The CDC’s $2.4M Campus Marketing Program

by Daniel Nuccio, The Pulse:

The DC-based marketing firm, Youth Marketing Connections (YMC), builds “brand experiences for the next generation.” “Youth is All We Do,” states their website. “We’re Well Connected,” it assures potential clients. “We’re Gen-Z + Millennial experts—amplifying and propelling today’s most relevant & exciting brands.”

YMC’s website, through its strategic use of white space and color palette of mostly light grays and soft blues, provides a glimpse of what the company has to offer. Youthful images of teens and young adults – attractive, fun-loving, and diverse – decorate every page as they peddle makeup, energy drinks, and manufactured authenticity.

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“We ensure brands appeal to and excite youth audiences,” says one page of their site.

YMC’s peer ambassadors are “well connected, trusted, & deeply engaged in their communities,” says another.

Under Armour, Sephora, MTV, Kate Spade, Bud Light, and AXE are just a few of the relevant and exciting brands YMC claims to have amplified and propelled over the past 20-plus years with the help of their legion of student and young adult influencers and relationships with more than 1,000 colleges and universities. It makes sense why brands like Maybelline, Corona, and Rockstar would acquire their services. It should come as no surprise to see Spotify, Adidas, and Hims listed among those with which they’ve done business.

Yet, one interesting name found on that list is that of the ACHA, the American College Health Association, an organization which positions itself as “the voice for student health and wellness,” but has a history of taking money from pharmaceutical companies and the CDC for collaborative projects, which critics claim lead to potential conflicts of interest.

The partnership between YMC and the ACHA stems from one of those collaborations.

Early in 2021 the ACHA received more than $2.4 million in grants from the CDC to fund their Higher Education Covid-19 Community of Practice (HECCOP) and the Campus Covid-19 Vaccine Initiative (CoVAC), respectively intended to promote COVID mitigation through behavioral change and vaccine confidence.

According to the CoVAC website, the two projects were supposed to conclude in the early fall of 2021, but have since been merged and extended through September of 2022.

It was through CoVAC that the ACHA attained the services of YMC to develop what became known as VaxForward.

According to the YMC website, “YMC worked with the ACHA, in partnership with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), to launch the VaxForward campaign, which leveraged relatable and credible content and peer-to-peer education to engage student bodies with low COVID-19 vaccine confidence.”

A detailed branding guide for VaxForward provides a greater sense of the campaign’s tone and strategy. The guide describes VaxForward as “a hopeful call to action for students, faculty, and staff to get vaccinated so they can be part of the campus communities and activities they love.”

It provides highly specific suggestions for managing the campaign’s “youthful” and “conversational” voice, properly using “vax forward” as a verb, and upholding the brand’s sense of style. Within, there are additional bits of advice for framing COVID vaccination as an act of school spirit, the right thing to do for one’s community, and a progressive step forward into a better tomorrow.

To ensure VaxForward reached its target audience, the ACHA went on to rely on many of YMC’s tried and true tactics that had worked to “appeal to and excite youth audiences” on behalf of relevant and exciting brands in the past – notably the use of social media, influencers, and peer ambassadors.

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