A look at 2020 Back-to-School Marketing

This year’s ‘Back-to-School’ marketing (BTS) was bound to look a bit different due to our current reality. With many parents not knowing whether they would be sending their kids back to school, or keep them learning from home, brands had to think up a different approach from their normal BTS marketing. 

The National Retail Federation estimated that the combined amount spent on BTS season for K-12 and college surpassed $80 billion last year. In 2020, while families will probably still spend about the same amount, the products they’re spending money on will differ dramatically in some cases from years prior. According to a survey conducted by Deloitte in June, planned spending in the computer hardware category was up 38% year-over-year, whereas apparel dropped by 14%. Along with this, a study done back in July by Numerator showed that BTS marketing was down nearly 50% compared to last year. 

Despite brands pulling back on paid ads, research showed that many invested more time and effort in back-to-school social content than they did in 2019. According to a report by Sprout Social, there were more than 657,000 social messages about the topic of going back to school in the first half of 2020, with retailers increasing their usage of platforms like Pinterest and Tiktok in preparation of September. 

Now that it’s September and the school year has commenced, let’s look to see what some brands have done to appropriately market for BTS season. 

Brands Approaches

Target was one of the few advertisers running back-to-school-themed national TV ads back in early July. The ads showed dancing pencils and crayons getting their groove on into a backpack. The product-based commercial did not show apparel or children on buses or in classrooms – likely on purpose. 

“This fall will be far from routine, but whether your readers are filling a backpack or setting up a dining room learning station for the kiddos—or decking out a dorm room or creating a cozy, at-home study nook for your college student—Target’s here to help with safe, convenient and affordable offerings,” the company wrote.

Walmart has collaborated with ABC Mouse, PBS Kids, Disney, Crayola, and Sylvan Learning on workbooks and online content. American Eagle cultivated the power of TikTok to advertise to teens. The teen apparel brand featured TikTok influencers and a campaign video on the social video app. Hollister, which is owned by Abercrombie & Fitch, also teamed up with well-known TikTok stars Charli and Dixie D’Amelio and Noah Pugliano for a back-to-school campaign.


#MoreHappyDenimDance Tutorial ft. @charlidamelio

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On the other hand, retailers like Jansport approached the BTS marketing season by tackling more serious topics, such as the mental health of young people,  specifically how the coronavirus pandemic might have affected it. According to DMS Insights, Jansport deliberately launched its back-to-school campaign, ‘Lighten the Load’, a month earlier than it usually would have to coincide with Mental Health Awareness month in May. 

Danimals took the opportunity to create a campaign focusing on adventures outside of the school setting. The #AtHomeAdventures campaign introduced fun contests and crafts for kids to do, responding to the need for parents to keep their kids creative and moving.


“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,” said Kallie Goodwin, VP of Family Brands for yogurt at Danone North America. 

While brands are still treading in unprecedented times, the situation surrounding the pandemic gives them an opportunity to connect and engage with young people in ways never thought of before. With October quickly approaching, we will continue to watch how brands will approach marketing for the upcoming holiday seasons.