A Look at Back-to-School Marketing Initiatives

By Beth Hurrle  | 

Like most of us, kids are craving normalcy following a year of pandemic-related life disruptions. August and September spell a return school, and the CDC is recommending in-person learning for all students (combined with adherence to various Covid-prevention measures), despite the spread of the Delta variant. Here’s how both brands and consumers are preparing to head back into the classroom after months of virtual education.

Spending Changes
Schools shut down in 2020 and learning took place remotely, mainly via electronic devices, which means most parents missed a year of stocking up on basics including backpacks, writing supplies and new apparel. Now they’re making up for lost time. The National Retail Federation predicts record-breaking spending will hit $37 billion on supplies for elementary and high-school students, which would be a nine percent rise over last year’s rate. College spending could reach $71 billion, a record five percent increase from last year. Thank millennials for much of this boon. According to an AdAge-Harris Poll, 67 percent of the demographic plan to shop back-to-school events for their Gen Alpha kids. Clothing sales alone are projected to jump 78 percent compared to last year, per a Mastercard SpendingPulse survey, while backpack makers State Bags and Jansport have already sold out several popular colors.

In addition to increased spending, the way consumers shop is likewise experiencing a shift. A recent Rakuten study found that 74 percent of parents purchased a back-to-school item from a link or ad found in a social-media post, with Instagram and Facebook leading the charge in terms of preferred platforms. TikTok is also expanding its in-app shopping capabilities to further boost sales. “It used to be that you would search social media, see something, but then you’d have to find somewhere else to buy it,” said Stacy DeBroff, chief executive at Influence Central. “Now, all the sites are making it really easy to shop from content.”

Investing in New Channels
Back-to-school has been compared to the Super Bowl in terms of advertising for kids’ brands, and many are using this year’s much-anticipated academic return to unveil multimillion-dollar campaigns that go beyond regular scopes and budgets. Case in point: OshKosh B’gosh, which debuted its “Today is Someday” platform in mid-July, featuring several 30-second TV spots. The 125-year-old brand acknowledged spending more on traditional channels, including CTV, compared to previous quarters. “It’s the first time in a number of years where we’ve had a TV-style campaign for back-to-school,” said Jeff Jenkins, global marketing VP at clothing company Carter’s. The ads feature child versions of trailblazing celebrities, including Mariah Carey, Muhammad Ali and Outkast, dressed in OshKosh clothes while delivering messages about determination and confidence. Tones are meant to be authentic and nostalgic. Carey’s younger self is portrayed by her 10-year-old daughter, Monroe Cannon, while Ali’s spot alludes to the childhood theft of his beloved red bicycle, which spurred him to become a boxer. Investments are also being made across digital and social channels, which both enjoyed pandemic gains. OshKosh and Carter’s reported earning 71 percent of engagements on Instagram in last year’s first quarter.

In a similar vein, Dick’s Sporting Goods is spending more on earlier advertising efforts while testing new marketing initiatives this back-to-school season. Their national campaign partnered with Gen Z influencers, including kid dancer Jean-Victor Mackie who counts 6.3 million TikTok followers, on every step of the creative process, from music selection to final production of three TV spots. The goal? Meet kid consumers on social platforms where they spend time, while simultaneously appealing to their desire for authenticity. “We’re utilizing influencers more than ever and doubling down on our use of TikTok and other social channels to resonate with Gen Z when and where they consume content,” said Ed Plummer, Dick’s chief marketing officer. 

Messaging Matters
As with most pandemic-related matters, sensitivity counts when it comes to striking the right messaging note. Covid-19 plus the ensuing economic recession disproportionately affected people of color, working mothers and less affluent communities. What’s more, consumers currently feel varying levels of comfort on issues like visiting stores or resuming in-person schooling while children under 12 remain ineligible for the Covid vaccine. GapKids tapped into those emotions via their new “Individuals” campaign, which honors some of what’s been lost during the pandemic while acknowledging struggles students may face returning to school after a solitary year. One spot shows David Jamison, aka “The Dope Educator,” who went viral for connecting with kids by performing 250 elaborate, individualized handshake routines, before contracting and beating Covid-19. Ads will run on both linear and digital TV, and the brand donated $510,000 to historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) via their “Closing the Gap” program.

Clothing retailer Kohl’s went beyond focusing exclusively on students to consider the broader impact 2020 had on families. In “This Will Be Our Year,” a son wishes his dad a “great first day,” acknowledging that many parents are returning to work following prolonged absences, or wrestling with the emotions of kids no longer being home. “It’s not just about your kid going back to school, but all the changes going on for parents and loved ones as well,” said Greg Revelle, Kohl’s chief marketing officer.

Many marketers held back their educational initiatives last year, due to uncertainty around virtual learning and school closures. But now the kids are back. And whether students and their families are anticipating this semester start with excitement or some trepidation, brands have a unique opportunity to tap into those emotions and craft noteworthy campaigns. Here’s hoping for a safe, productive year.

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