As back-to-school marketing begins, brands push value and stick to crayons
It’s the time of year that kids typically loathe, but this year marketers are the ones doing the worrying. Following several months of remote learning and virtual classes due to the pandemic, uncertainty surrounds the return to school this fall. Some districts, such as Los Angeles and San Diego, have already announced a continuation of distance learning as virus cases rise in the region; other areas, such as New York City, are pursuing a mix of in-school and virtual classes. The ambiguity leaves marketers in a tight spot for the second-most crucial shopping season of the year after holiday. Many are delaying or downsizing campaigns, highlighting value, and deepening promotions.
“This year, we do see that advertising seems like it might be off to a somewhat slower start than it has been in some years,” says Elaine Chen, VP of marketing at Kantar. The market research firm found that TV spending between June 1 and July 12 has been $288,000 this year, compared with $1.5 million last year during the same time period.
Marketing might be even more crucial for brands this year as they face shrinking wallets due to economic upheaval. Households planning to buy school supplies this year dropped to 78 percent from 94 percent in 2019, according to a recent survey by Numerator, a consumer insight research firm. The firm found that 62 percent of those surveyed are still not sure if their children will physically be in classrooms this year.
As of early this week, Target was one of the few advertisers running back-to-school-themed national TV ads. The Minneapolis-based retailer is running a 15-second video that shows dancing pencils and crayons getting their groove on into a backpack. The product-based commercial does not show apparel or children on buses or in classrooms, which are normally typical images for back-to-school marketing. That’s likely not an accident, Chen says.
“If it’s not clear whether or not kids are going to be going back to school, clothing will be relatively low on the list for parents,” she says. She expects marketers to promote technology and electronics for parents who may be homeschooling their children, for example.
Target recently posted about its back-to-school plans on its company blog. The retailer took a broad approach, noting uncertainty, citing promotions for both teachers and students, and specifying contact-free services like drive-up pick-up options and free two-day shipping.
“This fall will be far from routine, but whether your readers are filling a backpack or setting up a dining room learning station for the kiddos—or decking out a dorm room or creating a cozy, at-home study nook for your college student—Target’s here to help with safe, convenient and affordable offerings,” the company wrote.
Walmart put up its own blog post earlier this month—alongside products like sustainable backpacks and Crayola Colors of the World crayons, the retailer featured its remote-learning partnerships as tools for virtual learning. Walmart has collaborated with ABC Mouse, PBS Kids, Disney, Crayola and Sylvan Learning on workbooks and online content.
Kohl’s plans to begin pushing back-to-school marketing later this week, according to a spokeswoman. Promotions will follow a similar tone to Target with “heading back or logging in” as a theme. In June, Kohl’s Chief Marketing Officer Greg Revelle noted on Ad Age’s “Marketer’s Brief Podcast” that the company is trying to be as flexible as possible with creative marketing content as the situation develops.
The company is promoting national brands such as Nike, Adidas and Levi’s for clothing as children outgrow their old duds. Kohl’s also plans to advertise its face mask offerings. Nearly half of consumers polled by Numerator said they intend to purchase face masks or coverings as part of their back-to-school shopping this year.
Like others, Old Navy has delayed its back-to-school push this year as it navigates the health crisis. The Gap Inc.-owned brand will start its TV campaign in early August, a week or so later than last year, according to a spokeswoman. Instead of opting for a big studio moment, the brand will “utilize a mix of [user-generated content] with animation,” she says. The clothier took a similar approach for a recent spot featuring social justice advocates.
Other clothiers are finding their customers where they are spending their summer—in American Eagle’s case, that’s on TikTok. The teen apparel brand will feature TikTok influencers and a campaign video on the social video app later this month. Hollister, which is owned by Abercrombie & Fitch, also announced Thursday it is teaming up with well-known TikTok stars Charli and Dixie D'Amelio and Noah Pugliano for a back-to-school campaign.
Promotions are also expected to be more price-driven and include deeper discounts than in previous years. LL Bean will run its fourth annual Backpack Day promotion on July 20 and 21. This year, however, backpacks will be 60 percent off; last year, they were 53 percent off.
“Value, as you see in the Target ad, is going to be very important,” says Chen. “Obviously in times where people are under significant economic strain, they’re evaluating spending habits.” She adds that some messaging may also tap into the back-to-school excitement of prior years. “Really remembering how things were may be a good theme for people—something to focus on rather than speaking about online learning,” she says.
Find out how agencies are navigating the pandemic and adjusting marketing strategies by signing up for our Small Agency Conference & Awards Aug. 3-5 here.