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Back-To-School Should Inspire Retailers to Revisit their Marketing Plans

5 minute read | Lucille Toniolo, Director, Marketing Effectiveness | August 2021

The middle of summer isn’t typically a time when we’re focused on the upcoming school year, especially when this year feels a little more normal than it did last year. That said, it’s time for brands to focus on back-to-school—even though July just ended. 

As marketers, we all know that marketing collateral doesn’t just magically appear. Nor does it get developed overnight. From a planning standpoint, now is the time to buckle down so you don’t fall behind. Nielsen Tracking Services data shows that creatives start planning for back-to-school as early in July and peak in August. And when we think about planning for this year, brands can’t just re-purpose previous creatives from previous years with minor tweaks. This year is different.

And not only is this year different, conditions due to the COVID-19 pandemic remain very much in flux. That amplifies the need for retailers to stay nimble and adaptive. But for now, much of the country is focused on a physical return to classrooms (either full- or part-time), which means parents will soon begin the age-old tradition of back-to-school shopping. While some purchases this year may be unique to pandemic living, school clothes and classroom supplies will be top-of-mind for parents.

So what should advertisers be thinking about? Namely, where will consumers be shopping, and which media channels are the best way to connect with them? When it comes to shopping, this year will look much different from last year,  as parents and students move toward a hybrid of online and instore shopping experiences. That’s because while many people are returning to many of their pre-pandemic habits, including shopping in stores, certain new behaviors developed over the past 16 months will stay. This includes using click-and-collect, same-day services and contactless delivery options. These services have all raised the bar when it comes to convenience. Convenience is one pandemic-era byproduct that shoppers are not leaving behind.

In terms of engaging with consumers, the world is in a different place than it was last year, and channel choice will be critical. A recent survey by Nielsen Audio found that nine out of 10 U.S. consumers say they are “ready to go” in resuming many—if not all—of their pre-pandemic activities. Those activities involve time away from home and shopping, which means they’re influenced by out of home advertising and branding. All of which are part of building up shoppers’ awareness and consideration of advertisers.

Getting out of the house also means more time spent in cars again, and listening to the radio. 

Radio remains the channel with the largest reach (86% of U.S. adults, per Nielsen Audio), and advertisers shouldn’t overlook the fact that 77% of consumers in the recent survey say that driving ranks second among the activities they’re doing more of compared with the peak of the pandemic. And for this year’s school season, twice as many kids will be driven to school compared with those who will take the bus (65% vs 32%). 

Something else to consider: mailed advertisements. Yes, it sounds contrary to the digital lives that we’re all living these days, but they work. Prior Nielsen research shows that direct mail helps drive brand recall and consideration. For advertisers that missed out on brand presence due to closed stores, direct mail offers a way to stay top-of-mind with shoppers. Many retailers grew their new customer bases as a result of the increase in demand of shoppers—direct mail may be a new channel worth adding to the marketing mix. According to Nielsen Scarborough data, the number of people buying items as a result of receiving mailed coupons has been rising over the past three years—and so has the frequency of purchases.

Of course video is a huge staple in our media diets. Of the 10 hours and 20 minutes that the average American spends with media each day, more than half (55%) is spent with video, according to Nielsen TV measurement data. Importantly, the ways in which we watch are far from homogeneous. For retailers, that means it’s critical to know who your audience is and then plan your advertising in the channels where your audience will see it. And with the rise in CTV and streaming, that channel may be ad-supported video on demand service or a virtual multichannel video programming distributor (vMVPD) instead of traditional TV. 

The other aspect of today’s connectivity that retailers need to be mindful of is that the decision makers are increasingly becoming the students instead of the parents. A recent back to school marketing insights survey from Rakuten, for example, found that students are driving this year’s buying decisions—and they’re looking to social media platforms and influencers for inspiration. In fact, Nielsen’s March 2021 Total Audience Report found that almost half of streaming video services users 18-34 said they were influenced to purchase specific products or brands used in streaming video content. Retailers may look to add affiliate marketing to their mix as it includes influencers and other third-party partners.

So amid the channel, device and content fragmentation, how can retailers break through? First, know what resonates. Online shopping and convenience are paramount, as are the social media marketplaces where trends are being born daily. Stay agile and adjust in step with unfolding changes involving the pandemic, health, safety and what matters most to consumers. And when it comes time to launch your marketing, test, test and test

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