How brands are seizing on what is expected to be a record sales year as in-person learning returns
Pre-pandemic, an early July email with the subject line “Are You In The Back-To-School Spirit Yet?” might elicit a groan from consumers. After all, many schools around the country finished lessons mere days prior in late June and few consumers like a pushy marketer. But it’s a different year—and that message from backpack marketer LeSportSac and others like it are resonating with parents and kids craving a sense of normal.
“Pretty much every kid in America is going to be back to in-person school,” says Greg Revelle, chief marketing officer of Kohl’s. “What was an uncertain environment last year, now we know and people are excited about it.” He notes that the department store chain is planning to be much more aggressive in its back-to-school marketing as a result.
Retailers including Dick’s Sporting Goods and OshKosh B’gosh and others are also betting big on the season. They’re marketing earlier, spending more, and experimenting with different initiatives, such as a “Lock In” for influencers at a Dick’s store. Bed Bath & Beyond just unveiled its latest private-label brand, Squared Away, a collection focused on storage and organization for homes like dorm rooms, as well as its “College, Happier” marketing campaign for students returning to universities.
In a year like no other, experts predict spending like never before. With many students learning virtually last year, families failed to stock up on typical must-haves like backpacks, pencils and fall apparel. They’re making up for it this year. The National Retail Federation is expectingback-to-school spending, including elementary level through high school, to reach $37.1 billion, a record and a 9% rise over last year, and college spending to reach $71 billion, also a record and a 5% rise over 2020.
Much of the jump is coming from younger generations, like millennials, whose Gen-Alpha-aged kids are now in elementary and middle school. A recent Ad Age-Harris Poll survey found that 67% of millennials expect to shop back-to-school events this year, up from 63% last year.
Consumers, like brands, are planning ahead. Amazon searches for school supplies and college dorm essentials like laundry bags saw spikes in late June this year, compared to a typical timeframe in late July and August, according to analytics firm Profitero. The rush goes beyond simple enthusiasm for a return to school—consumers are worried about essential items selling out. Already, popular bag sellers State Bags and Jansport have sold out of several colors of their backpacks.
“Retailers and brands are facing a lot of supply issues right now due to the pandemic and consumers are worried supplies may run out of stock,” says Mike Black, chief marketing officer of Profitero. He adds that shoppers also might be buying early to avoid coming higher prices due to inflation. Profitero’s eCommerce Price Index found that online prices for office supplies and electronics were already up 4.2% in June compared with June of 2020. Many shoppers are just looking for sales—64% of those who say they will shop this season are doing so simply for discounts, according to the Ad Age-Harris Poll.
Yet while brands are doubling down on their marketing investments to capture a piece of rising consumer demand, the coronavirus, and its troubling new Delta variant, still loom large, potentially complicating in-person learning, which could put a damper on retail. On Monday, share prices of mall-based brands such as Gap, Macy’s and Kohl’s were on the decline amid rising COVID-19 cases in many parts of the country.
Those brands that already began their fall marketing campaigns will be better positioned as top of mind as consumers continue shopping. OshKosh this week unveiled its biggest push in a decade—a multi-million-dollar campaign that features child actors playing the young selves of celebrities such as Mariah Carey, Outkast and Muhammad Ali. In Carey’s case, the singer is played by her daughter Monroe Cannon. Though back-to-school is “the Super Bowl” for a kidswear brand like OshKosh, the brand has never spent as heavily on traditional channels as it is this year, according to Jeff Jenkins, executive VP, global marketing at parent company Carter’s.
“It’s the first time in a number of years where we’ve had a TV-style campaign for back-to-school,” Jenkins says. The push will include three different spots that show the young actors dreaming of the future.
“Someday, it’s going to be different—the melodies that live in my head, someday, they’ll live at the top of the charts,” says Cannon in the spot, which is meant to take place in 1980. OshKosh worked with Majority, the Atlanta-based agency co-founded by Shaquille O’Neal—marking a rare instance of tapping an external agency. OshKosh usually relies on social media, display advertising and direct mail instead of digital video, Jenkins says. “We felt like this is going to be a big back-to-school year, this is the place to invest and lean in,” he adds.
Similarly, Dick’s is also doubling down on back-to-school. After finding success with a new campaign on TikTok last year, the sportswear brand is again be spending on the platform with a TikTok challenge. The retailer is inviting TikTok creators to a “Lock In,” in which they spend an evening in a Dick’s store and create their own content and styles.
“We basically give them the keys to the store to see what they can come up with from a style perspective and share that with their followers,” said Ed Plummer, Dick’s chief marketing officer, at a recent Ad Age event that featured the retailer as one of America’s Hottest Brands.
The retailer is also airing a “Welcome Back” spot, featuring TikTok influencers such as Nicole Laeno and Jean-Victor Mackie, that will run in 15-and 30-second versions. Dick’s worked with VMLY&R, the same agency that handled its 2020 back-to-school work.
“We’re going to lean into TikTok and some of the other channels and a heavy use of influencers this year to drive what I think is a pretty optimistic, energetic campaign,” said Plummer.
While its competitors are focusing on school only, Kohl’s is taking on a different strategy with its upcoming campaign, which will run earlier and longer this year than in years prior, according to Revelle. In a 30-second spot, a dad drops his son off at school. As the father sits in the car singing along to the Zombies’ “This Will be Our Year,” the boy returns to wish him a “Great first day.”
The commercial, created with Yard NYC, addresses the fact that many parents will be experiencing first days too—first days without their children at home for the first time in more than a year, or first days being back to the office after a lengthy absence.
“We’re not looking at it merely from the kids’ perspective—we’re looking at it from the whole family’s perspective,” says Revelle. “It’s not just about your kid going back to school but all the changes going on for parents and loved ones as well.” To that end, Kohl’s is promotingitself as a wardrobe destination for adults and kids. Revelle notes that many adults have not updated their wardrobes in years. New data from Profitero illustrate the back-to-the-office trend as well. Searches for “bluetooth headphones,” a popular accessory for commuting, is up 1550% over last year, while “travel coffee mug” searches are up 215%, according to the firm.
While its back-to-school marketing will run from mid-July through September, Kohl’s back-to-work push will continue even longer through the fall.
“The back-to-work schedule is all over the board,” says Revelle. “We are extending our campaign for quite a long time.”