Back-to-School Advertising and Promotions 101: A New Lesson for Brands
There was a time in my life when I thought deciding what outfit to wear on the first day of school was the most challenging and difficult decision of prepping for a new school year. Boy was I wrong. As summer winds down and the COVID-19 pandemic continues on, schools are faced with much more difficult decisions on what the upcoming school year will look like. Will students attend in person, online, or a hybrid approach? This confusion extends beyond school administrators, teachers, parents, and students. Brands and retailers are also faced with tough decisions as they decide when and how to roll out back-to-school advertising and promotional campaigns.
Advertising Dollars Shift to TV
Advertising spend dedicated to back-to-school messaging is down year-over-year, with the latest ad week measured (week ending 07/25) showing 70 percent the amount of ad spend dedicated to BTS compared to the same week last year. The shifts occurring in back-to-school advertising aren’t limited to ad spend, however. The media types featuring back-to-school messaging have also shifted, as have the content of the advertisements themselves.
The share of ad spend by media type for back-to-school advertising has changed significantly from last year, with TV ad spend (+26 percent in 2020) gaining a larger percentage of share. This aligns with the recent trends identified in Numerator’s Advertising Index, a weekly report highlighting shifts occurring in media spend, which shows television as one of the few stable and upwardly trending media types. With families spending more time at home this summer, brands can reach them easier with TV advertising.
In year’s past, back-to-school advertisements often featured, unsurprisingly, schools. An early developing trend of back-to-school ads this season is either the absence of a school setting, like in ads from J.C. Penney and Target, which feature students learning from home, or simply focus on school supplies. Walmart took a split approach in its back-to-school TV creative, jumping between scenes of children learning in school or at home while using the tagline, “However you go back, we’ve got your back.”
Promotions Shift Online
A Numerator Survey conducted in early July showed that one in three households (30 percent) indicated they do not intend to bring their children to stores for the normal school supply selection. The lack of planned in-store shopping may account for the increase in the share of promotions being experienced by retailer websites.
Apparel, electronics, and school supplies categories are all promoting online this back-to-school season at a higher percentage than this time a year ago (72 percent of promotions in 2020 compared to 50 percent in 2019). The rise in online promotions is further explained when in the same Numerator Survey, two of five households (41 percent) indicated they plan to primarily shop online and have their supplies delivered. With the changes in shopping behavior and the uncertainty surrounding the school year, where items are being promoted hasn’t been the only change; we’re also experiencing a shift in what’s being promoted.
With more students scheduled to be at home this fall participating in e-learning, the rise of electronics promotions makes sense. On the same note, new clothes become less important, which is being reflected in the decrease in the share of apparel promotions.
While the early shift in advertising and promotion strategy signals an alleviation to those who shared my first-day outfit concerns, the collective uncertainty of what a school year will look like has many holding their breath. Overall, the response from brands and retailers has been to pull back in ad spending and promotions. And for those continuing on with back-to-school campaigns, we’ve seen a noticeable shift in where they advertise, the content of their advertisements, where they run promotions, and what it is they’re promoting.
Michael Rosenfeld is a senior product marketing manager at Numerator, a data and tech company serving the market research space.
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