. In fact, he sort of has. He isn’t a model, he’s a brand agent, or more commonly, a brand ambassador, for Abercrombie, which means the company pays him to wear its clothing and post photos and videos of himself living his life, looking great—and hopefully for the fashion brand, influencing his followers by pumping up the Abercrombie name.

Even if you don’t follow Wittenberg on social media, your feeds are probably full of posts like his. And chances are you either accept them as part of this new social media–driven universe or want to throw your phone in the Charles because you’re tired of seeing so many brand-centric posts filling your feeds.

Wittenberg is just one of many BU students representing a range of brands, from UGG and Razor to KIND and Keurig. These students receive products and/or payment to influence other students in a way that traditional advertising cannot: by making these brands seem so cool that you’ve just got to make them a part of your life.

On last November’s Black Friday for example, Wittenberg posted a photo of himself wearing an Abercrombie denim jacket with a sherpa lining and exposed collar. “For me, Black Friday isn’t about the shopping or the deals (although Abercrombie’s 50% is quite the bonus), it’s about the start of my favorite time of the year!”

Having students endorsing products obviously benefits brands. But what’s in it for BU students? And is there any risk?

The power to influence

Companies hire college students as brand ambassadors because they have the power to influence their peers, according to Barbara Bickart, a Questrom School of Business associate professor of marketing and senior associate dean for MBA programs.

“We tend to be more influenced by our friends and people who are similar to us than we are by marketing material and advertising material that is put out by the company,” Bickart says.

Student ambassadors at BU have a range of responsibilities to their brands, including posting on social media, helping at in-person events on campus and in the community, working at pop-up sales, handing out coupons, and distributing branded freebies such as bandanas or lip balms.

Mostly, however, they influence other students to pay attention to the brands they represent.

“The students who get these jobs are popular, well-liked, and on trend,” Bickart says. “People want to be like them and are willing to look to them for advice about what kinds of products and services to adopt.”

In addition to posting on social media, Razor student ambassador Sonja Caballero (’21) worked a table in East Campus last fall, handing out coupons and demonstrating Razor scooters. And of course, she rides her electric scooter all over campus. “My friends are always asking to ride my scooter and giving me input on the best pictures to post,” Caballero says.

Some students, such as recent grad Megan Ocampo (College of Communication’18), a studio ambassador for Warner Brothers, attend BU club meetings on behalf of their brands. Ocampo has promoted films such as A Star Is Born and Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald in various ways, among them appearances at Her Campus BU and BU Film Society club meetings.

“I play the trailer of the movie, ask trivia questions, and pass out swag,” Ocampo says. She also invites students to advance screenings, where she hands out movie posters, slippers, T-shirts, and key chains.

KIND Healthy Snacks brand ambassador Athena Abdien (’19) takes photos, distributes samples at events at BU and throughout the Boston area, does demos at grocery stores, and interacts with students and consumers.

And as an UGG campus influencer, Kendall P. Castaneda (’21) must post on Instagram regularly and is required to clock 12 hours per week walking around campus in UGG footwear.

All this influencing has an impact on students. Abby Brann (’20), a brand ambassador for Keurig, says student brand ambassadors routinely hand out coupons at the start of classes. She says that professors don’t mind as long as they don’t interrupt the class. “Students know not to be disruptive about it.”

Branding posts also add to students’ social media load, filling their feeds with a steady stream of content. But, Bickart says, students are skilled at tuning out branding messages that don’t resonate. “They are aware of what’s happening—they’re not naïve to the fact that people are being paid to make these posts,” she says.

When Wittenberg first started posting for Abercrombie, some of his friends gave him a hard time, calling him “that Abercrombie kid.” But he feels that as he’s gotten better at posting—improving his photography skills, making his content more interesting, and integrating the brand in a more natural way—his followers have become more engaged.

Geneve Lau (’21) has had a similar experience. “Sometimes my friends joke about my posts, but they get that it’s a really cool opportunity, and a lot of them wish they could do it,” she says.

Lau, a campus influencer for Daniel Wellington, attends, and posts about, events at the watchmaker’s Newbury Street store.

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Benefits for ambassadors, but fierce competition

Brands compensate students in various ways, primarily with payments and/or free merchandise.

As a Keurig brand ambassador, Brann received a mini brewer and ample supplies of coffee. “I’m a huge coffee drinker, and it’s so nice to get free K-Cups,” she says. “It saves me so much time and money not having to wait in line at Starbucks.”

Being a studio ambassador offers advertising major Ocampo (Warner Brothers) an opportunity to get experience in her field without committing to the rigid schedule that an internship would require. “I don’t have to go into the office for a certain number of hours each week,” she says. “Instead, I plan my events around my own schedule.”

Ambassadors may also receive career-building benefits, such as preference for summer internships, career advice, recommendations, and exposure to corporate contacts.

For Abdien, representing KIND is teaching her about business and building on what she’s learning as a political science major. As a result of her KIND experience, she says, “I’ve pushed myself to participate in class more often and be more concise with my writing and speaking and debating skills, which always have room to improve in the political field.”

Assuming she performs well, Brann can expect to receive a recommendation for her Keurig work that could help her land future positions. And last summer, Abercrombie flew Wittenberg and other student brand ambassadors to its headquarters in Columbus, Ohio, to network with one another and meet with company executives.

The competition is fierce for top brand ambassador positions; applicants undergo two or three rounds of interviews before being hired. Generally, brands don’t hire students directly, but work with companies that specialize in influence marketing. One such company, Newbridge Marketing Group, is a brand experience agency that matches recruits for companies such as Razor and L. L. Bean.

“We look for outstanding students who are going to work hard, understand our objectives, and are good communicators who can capture great content,” says Gabe DiGristina, Newbridge VP of brand partnerships.

But competition for influential students is also fierce, with some brands directly wooing students with a significant online presence. “When you look at the content some of these students put out, it looks so professional. They are very good at what they do,” DiGristina says.

Wittenberg’s fans seem to agree. “Loving your feed…keep posting awesome stuff,” a follower wrote in response to one of his Abercrombie Instagram posts. Wittenberg has every intention of doing just that. A public relations major, he hopes to parlay his brand agent experience into a career.

“This is a perfect role for me,” he says. “It’s exactly what I want to do after graduation.”

Alice Kelly (Graduate School of Arts & Sciences’92) is a freelance writer. Send emails to today@bu.edu.

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