Taking the “back” out of “back-to-school”

September 22nd, 2020 | BJ Pichman

Throughout spring and early summer 2020, the coming school year was the topic of many discussions, speculation, and uncertainties. States and counties across the nation scrambled to create plans for the new school year. Once it became clear that a normal in-school format was not going to be an option for much of the country, retailers needed to respond quickly and pivot their back-to-school marketing to meet the uncertain and ever-changing environment. 

Changes to messaging 

Backing away 

With many schools delaying their start, or even not returning in the fall, the usual “back-to-school” phrase was inappropriate and had the potential to come off as tone deaf. Most retailers identified this messaging dilemma and pivoted to more inclusive phrasings that addressed the fact that many students were not going back into their schools.  

Playing it safe 

The alternative messages that were used got the point across but it’s hard to match the effectiveness of the ubiquitous “back-to-school.” 

The kids are absent. 

Target‘s largest digital video campaign adapted by removing the child actors entirely and instead, focused on slick digitized apparel animations. 

Spend & channel strategy shifts 

Amazon had senior-itis this year.

Amazon spent less than half of its 2019 digital budget this year. It’s possible that with increased sales during the pandemic, it simply decided it wasn’t necessary. 

Best Buy has its moment. 

The remote-learning school format created a greater need for tech solutions and Best Buy looked to capitalize on it. The company increased its digital marketing spend by 80% as the start of school approached. Most of that money went towards the marketing of laptops. Best Buy typically speaks to the student in its marketing but this year it pivoted to speaking to parents about their student[s].  

What we think  

The 2020 BTS season showed how quickly and seamlessly these retail giants can pivot their marketing. Uncertain times and breaks from the normal will create challenges and require new approaches. The tension and uncertainty in the country has created an unforgiving climate where missteps in tone or message can result in severe backlash. These major retailers met the challenge with a timely and careful response—whether it was with a slight tweak to the messaging, a change in channel strategy, or exploiting synergies across product offerings. The term “new normal” has entered the lexicon and while it’s becoming passé, the fact remains that marketers will be faced with similar challenges in the years to come.

BJ Pichman

BJ Pichman

BJ Pichman is a Research Manager specializing in custom reporting across a variety of industries. Using Comperemedia's omnichannel marketing tools, he delivers competitive insights and recommendations that drive business objectives.