Grey: It’s Back-to-School Season: Marketers, Are You Ready?

From Margaret Russo, Group Creative Director, GREY


As summer winds down, kids, parents, and teachers are winding up. Back-to-school season is upon us…but it’s looking a bit different this year. Normally a time of great excitement, rife with visions of outfits to assemble and binders to crack open, back-to-school 2021 brings the now sadly familiar anxiety of wondering what the return will look like—and how long we feel it might last.


So, how to plan for the (yet again) unprecedented school year ahead? It’s a question as confounding to parents as it is to the marketers looking to attract those parents. Pandemic living has taught us all that nothing is set in stone, and a new wave of marketing has been shakily founded on that fluidity. This school year, marketers will need to be thoughtful, flexible, and acutely aware of the ongoing dichotomy of daily life while planning their approach.


It helps to first understand shoppers’ current mentality. Worry, anticipation, enthusiasm—consumers will be cycling through a spectrum of emotions as their purchase needs mount. And those needs are soaring; after a year of mostly at-home flux, back-to-school sales are projected to rise by 16% from 2020. Marketers can capitalize on this renewed interest by positioning their products as versatile and easy (to assemble, to buy, to use), which adds sought-after simplicity to the current state of communal complexity. This messaging approach applies to both last year’s virtual learning tools and this year’s stocking up of in-person essentials, from clothes to shoes to notebooks. But if your product doesn’t have an immediate correlation to back-to-school, this isn’t the year to force it. Wait for a more natural milestone later in the year to make your mark, knowing that shopping budgets are projected to remain up through the holidays.


After considering consumer mindset and messaging, the right media strategy is essential. With the bulk of school supplies still being bought in brick-and-mortar, in-store advertising and coupons shouldn’t be ignored. This is especially pertinent as potential supply shortages and rising consumer prices are causing families to stock up earlier in the season, driven primarily by unique product needs—not typical retailer loyalty.


Expectedly, online purchasing is also continuing to climb, specifically for school-related tech products and wardrobe additions, raising the importance of digital ad units that seamlessly drive to purchase. Shoppable social ads should also be considered in the media mix, especially as platforms continue to expand their capabilities, from robust search and shop on Pinterest to buyable ads on Instagram to livestreaming and integrated options on TikTok.

Shoppable ads pair well with creators and influencers, who are already releasing back-to-school content, from style trends to supply hauls to lunch-packing tips. These light-touch topics make for easy product inclusion, but the deeper side of creator partnerships and collaborative campaigns have the potential for an even bigger impact this year. As kids from grade school to college get back to their in-school selves, mental health is top of mind. The right creator partnerships can prompt both space for individual expression and support for the community at large. Parents will be seeking to connect as well, and will be in need of content that gives them relatable moments of shared humor and understanding as they face the school year ahead—carpools, masking updates, PTA meetings, and all.

Finally, marketers would be well-served to remember those who are often under-served: teachers and school staff. The past 18 months have cast a stark light on the personal undertaking of educators to provide a positive and adaptable classroom environment, from buying school supplies to modifying lesson plans at a moment’s notice to maintaining learning milestones amidst constant change. Cause-related and donation-driven programs with teachers and schools at the center are a meaningful way for brands to give back, especially this year, and will help foster positive sentiment for all involved.

The back-to-school situation may be complex, but marketers can do well by sticking to a few simple tenets: Show your worth. Don’t force it. Make smart buys. Dig deeper with creator partners. Give back to those who deserve it most. And be sure to keep our collective goal at the heart of it all: getting kids back to school smartly, smoothly, and safely.