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She's a B.M.O.C. Meet Alex.

 

Nara Schoenberg

Chicago Tribune

May 13, 2008

 


Make that 'Big Marketeer On Campus,' part of a growing cadre hired to spread commercial messages to peers

Get a big hello from your pal Alex Covington?

She’s glad to see you, sure.

But she may also be hoping to move some merchandise for Macy’s.

Covington, 20, a junior at Northwestern University, plans Macy’s events on campus, from a sorority slumber party to a casting call for a Web documentary. She hands out fliers, sends out mass e-mails and text messages, and angles for articles in the student newspaper.

And whenever she gets a compliment on her tailored white blouse or her California-casual sundress, she makes sure to credit the company that provided them free of charge.

“I got it from [Macy’s’] American Rag” collection, she says.

“You should check it out.”

Welcome to Brand Nation, where private citizens have corporate endorsements just like professional athletes and Hollywood stars. Lured by free goods and cash, everyday people are talking up products both in public and private, leading critics to envision a world in which every corner of American life is saturated with pitches and product placements.

“It shouldn’t be that there are no havens” from ad creep, says Robert Weissman, managing director of Commercial Alert, a non-profit that opposes many types of advertising.

“Authentic relationships between people ought not be corrupted by [commercial messages].”

Fans of the “brand rep” or “brand ambassador” model of marketing, on the other hand, say we’ve entered a more honest and less invasive phase of marketing, in which friends help friends find the products they really want and need.

“I feel like everyone’s kind of a brand rep in their own way,” says Covington. “If you like something, you’re going to get it and you’re going to tell your friends.”

Compensated “word-of-mouth” advertising—a broad category that includes both the structured brand rep model and more informal arrangements in which consumers are rewarded for pushing products—is growing by leaps and bounds. A study by PQ Media, which collects econometric data and researches alternative media, estimates companies paid outside agencies $1.4 billion for word-of-mouth marketing in 2007, up from less than $100 million in 2001.

RepNation, the company that employs Covington to promote Macy’s, has about 5,000 brand reps working on college campuses in a given year, according to the company’s parent agency, Mr. Youth.

RepNation policy requires representatives to be upfront about their identities, say whom they are speaking for and give their own, honest opinions.

Tensions between cutting-edge capitalism and youthful idealism surfaced during a recent visit to Northwestern, with one student calling brand rep work “a sellout” and another lauding it as valuable work experience.

The first stop was a busy campus plaza where Covington, dressed in her American Rag sundress, a thin jacket, black leggings and flats, shivered in the lakefront wind. Still, she smiled gamely as she handed out Oreos and Macy’s fliers to passersby.

“You like shopping?”

“I love shopping.”

“Hey, want to go to a shopping event at Old Orchard on Sunday?”

The flier distribution, promoting a one-day sale, went smoothly. Still, it was hard to tell what the crowd really thought.

A student in a pumpkin-colored wool jacket, for instance, took a flier graciously but then expressed doubts when Covington was out of earshot.

“I went for the cookie,” said Leah Bettag, 18, a freshman from Chicago.

And the flier? “I threw it away.”

Upon hearing the basics of brand rep work, Bettag said: “I would think that’s kind of a sell-out move. If someone else chooses to do it, I wouldn’t throw paint on them, but I wouldn’t do it.”

Covington’s friends were supportive, with her roommate Alex Curlee, 20, offering to take some fliers and hand them out at the gym.

“[The brand rep] is becoming part of our vocabulary and our general understanding” at Northwestern, said Claire Young, 20, a Covington pal who sees the trend as a positive: “It gives students a chance for work experience.”

The only child of a banker and a homemaker, Covington is interested in a career in marketing or television production. She has played on the Northwestern women’s soccer team, studied in France and interned for “The Today Show.”

“I just love being around people and getting to know people and finding out new things about myself and other people. I like experiencing new things,” she said.

Seeking a spring internship, she found an ad for the Macy’s position at the RepNation Web site, which recruits brand reps for a range of businesses.

The rewards of Covington’s job include a $400 gift card and a one-time stipend of about $450.

RepNation’s ethics policy Covington said that when doing brand rep work, she reveals her ties to Macy’s about 85 percent to 90 percent of the time.

Sometimes, however, full disclosure isn’t practical. If a classmate she doesn’t know compliments her clothing in passing, for instance, she may only have time to give American Rag a quick plug. She has pitched to about two dozen people without saying that she has ties to Macy’s, she said.

Sitting at a campus Starbucks with sweeping views of Lake Michigan, Covington defended such exchanges as a way of helping out fellow students. They wouldn’t have commented on her clothes, she argued, if they weren’t interested.

Still, as the conversation continued, she wrestled with some of the questions raised by mixing friendship and salesmanship.

“I guess there’s sort of a conflict there,” she said.

“How pure can you be when you’re trying to persuade somebody, because clearly you have intentions? But if you’re a person who’s conscious of that and who wants to be ...” she faltered, folded her arms and frowned.

But when she spoke again, it was with renewed confidence.

“If you’re a person who wants to be truthful in their message, and how they go about it, then it can be a pure thing. And I feel that’s kind of what I would do.”

She talked about an essay she wrote in which she said she wants to transform society’s image of beauty. She wants to see more ads like Dove soap’s, in which women of varying sizes are portrayed as beautiful.

“I feel like I want to make marketing more positive. I want to make sure that it’s being honest. Those are my intentions when I go into the field,” she said.

“I would never want to work for a company where you’re selling a product that was promoting something that could potentially have negative repercussions. I want them to be socially conscious. I’m going to choose an area where I know I wouldn’t have to manipulate anybody to [succeed]. I want to invoke change.”

A noble vision, to be sure.

But will it sell on the streets of Brand Nation?

 

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