Eliminating the Freshman 15: How Restaurants Can Market To Health-Conscious College Students

The start of a new year signifies a wave of change for most Americans, but perhaps none more than the average college student. After Christmas break, students will return to campus refreshed, with a new schedule of classes, and most likely motivated and armed with a couple of life-enhancing resolutions. And unlike most Americans who will abandon their resolution goals by mid-February (only 8% of people actually complete their New Year’s goals) college students have an extra motivation to shed weight in the winter months: Spring Break.




To the estimated 1.5 million students participating in Spring Break each year, getting into shape is as much as part of the process as taking on extra shifts at work or designing a six-person beer bong. Whereas many will take to student recreational centers to satisfy exercise requirements, others will focus on their eating habits to melt away those few extra pounds—and that’s where restaurants can capitalize by marketing their most health-conscious menu items.

Here Study Breaks presents ways for restaurants to take advantage of this profitable—and currently health-minded—demographic known as college students:


Use Coupons and Contests

In today’s economy, the healthiest food options are often more expensive than their greasy, fried counterparts. To a student on a budget, this could mean the difference between a grilled chicken salad or a breaded chicken sandwich.

As is the case in any industry, coupons are great tools to bridge the gap between want and affordability, and for students actively looking for healthy options at an affordable price, a coupon could be the incentive needed to try a food item one wouldn’t normally eat. People on diets are constantly looking for options they can use that fit within the diet, and placing a call-to-action within the right medium with an added discount benefit could become a perfect way to get new customers—who could potentially turn into return customers—in the door.

As for contests, restaurants could simultaneously market their business while encouraging students’ fitness goals with a Biggest Loser-esque challenge, offering discounts on healthy items to participants (ergo incentivizing them to come in more than they normally would), encouraging social media participation (and by proxy getting publicity), and promoting one’s brand as one that cares about people’s health and personal wellness. A restaurant could also consider working with another sponsor, such as a gym, on this contest…


 Partner with Others as a Sponsor

If one is working to connect their brand to a healthy lifestyle, partnering with a third-party gym or retail outlet could provide the value needed to drive one’s message home. One way Subway rose to the top of the fast-food ranks was by marketing their product as a healthy alternative to their competitors, and restaurants working on a small scale could be just as effective with the right campaign. One idea is for a restaurant to sponsor clubs, organizations, and even students themselves that are connected to a healthy lifestyle, and connect the brand to the healthy ideal. One isn’t simply eating a salad at fill-in-the-blank restaurant; they are chowing down on the ingredients for washboard abs, as witnessed by, say, the restaurant’s sponsorship of the Herculean-bodied college swim team.

Of course, many local restaurants are lacking in extra cash themselves and can’t afford to offer discounts to everyone under the sun. However, simply offering special deals to members of a certain gym or organization can have a snowball effect as word spreads organically about the great (healthy!) products a restaurant is offering.



When all else fails, restaurants can also opt to spend the money and personally control the message. To many students, eating out is more habit than anything. They grew up doing it, so a restaurant doesn’t have to worry about encouraging students to eat out—they just need to stay on the forefront of the students’ minds as they think about where they should go to eat that day. A simple ad in a college magazine or school newspaper—perhaps incorporating a coupon, to reap the benefits mentioned above—that highlights low-cal menu items is a simple but effective way for a business to stay relevant in the minds of students looking for a waistline-friendly restaurant at which to dine.

Alternately, one could implement augmented reality into their ad, encouraging students to scan for a deal or discount (which could further benefit the business if it directs to a deal or promo on a Facebook page which students have to “like” to access and redeem.)


Proximity Marketing


Finally, one can’t ignore proximity’s role in the decision-making process—especially when it’s hungry students making decisions.

Utilizing students’ attachment to their cell phones by transmitting messages advertising healthy menu options or deals directly to their mobile device once they’re a certain distance from the restaurant is an effective way to deliver one’s message directly, right into the hands (and minds) of the students. After all, if a hungry student—who’s also trying to watch their weight—is in need of a place to eat and suddenly receives a message from a nearby restaurant about their plethora of delicious, low-cal fare (especially if there is a deal going on as well), odds are high they’re going to opt for this restaurant—all because of proximity marketing