Across the Pond: Europeans’ View of the American College Brand
Published on February 28, 2022, at 11:05 p.m.
by Madison Traughber.
Building a brand takes time, expertise and talent. A brand is “the image and personality of a product or service that a business provides.” Brand image is the consumers’ perception of the brand. Brand image, although intangible, is also the company’s most valuable asset when it comes to cultivating a lasting reputation and obtaining brand recognition. A consistent brand image leads to maintaining loyal customers.
One of the biggest brands in the United States is the American college lifestyle, depicted by students at universities across the country. The students are the loyal customers, and the American college lifestyle is the brand, backed by movies, TV shows and music all selling one thing: the ultimate American college experience.
The brand experience at universities in the U.S. is projected as consisting of wild Greek life members, intense school spirit, raging fast-food addictions and iconic red Solo cups in many movies about the American college experience.
The brand image of the American college lifestyle is so desirable that not only do American students strive to attend universities in the U.S. but also students across Europe.
Greek life provides excellent opportunities to network, develop lifelong friendships, earn leadership roles, participate in philanthropic endeavors, and gain a sense of community far away from home, and it can also lead to academic success and increased social involvement. Overall, the purpose of Greek life is to create a deep connection between like-minded students.
However, all Europeans usually see of Greek life is what is being shown in movies: constant partying.
Rasmus Malmborg, a student from Sweden currently studying at Springhill College in Mobile, Alabama, said, “I personally think that it is very cool and exciting for students to join something like Greek life where people get to know so many new people and try new things. Generally, Europeans think that Greek life is exactly like [what’s portrayed] in movies.”
“Everyone thinks it is how we see it in movies,” explained Andreas Berntsen, a college student in Norway. “Something that really surprised me is how many members a sorority or fraternity has! I thought it was between 30-50 people, but the people I’ve spoken to say that there are a lot more members. I’ve heard of up to 400 members.”
Movies such as “Animal House,” “House Bunny” and “Legally Blonde” illustrate a surface-level view of Greek life that leads Europeans to believe that Greek life is only centered around partying.
Annie Bystrom is a student from Sweden currently studying at The University of Alabama. She is a member of Greek life herself, currently a member of Alpha Delta Pi.
Bystrom noted, “Europeans think, ‘Greek letters, red Solo cups, big parties and blacking out from alcohol.’ They don’t believe me when I tell them my sorority values philanthropy and academics.”
U.S. students have an immense sense of pride for the school that they attend.
“There is nothing like the school spirit in the U.S.,” Berntsen said. “Everything in the U.S. is bigger than in Europe, and that includes schools and school spirit, too! We don’t have any school spirit. We just have a university we go to, and that is usually just a building downtown in a city.”
A student enrolled at a U.S. school typically knows every word to their fight song, regularly peruses their university’s bookstore for branded merchandise, and rarely misses a tailgate or a sporting event.
“Europeans are jealous of the school spirit, and it pulls them to want to study abroad in the U.S.,” Bystrom said. “My cousins all want to study abroad in the U.S. because they want to experience football games, pep rallies, homecoming and prom. In Sweden, schools rarely have sports teams or events that would foster an environment for school spirit, so they want to be a part of a school with school spirit, and it draws them to study in the U.S. to fully experience it.”
The brand experience at colleges across the U.S. is advertised as having intense school spirit, which is a huge draw for international students.
The Golden Arches
There is nothing more American than fast food. Branded as the all-American meal is a McDonald’s cheeseburger, french fries and a Coke.
However, McDonald’s isn’t the only fast-food chain for students to grab a quick bite. As Bystrom noted, “My Swedish friends want to try all of the fast-food when they come to visit. All the different kinds of fast food intrigues them, since we don’t have that much of a selection in Sweden. Sometimes, when a particular fast-food chain blows up on the internet, my Swedish friends complain that it’s not available in Sweden because they want to try it and see what the hype is about.”
The popularity of fast-food drive-throughs has led to a prevalent obesity rate of 36% in the U.S. Europe has the second-highest rate of overweight and obese citizens behind Americans.
“Most people in Europe think that Americans are overweight and lazy,” Bernsten asserted. “For example, Americans drive everywhere but Europeans are usually walking. A lot of Americans would think it is weird that I walk to the grocery store and carry my groceries back, but that is very common here in Norway.”
College students are notorious for staying up late, studying and snacking, needing an easy meal on a road trip, or craving a meal after a long night out. A reported 23% of college students eat fast food daily, and 50% of college students eat at least three fast-food meals per week.
“I love that there are so many options here in the U.S.,” Malmborg admitted. “At the same time, I feel like I eat much worse when I’m here in the U.S. because most options are unhealthy.”
Berntsen has had a similar experience. “When I’ve been in the U.S. and I’ve been there a lot, it is very difficult to find healthy and cheap options, so it is always easier to go with fast food,” he said.
Iconic red Solo cups
Red Solo cups are a staple in college party scenes in movies, making them a popular commodity among Europeans. Therefore, the branding of red Solo cups has become tied to college parties in the U.S. Red Solo cups are typically used by underage college and high-school drinkers to conceal what is in the cup. However, the cups are uncommon outside of the U.S. People around the world throw American-themed parties revolving around the phenomenon of the red Solo cup.
Bystrom said, “My Swedish friends ask me about college and say, ‘Do you go to parties with those red Solo cup things?’” Bystrom believes “the obsession started from the appearance of red Solo cups in almost every American college movie ever, and so they became this stereotype for party life in America.”
The idealized brand image of the American college lifestyle has many stereotypes of party culture in Greek life, diehard school spirit, unhealthy eating habits and an obsession with a plastic cup. Despite these assumptions, the lifestyle of college students in the U.S. attracts many European exchange students, who stay in the U.S. after graduation and thus maintain brand loyalty to the American college experience.