Direct Response Marketing Agency - Chief Media
girl on tablet with headphones on

Virtually Going Back to School

What does it mean to have a back-to-school campaign when what it means to even go to school has changed so radically? The who, when and where questions surrounding educational systems worldwide has been disrupted, and no one knows for how long. Brands with a significant stake in all things school must envision what really matters to parent and student buyers as Fall 2020 shows us that things are still a long way from returning to normal.

Traditionally brands start to plan back-to-school campaigns as much as a year in advance with the goal of hitting hard around June and July. Not this year. Enter coronavirus and all that has followed. For many marketers, months of meticulous planning that was underway in Q1 has now unraveled. Putting together the pieces in an attempt to find how a campaign still fits in this shifting social and economic picture is going to introduce an element of the experimental. The National Retail Foundation estimated the value of K-12 and college back-to-school marketing in 2019 as coming in over $80 billion. What will that number look like for 2020? The answer is being created right now.

Moving from classrooms to living rooms

Several brands with the resources to pull off a major pivot have shown audiences some relatively smooth creative retooling. Danimals ads have familiar features but required some adjustments to the originally planned creative which focused on children’s natural desire for adventure. In the new post-Covid ads, adventure is redefined, and the context widened to include explorations in the home environment as well as highlighting the social activities (like gaming) and other online experiences that will be a significant part of the school 2020 framework. Bic pens are a classic school item and their popularity has led to the brand’s expanding product range. Because the utility of the products they offer doesn’t lose meaning in a home environment, their focus is on e-commerce, convenience, and great values since many parents are reporting growing concerns over money as the pandemic wears on.

hands holding up various cleaning and protective products
What clean means has changed for consumers which has impacted behavior.

According to Deloitte’s annual back-to-school survey, 66% of parents are anxious about sending their children back to school because they fear for their children’s health. The mental health aspect of the times also resonates. Covid is getting to everyone. Based on a growing body of research that suggests that mental health is a leading concern among young people, JanSport launched their “Lighten the Load” campaign back in May. Using relatable emotional messaging is another example of how marketers are finding ways to get closer to their customer base.

Variations in Consumer Demand

The good news is that certain brands will see sales in line with their 2019 numbers according to Deloitte. Their findings also indicate that it is likely to be a good year for technology products, personal hygiene products and furniture that promises a little comfort in these tumultuous times.

Traditional back-to-school products may sustain some disappointing losses, particularly clothing and accessories. Deloitte forecasts brands in these and other categories will need to prepare for an over 16% decrease in consumer spending this Fall. Mega-retailers online will see some big positive bumps as buyers do their price discovery exercises from the relative comfort of home and will most likely end up on Amazon. This will translate to confidence in a strong business cycle for the big e-commerce players. Consumers in need of a simple solution and competitive shipping will be turning to the giants. It will certainly fuel more advertising from this sector. Brick and mortar go-tos like Staples may have to simplify and pull back a bit on advertising budgets to stay safe while weathering the storm.

A little boy walking to school with a yellow backpack.
Back to school outfits lose their appeal when kids aren’t making it past the mailbox.

Brands who take the time to understand how consumers are surviving the times still have a great chance of staying relevant. Different consumer segments will be experiencing different effects of the pandemic this Fall, and the degree to which brands are seen as supportive of their new normal will have a lot to do with loyalty down the line. While public schools in certain regions are expected to remain online until the end of the year, many private schools in the same areas still plan on face-to-face classes. This has many parents weighing up the possibility of making the switch.

The tag line “we’re in this together” has gone out the door in many states and cities where there is no concerted effort in determining a collective way to move forward through the crisis. In New York and Connecticut, the plan is to resume in-person classes, but with the caveat that it may or may not last, and no promise of how these classes might be structured. Florida and Texas are planning on reopening fully, the later with some flexibility for specific districts against pushback from concerned groups. Both Detroit and Miami are taking the approach of allowing individual households to decide whether to send their children back to school. Dallas, San Francisco, Atlanta, and Nashville, to name a few, are states fully committed to kicking off the school year in fully remote mode. For local and regional advertisers, staying abreast of changing conditions may be one key to success.

The CDC’s current official position on the topic of reopening schools is that it is likely to be in the best interest of children to return to in-person classes due to the variety of benefits they receive from physically returning to school. They have also reported that the risk of transmission both from student to student and students to adults is low, provided the precautions are put in place and followed. Still it’s hard for us to feel confident in a future that reveals every day that we just don’t know what we don’t know. For the foreseeable future the most wanted attributes in current marketing teams and plans will be adaptability and awareness of the latest information and trends. Media calendars and creative assets in the pipeline should be ready to launch at any moment. It’s a time like no time ever and it’s hard to be part of the experiment, but unprecedented times will certainly lead to some once in a lifetime amazing campaign.

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