How Back-to-School Advertising Can Adapt to the Current Reality

Be flexible with messaging, channels and ad types

Advertisers seem unsure how to address an unpredictable back-to-school shopping season. Justin Sullivan — Getty Images
Headshot of Lisa Lacy

Key Insight:

The back-to-school season is typically predictable in terms of both timing and product assortment. Not so in 2020.

According to Brendan Witcher, vp and principal analyst at research firm Forrester, this environment brought on by the pandemic has proved challenging for retailers who can’t rely on historical data to inform future strategy and who don’t know if the elongated season will ultimately yield back-to-school sales.

The result has been a big drop in advertising. In fact, data from market research company Numerator shows the total number of unique weekly back-to-school ads was down 69% for the week of Aug. 16 compared to a year ago. (Staples and Amazon are the exceptions, as Numerator noted they “drove significant back-to-school promotional activity in July.”)

So what are advertisers to do this year? For starters, embrace a new playbook:

New products

Back-to-school advertising has to look different this year. In fact, Emily Roe, director of media services at performance marketing agency Merkle, said brands have to think about how they prioritize certain products in their media to reflect new back-to-school trends. That could mean less denim and sweaters and more laptops due to remote learning, for example.

To do so, they can analyze shifts in category and product trends while students were studying from home earlier this year and apply those learnings to their back-to-school strategies, Roe added.

“Advertisers are starting to see a shift in contributed revenue by category that doesn’t align to trends this time last year,” she said. “[A retailer’s own sales] data should give us some insight into categories that will be in demand in late summer/early fall.”

New messaging

Messaging, too, will have to change.

According to Witcher, when retailers aren’t confident about sales, they have a tendency to “react too early … and start [promotions] to get numbers up quick even though sales may have ultimately come in.”

“We’re in a situation now where we see more media marketing spend be promotion-based rather than about brand messaging and product messaging, which we start to see as retailers get jittery about back-to-school,” he added.

Chris Apostle, chief media officer of digital marketing agency iCrossing, noted advertisers should remain in test-and-learn mode to ensure creative is resonating as the market changes.

“Have preapproved ad copy that can be trafficked quickly so you’re not missing out on demand,” Roe added.

Some retailers, however, have thus far missed the mark with creative that still features traditional content like kids with backpacks getting on buses, said Jennifer Polk, vp analyst at research firm Gartner.

That includes Target, which is using an upbeat new song from popstar Katy Perry, which doesn’t really address what’s happening now, added Kate Muhl, vp analyst at Gartner. She said Walmart, however, has done a better job of balancing the reality of a school year during a pandemic without being a buzzkill.

New channels

Thus far, back-to-school advertisers have leaned in to TV more heavily in 2020 with ad share up to 33% from 19% in 2019. In fact, 74% of back-to-school ads are in TV or online display as of Aug. 16, Numerator said. And so advertisers may want to diversify their media strategies.

In fact, Roe said brands should have a nimble strategy in which they frequently analyze the efficacy of their media efforts as consumer behavior shifts so they can then move ad dollars wherever media is most effective.

@lisalacy Lisa Lacy is a senior writer at Adweek, where she focuses on retail and the growing reach of Amazon.