How Has Back to School Marketing Changed After the Pandemic?

It’s mid-summer, which means one thing: We’re about to be inundated with back-to-school marketing. Maybe it’s happening already in big-box retailers near you. Holiday marketing (or periodic marketing) tends to creep up earlier and earlier these days, which pretty much means that as soon as the Fourth of July passes, marketing for “back to school” (a period that essentially spans late August through early September) is fair game.

But when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, back-to-school marketing radically changed. Images of children in backpacks strolling through school halls were incorrect; students were now attending classes in their own living rooms, with little need to carry books around. More importantly, the school supplies that many retailers were touting had no purpose. Instead of colored pencils and notebooks, students needed laptops and certain kinds of software. They might have needed strange things that no one ever anticipated seeing on a back-to-school list—like a ring light, for improved on-screen visibility.

Now, things are somewhat back to normal in most places (though a wariness prevails that we can’t entirely rest easy yet—and parents have not quite disassembled those at-home learning stations from the living room). But when it comes to jumping right back into back-to-school marketing, brands can’t be overconfident in how they plan and invest. In 2022, companies are taking a more thoughtful approach.

Here are a few of the ways that back-to-school marketing has changed:

1- Understand the reality of schooling today; don’t assume. The more nuanced you can be with your back-to-school marketing campaigns, the better. Instead of focusing on a broad topic, such as the need for germ control and quarantine policies, or a general concept of remote learning, pick out a few details that might resonate with your audiences. For example, does the classroom use a SMART Board as their primary “chalkboard” or presentation hub? Do they utilize Google Classroom, Blackbaud, edModo, or another type of e-learning system for facile and flexible transfer from in-classroom to remote learning? What do school supplies and reading lists look like this year? Are there still at-home setup requirements (chair, desk, other)? Knowing these details will help you connect best through your images and copy. (And even if you have kids of your own—remember that everyone might not be doing things exactly the same way that your school or district does, so a deep-dive into regional trends for your segmented audiences might be important. And something entirely different might resonate for your teenage shopper and your well-intentioned godparent trying to buy their godchild something informed and meaningful ahead of the new school year. Who are your people? What do they know—and what do they need to know?)

2- Team up with the parents and students. One thing that the pandemic made more realistic and urgent was the fact that people needed to rely on their own communities to find out what was going on and receive support. That couldn’t have been more true than it was for parents and their school-aged children. While influencers are always a consideration when it comes to marketing strategies, bigtime influencers with major followings are not necessarily the way to advertise for back-to-school. Instead, finding more local leaders might be the way to go. Regional mentors and community leaders have more sway in telling their networks what’s going on, right now, authentically, and having their influence matter. And people are more likely to trust fellow parents or hear from students themselves when trying to decide if it makes sense to get to that supply list early (to beat the crowds and get good deals, as they might have in pre-pandemic years) or hold off juuuuust in case it changes to meet some last-minute need, than they will rely on companies or major, out-of-touch celebrities and influencers online. Speak with real people, and find out who matters; ask questions, learn from them, and then take and share their advice. Find out if they will help amplify, if it’s a product or service they genuinely believe in.

3- Broadening in scope for brands. It’s important to note that school supply retailers and children’s clothing manufacturers are not the only ones worrying about their back-to-school strategy. As noted earlier, “back to school” is now considered its own “awareness period”—right up there with holidays and national focus months (like Black History Month). It’s in a much higher position than periods like “conference season” or “wedding/gala season” that might impact certain companies more than others. With marketers getting savvier about capitalizing on these consumer-awareness periods, there’s a way to angle almost every brand to match its products and services to almost any awareness period or create a campaign around it. So the field is more competitive, but it also means that there is a chance to get really creative to break through the noise. Consider how your company can creatively speak to parents, teachers, and even students themselves who are anticipating this upcoming lifestyle and mentality shift.

For more thoughts on how the pandemic has shifted certain approaches to marketing, and where we’re likely to go from here, with targeted insights for your brand and goals, reach out anytime.

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