This year’s back-to-school campaigns are going to look a lot different

Learning at home has forced major brands to use an eraser on tried-and-true strategies.

Photo credit: JanSport
Photo credit: JanSport

Can you even call it a “back-to-school” campaign?

With a big question mark hanging over whether kids will be physically at school in September, back-to-school campaigns will look a tad different this year.

It’s almost June, which means brands have been planning their BTS efforts for months. After all, it’s each July when people find themselves asking the TV why back-to-school ads are starting already. 

Backpack brand JanSport usually begins preparing 11 months out and starts its back-to-school efforts in June. Danimals, a kids’ brand in the yogurt aisle, typically starts getting ready a year in advance.

Yet the coronavirus pandemic has put brands in the same uncharted waters as parents: figuring things out on the fly for the lucrative sales season. The National Retail Federation estimated that the combined amount spent on BTS season for K-12 and college surpassed $80 billion last year. 

"Parents aren't the only ones making things up as they go,” says General Mills chief communications officer Jano Cabrera.

Allison+Partners has been helping JanSport with its BTS programming for the past two years. Agency president of consumer brands Lisa Rosenberg explains that its campaigns have been very product-focused. “But if kids do not go back physically to school, there will be less need for new backpacks, initially,” she says.

So when the pandemic spread, the brand quickly adjusted its messaging.

“In the past, we would have had all of our media assets done, baked, in the can and ready to distribute throughout the back-to-school season,” says JanSport marketing head Monica Rigali. “Today, we are working on a much shorter timeline. We don’t want to start putting out BTS messages like, ‘It’ll be great getting back in the classroom!’ right now because that would be tone deaf.”

Instead of retreating, JanSport launched this year’s back-to-school campaign a month earlier than normal with plans for it to run through the fall. The campaign, called Lighten the Load, is based on consumer research showing that one of the most important issues for Gen Z is mental health.

“With the onset of COVID-19 and understanding our consumer and what this generation is going through right now, we felt like we needed to make a pivot and come to market sooner,” says Rigali. “We used May, which is Mental Health Awareness Month, as a platform to elevate the conversation and invite our consumers in to talk about issues that are top-of-mind for them right now.”

JanSport changed the messaging “to make it more appropriate and contemporary to what young people are going through right now,” Rigali explains. The brand also has been holding live sessions on Instagram with licensed therapists, covering topics ranging from FOMO to isolation to reconnecting with family, as well as depression and anxiety.

With students’ lives disrupted and in-person school regulations differing on a state-by-state basis, JanSport’s main message is that it cares about the same issues as young people and shares their values.

“As a student-oriented brand, we have an opportunity to align with students. We understand what they are going through and want to help them through it,” says Rigali.

The campaign is one example of how a brand in uncharted waters can talk about its product offering more broadly and react to current events.

“No one can fall in love with a comms idea so much that they are not willing to let go if circumstances around us warrant it,” says Rosenberg.  

Back-to-school marketing is a “top priority” for Danimals, says Kallie Goodwin, VP of family  brands for yogurt at Danone North America, who says the pandemic has forced brands like hers to be nimble. 

“This was a great lesson in that no matter how far in advance you plan, you need to be ready to adjust your plans to accommodate unforeseen circumstances,” she says.

Danimals launched its Adventurous by Nature campaign this year, focused on letting kids be their naturally adventurous selves. It planned to extend the campaign into back-to-school season, but the concept of adventure suddenly began to look a lot different for families.

“We had to acknowledge that while families might not be packing lunch boxes, families are looking for delicious, nutritious and convenient options for their kids to enjoy while at home, and they are also looking for ideas to inspire fun and creativity,” says Goodwin. “To respond to this new need, we started sharing ideas for #AtHomeAdventures.”

“We also amended the way we will portray kids during back-to-school, focusing on them experiencing adventures outside of the school setting in case learning continues remotely,” adds Goodwin.

Danimals is looking at the mix of channels it uses to reach kids during BTS season and is planning to announce a gaming partnership, since kids are not able to do as many of their normal group activities.

Whether kids are at school or at home, they will need pens, markers and pencils, says Joy Seusing, VP of global comms at Bic. The company is embracing nimbleness as it adjusts to the pandemic, she says. 

“It’s all about being as agile and flexible as possible with your plans and pivoting wherever you can,” says Seusing. “A key part of that is working closely with customers and [watching] how they are shopping. We made sure to get those insights in real time so we can come up with the right strategy that will work for [BTS].”

Brands should also keep in mind that parents are looking at how they are spending every dime, she adds, so Bic is putting together “great BTS deals” with retail partners.

“Value is extremely important right now for consumers and something we feel like we excel at and we are communicating that,” says Seusing. She didn’t elaborate on Bic’s back-to-school plans, but notes that marketing efforts have been shifting to ecommerce. 

Another iconic brand turning to digital this back-to-school season is Boy Scouts of America. Effie Delimarkos, director of national comms and partnerships for the organization, says BTS is a key time for packs and troops to recruit members, hold in-person scout nights and stage welcome back events at schools. 

BSA is planning to “have virtual embedded” in its marketing strategy to reach families and members, Delimarkos says. The organization is planning to use a “magnetic, singular” virtual event to connect with kids and parents in August, largely inspired by a successful National Camp-In it hosted on Facebook Live on May 2. The event garnered 475,441 views, 167,682 engagements and raised $102,636 for Feeding America.

Another important strategy element to keep in mind? Location, location, location. If schools stay physically closed or people continue to work remotely, travel schedules will change, and brands need to be market-targeted as the situation varies state-to-state, Rosenberg says. 

“That impacts how you build campaigns and how you target consumers and what media you use and what social channels,” she adds. “We may start to see a shift from potentially things that blanket the country to things that are market specific for BTS campaigns.”

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