Restaurant Marketing to College Students

If there’s one glaring aspect of college life, it’s students’ reliance on someone else’s cooking. Whether downing thirds at the dorm room buffet, hitting up a 24-hour diner to grab a snack during a study break, or bingeing at a breakfast joint on Sunday mornings to nurse hangovers and share stories of the night before, students are always out and about spending money on meals.


According to, a student’s estimated monthly food bill averages between $500 and $1,000 per month (and that’s not even counting drinks with dinner). Multiply that by 30,000+ students per campus, and it’s understandable why local, college-area restaurants are vying for a piece of this valuable, potentially profitable market. The key for business owners in the restaurant industry, however, is standing out from their competitors and making themselves the mainstay for students with the munchies.


Cutting Through Noise

Quality is essential and is the first step in growing any brand. The quality gap, however, is perhaps greater in restaurants than other industries, partly because of social media aspects such as checking-in and sharing photos (along with online rating sites like Yelp) and partly because of the multitude of cheap fast food restaurants already dominating that part of the market.

Assuming one’s quality is at a competitive level, one needs to develop a niche to separate from its counterparts; it’s important to determine what one does better than their competitors and promote that facet of the business. Price and theme choice are initial decisions, but often owners find that promoting those decisions in a proper way can spell the difference between success and mediocrity.

If one’s advantage is its price value, pushing coupons and emphasizing price differences can be an effective way to grab hold of niche space. Also, by developing a “house special,” one has the ability to focus on one item/package, concentrate marketing efforts into the promotion of that, and sit back while customers roll in solely for that special. Alternately, one can provide specials that vary by the night, day or time, constantly having something on offer at a good price with the potential to pull in potential diners.


Targeting Students

Even local legends and mom-and-pop places need to keep their marketing fresh. In an Internet-driven world, to stand still is to fall behind. With students constantly entering and leaving town for breaks—along with new students coming every fall and leaving every spring—it’s important to constantly be advertising and promoting one’s business and continuously promote the restaurant year-round as the local go-to place.

Whether trying to initially introduce one’s brand to students or simply stay in their heads, online and print advertising—and even television commercials—are effective options. Besides the benefit of reaching and raising awareness among a perhaps a previously un-tapped audience (which, online, is practically infinite), an advertisement can also serve as a useful space for running contests and promotional events.

Meanwhile, giveaways, parties, and sponsorships are most advantageous to businesses with a high level of popularity. Once one has a hold on a significant audience, reinvesting that buzz back into campus-wide projects and events can inspire on a community level. An example of this would be developing a relationship with a student organization, sorority or fraternity, offering them deals in exchange for their recurring business.


Proximity Marketing

Location, location, location. There’s something to be said for being at the right place at the right time, and proximity marketing is the perfect technological embodiment of this old adage. It’s also an amazing way for a restaurant to stand out from others around campus and entice students to enter and eat.

To clarify, proximity marketing can be defined as the wireless distribution of advertising content associated with a particular place via a traditional localized broadcast, or–more commonly–specifically targeted to devices known to be in a particular area.

Take, for example, a group of students on the way home from a football game after a long, exhausting day. They’re hungry but they either don’t know where to eat or they can’t agree on a certain restaurant. However, if there was a restaurant nearby that utilized proximity marketing and broadcasted a message about $2 drafts or a buy-one-get-one-free burger deal as the students walked by, there’s a good chance that the hungry coeds would decide on this restaurant versus the dozens of others that aren’t broadcasting bargains, specials or savings. A restaurant doesn’t even have to change their special for that night or day if they don’t want to; it’s simply about making students in the vicinity aware of the existing great offer and utilizing both students’ location and attachment to their mobile phones to maximum advantage.