Back to School but Not Back to Normal: How Brands Can Help Families in an Uncertain Season

Brands normally spend June readying to launch the $80 billion back-to-school marketing season. But as we see from Instagram feeds filled with virtual graduations and “last day of (quarantine) school” photos, 2020 is not a typical year. While the CDC has issued some guidance for reopening schools, the back-to-school season will look very different across America—not just state by state, but school by school.

How, what and where we will be in relation to education this fall remains unclear but marketing plans still need to be finalized. Though this year’s back-to-school season will be anything but back to normal, there are key trends that will help us better understand the landscape. Here’s what we’re keeping our eyes on:

  • The back-to-school shopping list will be the first tangible sign of changes to come. Families will shop later in the season than usual, for items that emphasize germ protection and organization. Even more shopping will be done online.
  • There’s a growing concern for student mental health as children and youth cope with the compounded crises of COVID 19 and civil unrest. We’ll see parents and teachers prioritize the social-emotional well-being of students, which will require new resources to help guide students (and their parents) through all the changes.
  • COVID will affect social dynamics. By limiting the number of children in a group and preventing groups from interacting with each other, schools (if in-person) and extracurricular activities could impact a child’s friendships, hinder sports and other team activities, and even lead to social-distancing-enabled bullying and teasing.
  • The burden on working parents, especially working moms, will increase. Children will spend more time at home, and new procedures for schools and extra-circular activities will be more complicated and time-consuming.
  • COVID will continue to magnify the critical issues our schools face. This includes the financial insecurities of many students, racial disparity, lack of school resources and more. With technology and parental involvement needs intensifying, the access gap will be bigger than ever.

What are the implications for brands who need to lock in media buys and creative before schools share their reopening plans?

It’s all about the three S’s: Sensitivity, Simplicity and Solutions.

  1. Sensitivity: This is not a year for a celebratory tone. Our country is grappling with serious issues: COVID-19, the economy and racial injustice, all of which have implications for education. Even parents who are comfortable with their school’s plan will have anxiety and adjustments to face. Have your PR team look at ALL marketing communications, from copy to images, to ensure you don’t accidently offend.
  2. Simplicity: It’s always a good idea to keep it simple, but now more than ever. Think about your calls to action. Are you asking consumers to post video, scan a barcode or join a new rewards program? Anything that requires an extra step (mentally or technically) could just be too much for some families right now.
  3. Solutions: Bringing a meaningful solution to a challenge that families or schools face will have tremendous value and is likely to foster loyalty. While the problems can seem insurmountable, there’s bound to be a place where your brand’s experience or resources can be useful. Beyond your product, is there a technology, policy, procedure, platform or expert at your company that could be adapted for back-to-school?

Our experts in creativity strategy and brand marketing are dedicated to helping brands navigate this uncertain time to find solutions that bring real value to consumers. Let us know if you’d like to talk further.

Lauren Sugarman is an SVP, Strategic & Creative Planner who works with Ketchum client across categories including food, retail and CPG. She’s also a children’s book author, mom or three and Bravo-holic.