Hungry University of Arizona students and employees, rejoice: Smiling college students are now walking around campus with free food samples from Big Juan’s Tacos y Burros, a new quick-service chain in Tucson.

Big Juan’s two locations are within a five-mile radius of the university, and owner Tom Jenkins has used the school to his advantage by tapping into the student population and hiring student brand ambassadors, with the help of Serendipit Consulting in Phoenix.

The student ambassadors are distributed across campus and the community to hand out coupons, offer free samples, and conduct other brand outreach in the surrounding neighborhoods and at local businesses.

Serendipit Consulting used the university and Craigslist to hire six student ambassadors, most of whom are marketing and business majors at the University of Arizona.

“We asked for resumes and their GPAs, and also, for today’s day and age, we ask for their Facebook profiles,” says Serendipit vice president of marketing Alexis Krisay. “We want to make sure that any ambassador we’re hiring is not only on social media, but also that they represent themselves in a way that the brand is comfortable with, because social media is a huge part of this ambassador program.”

A 2011 study shows that 90 percent of people trust recommendations from friends, while only 14 percent trust traditional advertisements.

One student is getting paid to head the program, and the rest are interns earning college credit by working with Big Juan’s. (The leader gets college credit, as well.) All the ambassadors also receive free meals at Big Juan’s a few times each week.

The students meet once a week via Google Chat so the leader can assign tasks to the team, whether it’s handing out samples or participating in an event on campus. Each student oversees a different area; for example, one student does community outreach, one is on campus outreach, one is responsible for fraternities and sororities, and another reaches out to businesses.

The tasks the ambassadors tackle each week are varied. One weekly job may involve targeting two businesses with 10–20 employees, and arranging to bring them free food samples for lunch.

Another marketing event the ambassadors participate in on the University of Arizona campus is Mustache Mania, created by Serendipit Consulting.

“We had a photo wall of a big mustache in the background and a bunch of props, and everyone could come and take a photo in front of it,” Krisay says. “We posted the photos to Facebook, and then the photo with the most likes received a $25 gift certificate to Big Juan’s.”

So far, Big Juan’s student ambassadors have made a big impression on fellow students and the business community. Because the program just started in September, it’s hard to offer hard numbers on how well it’s working, but owner Tom Jenkins says there haven’t been any downsides. Serendipit Consulting says Big Juan’s has also seen a rise in profits and coupon redemption.

Even better, costs of starting the student ambassador program were low.

“I bought a tent, logoed and branded, and I bought some table skirts,” Jenkins says. “Those are all fixed costs. The ongoing costs are minimal. And in our business, labor is a big deal, and we’re not spending a lot of money on labor.”

Chip Rives, CEO of Campus Entertainment in Charlestown, Massachusetts, says ambassadors are a great way to reach college students. He cites a 2011 study that showed 90 percent of people trust recommendations from friends, while only 14 percent trust traditional advertisements.

“And with college students, this is particularly true,” Rives says. “We’ve had a number of clients who still do traditional advertising trying to reach this demographic, but that number is shrinking. This is a very effective way to reach a very specific target.”

The marketing tactic is especially effective for quick-service restaurants, as these businesses combine two things college students need and want: good food and good prices.

Sources interviewed for this story say that any operator interested in launching a student ambassador program of their own should work with a consultancy that’s skilled in setting up such programs, due to the complexities of dealing with universities and setting up an internship.

Jumping through the hoops, though, is worth it, Jenkins says.

“I would strongly suggest that [quick-serve owners] consider it,” he says.

Fast Casual, Marketing & Promotions, Web Exclusives, Big Juan's