Major brands across the board are eager to go back to school

Two important things occur every September: Kids return to school, and marketers roll out major school-themed initiatives.

Two important things occur every September: Kids return to school, and marketers roll out major school-themed initiatives.

Besides basic things like pencils and binders, unlikely items such as cell phones, hand sanitizers, and even ice cream are being pitched under the "back-to-school" umbrella, an $18 billion opportunity, according to the National Retail Federation.

Starting in mid-August, the back-to-school period is prominently on the minds of parents and kids. In turn, marketers hope that even items with only a tenuous tie to schooling will attract the attention of busy parents.

Why does it matter?

While school supplies are the main retail purchases, everyone from clothing retailers to food manufacturers get in the act.

"We do a back-to-school marketing campaign every year," says Kate Parkhouse, PR manager for JC Penney. "Besides the holiday season, there's just not a more important time for retailers."

Baskin-Robbins is teaming up with Oreo to tempt consumers with Oreo-infused ice cream, which they propose will help "lick away the back-to-school blues." Part of the effort will include events such as Oreo Ice Cream Lick-A-Thons on September 20.

Product manufacturers also have the chance to tie in additional messages to back-to-school promotions, such as healthy eating.

The Sara Lee Corp. is jumping on the bandwagon by promoting September 5 as "Take Your Whole Grain Sandwich to School Day," in which parents are encouraged to increase the whole grain content of their children's school lunchboxes.

"Back-to-school is time for moms to pack bagged lunches, and it's a perfect time to think about how they prepare and what they use to prepare these lunches," says Ashley La Croix, manager of media development and communications, Sara Lee.

Five facts:

1 The National Retail Federation predicts each family will spend an average of $563 this year on back-to-school merchandise, up 7% from last year.

2 Last year, JC Penney did a live back-to-school ad at the MTV Video Music Awards. This year, their push includes online webisodes, ads in cinemas, and mobile marketing.

3 Vicks is promoting its new Early Defense hand sanitizer as a "back-to-school essential," with one ad showing a bottle inside a kid's zippered pencil case.

4 California Raisin is hoping moms will pack their goods into lunchboxes by sponsoring a sweepstakes where the winning family gets a trip to Disney World or Disneyland.

5 HP's back-to-school effort targets teens with a "Society for Parental Mind Control" push that lets them send "mind control" messages virally to parents about specific items.

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