Who’s Making the Grade for Back-to-School Marketing?

3 key areas where marketers are succeeding and where they still need to finish their homework

back to school
Who needs to do more innovative homework? Getty Images
Headshot of Amy Vale

There’s been a lot of talk during the Covid-19 crisis about brands helping customers as much as possible. On that level, back to school is serving as an important type of midterm exam to see how much marketers actually learned in the last six months. The back-to-school shopping season normally starts in July and is over by Labor Day, but experts predict the 2020 peak will materialize in late August and spill into most of September because of parents’ uncertainty over their children’s educational setting. 

Plans for sending kids back to the classroom vary by state and city, but there are three main scenarios that marketers promoting back to school need to consider as the playbook gets rewritten. Many kids in urban areas are either staying home to learn 100% remotely or gearing up for blended learning, partly in school and partly at home. In smaller markets and rural areas, children and adolescents are going into school either part-time or full-time. Meanwhile, about half of college students are returning to campus, while the other half will learn from home. 

Data-minded brands should be able to address different back-to-school needs. It’s important that marketers think creatively about ways to ease customers’ financial burden. There are three keys areas in which marketers are making the grade, and where there is homework left to be done.

Adaptable needs

Making the grade: Back-to-school marketers are addressing an emerging set of customer needs with interesting products and messaging. For instance, American Eagle Outfitters has tweaked its apparel offering for the classroom to sofa chic with leggings and sweatshirts, while JCPenney is selling back-to-school-focused protective face masks with designs that cater to kids (emojis) and college students (sports teams’ logos). Additionally, a Macy’s campaign encourages parents and kids to imagine what a rich educational experience can look like at home. 

Homework: While retailers are achieving in-the-moment ideas, they should also remain focused on the opportunity in region-specific messaging. Consider that twice as many New York City families are choosing 100% remote learning when compared to blended learning, representing a huge sales opportunity for retailers to double down on school-at-home products. Other major markets will offer similar opportunities. 

The language of now

Making the grade: Brands have created strong back-to-school examples for social impact for not only the pandemic but also the Black Lives Matter movement. For instance, Old Navy has been highlighting five activists who talk about the social justice movement’s influence on brand strategy, a heady topic for university students to sink their teeth into. Meanwhile, backpack maker JanSport created resources for teenagers struggling with their mental health, a subject on many of our minds. And yogurt brand Danimals is running an #AtHomeAdventures campaign that inspires kids to experience “adventures outside of the school setting in case learning continues remotely.” 

Homework: Marketers should combine such concepts with at least one or all of what I consider the three pillars of charity: money, time and knowledge. Otherwise, no marketing strategy is complete right now. In the back-to-school scenario, that means either free educational products and services, or substantial monetary savings on their purchases.

The saving mindset

Making the grade: Consumer technology brands like Spotify, Amazon and YouTube have the right mindset in pitching value to college students with discounted entertainment subscriptions. Retailers like Adidas, Staples and Finish Line are also offering cash back for parents of students. 

Homework: Back-to-school sales could hit a record $100 billion this year, and the brands that make saving money effortless and frictionless are going to win customer patronage and loyalty. So, the homework for marketers is for their brands to find innovative ways for their customers to save now. 


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Amy Vale is CMO of Dosh.
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