VMLY&R DSG Thought Leadership: Back-to-School

VMLY&R DSG Thought Leadership: Back-to-School

From Noel Cottrell, Chief Creative Officer, Kansas City, VMLY&R


With the pandemic leaving a trail of uncertainty and shoppers getting a head start on things for the classroom, how can marketers prepare for back-to-school season in terms of messaging?

To state the obvious, back-to-school (BTS) 2021 has been like no other.  While start dates and mask-mandates and attendance has been unpredictable, what we could predict was that this was going to be a major cultural moment. A time of enormous change from the previous 18 months and the unofficial end to one of the strangest summers ever. If BTS is a time of anticipation for kids and parents, this year was going to be that on steroids. 

For one of our clients, DICK’S Sporting Goods, we showed that brands don’t need to pretend that this is the start to a perfectly normal school year, but you can still tap into the sentiment around what back-to-school means.


How do you think social platforms like TikTok will play a role in back-to-school planning?

As the #1 downloaded app, TikTok continues to increase in relevance and have a huge influence on everyone, but particularly on school-going Gen Zers. As time spent on TikTok increases, parents and teens are finding new trends and deciding what to buy. According to an AdWeek-Morning Consult survey, half of all TikTok users said they bought a product or service from a brand after seeing it advertised, promoted, or reviewed on the platform. 

As the first major retail event since the start of the pandemic, BTS shopping will really push TikTok’s influence on what people are buying.  


With pandemic habits like online shopping on the rise again due to the recent COVID surges, how are marketers altering their media strategies for online presence?

As the pandemic boosted time spent on social platforms, DICK’S Sporting Goods tapped into this tuned-in audience with an overnight ‘Lock In’ of TikTok influencers at one of our giant stores.  The influencers who stayed in the store were allowed to drive the content from their accounts, broadcasting content and store features to their highly engaged audiences. They streamed themselves climbing our climbing wall, shooting hoops, playing golf.  The stream got more than 34MM organic views and 4.5MM likes – which was pretty incredible for one night.


How does messaging differ when targeting different audience segments for back-to-school campaigns. (i.e. parents, students, higher education students, teachers)? 

We know that both parents and teens are watching content on their phones and sharing it, especially when it comes to online shopping. So for DICK’S, we targeted both parents and their teenage kids who were going back to school with different ads.  For parents, the goal was for them to see content that made them think of their teen and made them want to share it with a “what do you think”? We leaned into our TikTok influencers again and in the commercials aimed at parents we used a version of the song “Welcome Back” that was popular in the early 2000’s. And then, for teens, we changed our edit with faster-paced cuts and a remixed version of the same song… by TikTok beatmaker Ricky Desktop. 

Parent TVC: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o2lwiMzfh8o

Teen Social: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6khf6CPzF9Q


CE: Kara Nelson

Strategy: Zach Leffers 

Connections: Grace Hoy 

Creative: Scott Lichtenauer