Back-to-School Marketing Feels Heavy this Year

Aug 6, 2020 | Crisis Marketing

Back-to-school ads focusing on mental health and remote learning have replaced the typically enthusiastic ads, but they seem to be resonating with teens.

From packed yellow buses to doorbuster deals, back-to-school marketing after coronavirus is sparse for one of the biggest sales events for retail marketers.

A quieter start to the school year is understandable as teachers in hotspot states and provinces are filled with fear of contracting the coronavirus, or worse passing it to their students. The seemingly nervous atmosphere is yet another sign of how the ongoing health crisis has altered marketing strategies. COVID-19 resembles walking on eggshells. Retailers are trying to promote safety and progress while also trying to bring any positivity and reassurance they can to parents, students, and teachers.

We all need to be able to quickly change the content, messaging and tone, or else we will be deemed irrelevant or insensitive.

Brands have an opportunity to either provide services or resources by recognizing the moment that we’re in as opposed to going to the same old ads.

While there are fewer back-to-school ads running compared to years past, brands ramping up their efforts now could have a better chance to stand out.

Old Navy, for instance, drew attention with a back-to-school campaign that stars five activists. This is a reflection of how the current civil rights movement is starting to wield greater influence over mainstream marketing.

Macy’s back-to-school campaign features a shot of a young boy practicing soccer; an image that can recall both sadness over the loss of team sports but also resiliency.

Several other companies have adopted a similar approach. JanSport intended to do candid interviews in-person, but instead sent production kits to its teen subjects around the country so they could create the videos themselves.

Though a break from the high-gloss back-to-school ads of the past, the do-it-yourself quality of this year’s campaigns gels with apps centered on user-generated content that are attracting teens attention, namely TikTok and Instagram.

Social media directs engagement that TV doesn’t. JanSport has extended its campaign to include sessions with therapists held over Instagram Live.

It’s expected that the fall months will carry over current pandemic-related challenges, and potentially new ones if the virus isn’t better managed in time for flu season.

With lingering uncertainties around how the pandemic will play out, the back-to-school period may serve as an early indicator for how brands should tackle a volatile holiday season in both messaging and media planning. Make sure to watch things unfold!

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Jeremy Miller

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