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.