Back to School campaigns need a facelift for 2020

Ellen Widdup's son Zeb

Back to School campaigns are among the most profitable seasonal sales events for major high street brands. Here our editorial director Ellen Widdup explores how COVID-19 might impact the hard-sell approach favoured by most.


My four-year-old son Zeb starts school in September.

“I will need a backpack mummy,” he told me proudly when we received confirmation of his reception place.

It doesn’t surprise me in the slightest that this is important to him. After all, I can still recall the smell and feel of my own little leather satchel when I waltzed in to the playground for the first time 35 years ago.

It’s such a rite of passage and purchasing those brand new shiny shoes, the slightly oversized shorts and blazer, and the pencil case bulging with crayons are a big part of the excitement.

My only concern is that this year we might be adding in a face mask and a hand sanitiser to our child’s lunchbox to protect them from the coughs and sneezes of a new term.

You might think I jest but I’m reliably informed this is indeed a possibility.

And the fact that there remains a big question mark over how you socially distance 400 children over a six-hour period, five days a week means this year’s Back to School campaigns are sure to look very different from their predecessors.

These promotions are a massive part of the PR and marketing strategies of all major retailers from June to September and are usually planned months in advance.

According to Mintel research, Back to School is the third largest seasonal shopping event in the UK (sitting just behind Christmas and Black Friday) with parents collectively parting with almost £1 billion.

Mintel puts a £915m price tag on the cost of sending children back to a new academic year, with £436m spent on school uniform and shoes alone and an average individual spend of £273.

Yet the coronavirus pandemic has put brands in unchartered waters when it comes to marketing all goods from uniform to stationery.

After all, most parents don’t know whether their children will be sitting in a classroom or in front of a computer at the kitchen table - or a combination of the two – come September.

So they are loathe to spend money too soon on items they may not be needing.

Let’s take uniform for example. A number of schools have already chosen to ditch uniform all together and instead, send their little ones into school wearing comfortable clothes such as t-shirts, hoodies and tracksuit bottoms.

Other schools have ditched blazers and ties completely, fearing that they cannot be easily kept clean.

This was in response to calls for all school uniform to be washed daily on a 60C cycle to prevent the spread of COVID-19 among pupils.

Then we can look at stationery. Long gone is the climate for pen-swapping and pencil sharing.

Current guidelines are for pupils to bring in their own pencil case with a slimmed-down selection of necessary items to use in the classroom.

You can see why the brands that usually make a killing out of gingham dresses, pleated skirts and tailored trousers are starting to worry and why those who stock scented rubbers and glittery markers are anxious about their profit margins.

There are no PR novices working for high street stalwarts. They all know that the key to any PR push is a combination of a great message and impeccable timing. They’ve probably spent months working on their missive and now don’t know how – or when – to implement it.

This – and I’m afraid it applies to experts as well as novices – is a great lesson in the fact that no matter how far in advance you plan, you need to be ready to adjust your plans to accommodate unforeseen circumstances.

I honestly believe that because of this, the best strategies are the flexible ones.

Whenever we work with clients, we suggest actions for them for a given month but warn that we need to be as reactive as we are proactive. It’s simply more effective and allows a business to quickly respond to spontaneous shifts in the market.

And when it comes to these shifts, for all the upheavals COVID-19 has created, it has also offered up opportunities.

There are stationery suppliers out there that have kitted out home offices. There are uniform-manufacturers who have turned to PPE. There are education-providers who have devised remote learning platforms. There are teachers who have delivered lessons over Zoom. There are people who have realised that there can be better – and more efficient – ways of working.

Sure, brands may not have their usual Back to School bonanza. But they can be part of the messages our young people need to hear right now. And by being this, they make the customer think “this is a brand that understands me”. This in turn fosters loyalty. And the sales will come eventually.

We have all come through a horrendous few months of upheaval and confusion and fear and doubt – and our kids have felt the lack of contact with peers acutely.

So big brands might want to consider ditching the hard sell and instead, using their Back to School campaign to remind kids that this is a chance for them to have some fun again.

My son will get his coveted backpack but he may not be sporting a brand new tie, a blazer and shiny lace-ups come September.

What he will be doing however – face mask or not – is learning to find his feet in a brand new world. And he can’t wait.

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