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9 back-to-school campaigns to bookmark now for your 2020 planning

by Khoros staff | Jul 28, 2020

This year, back-to-school looks a lot different than in years prior. Some students will be going back to school, some will return to smaller, more socially-distanced classrooms, and others will be learning from home. However, this doesn’t mean that the back-to-school season has to be a wash for brands. No matter their situation, students still need back-to-school supplies. The back-to-school season is big business: it’s second only to the holiday season in sales numbers, and marketers can’t afford to miss out.

Retailers are now ramping up awareness as prime back-to-school season approaches in late July and early August. To take full advantage of the season, some brands begin their back-to-school campaigns during the height of summer — and some even run ads before the prior year’s classes even end.

Executing winning digital marketing campaigns requires a combination of advanced planning and capitalizing on the current climate. We can’t know for sure how the back-to-school season will turn out this year, but that shouldn’t stop brands from creating engaging and effective ads. The lessons learned from the following examples are things that will be applicable year after year. Bookmark these examples of stand-out campaigns — and the advice we received from each — and you’ll have a jump on your back-to-school planning.

1. Amazon’s ad highlighting student aspirations

Amazon’s back-to-school ad is short, simple, and, most importantly, smart. In the 15-second advertisement, a teacher begins class with a roll call, but instead of calling out names, he calls out what profession his students aspire to be when they’re older. He calls out “future marine biologist”, to which a student with an ocean notebook proudly raises his hand, “future songwriter”, followed by the enthusiastic hand of a girl with a piano binder and “Captain Laser Cat”, referring to a student wearing a whimsical and unique T-shirt. The ad ends with a slogan stating: “When it’s time for kids to go back to school and chase their dreams, Amazon has everything they need from A to Z”.

The advertisement highlights what makes Amazon so popular; that everything and anything you could possibly want is just a click away on the website. The subtlety of the brand's messaging paired with the overall charm of the commercial’s story makes for one successful marketing campaign. In this ad, Amazon isn’t just saying they have everything you need for back to school, they are saying they have everything you need to pursue your dreams.

2. Kleenex’s #ShareKleenexCare ad connects emotionally with customers

The beginning of school is always hard, but the beginning of middle school is even harder. No one knows this better than Kleenex, whose recent back-to-school ad features a social experiment examining the anxieties of a group of students before their first day of middle school. The advertisement begins with the kids expressing their worries in their own words, most of which deal with the social pressures that often arise during this complicated transition. Later during the workshop, the same kids are shown preparing and exchanging packages of Kleenex adorned with supportive messages from their peers. Looks of anxiety and unease turn into smiles, confidence, and laughs as the kids receive heartfelt Kleenex packages from their fellow classmates.

The powerful story of the commercial is thoughtfully tied with the brand’s messaging and product, and the result is a relatable and authentic marketing campaign. Supported by the company’s #ShareKleenexCare hashtag, the campaign gained positive online attention for making the bold attempt to connect emotionally with their customers, a trend that is becoming increasingly important for brands. The ad ends by presenting data collected by Kleenex, stating that 77% of kids felt more confident and less alone after creating and sharing Kleenex care packs.

3. Staples’ interactive deal ad

This Staples back-to-school tweet hits all the right notes: it’s interactive, on-message, and contains a money-saving deal:

By asking their audience to spot the differences in two backpacks stuffed to the gills with necessary school supplies, Staples is focusing on the back-to-school shopping lists parents make — sharpies, check! Notebooks, check! Following the link within the tweet brings users to Staples’ online Back to School center, which is neatly organized by grade and conveniently helps shoppers down the path to purchase.

Video content may be the king of online marketing these days but don’t forget the power of a clear, smartly designed image as you think about back-to-school.

4. Whole Foods’ brand partnership ads with strategic product placement

Whole Foods ran hard with their “back-to-school lunch idea” ad campaign: the health-food store promoted lunch ideas for busy parents on television and Twitter, highlighted UGC on Instagram, and featured partnerships with like-minded brands:

Not only does their food take center stage (including their pre-packaged fresh-made foods), but Whole Foods’ selection of adorable backpacks, water bottles, and food storage containers are also often prominently featured in many of the ads.

Whole Foods’ back-to-school lunch ideas campaign demonstrates that deals aren’t the only way to earn customers: offering your audience valuable content is an effective strategy, too — a lesson that’s sure to last all the way to back-to-school 2020.

5. American Eagle’s back-to-school clothing line release

The teen clothing retailer competed with Amazon Prime Day this year by coordinating the release of their newest clothes line to steal the attention of online back-to-school clothes shoppers. On Amazon Prime Day, American Eagle launched their fall streetwear collaboration with Lil Wayne: the AE x Young Money collection. The spot features Lil Wayne performing during a dance party in a high school auditorium:

The soundtrack is just Lil Wayne’s music — no voice overs, no explicit clothing plugs, just excellent music paired with truly impressive dancers wearing the collection. The spot appears less like an advertisement and more like a video you might come across as you scroll through Instagram or bop around on YouTube looking at concert clips. We know younger generations don’t want to be explicitly sold to, though they do like being made aware of the products they’d be interested in, and this campaign from American Eagle hits all the right notes.

6. Walmart’s “big” kid campaign

The mega-retailer plays up how “big” going back to school can feel in their 2019 campaign. In the ad, a mother uses Walmart’s mobile app to search for school clothes which she then sees on a giant child outside her window. Other giant young children are shown modeling Walmart’s back-to-school clothing and accessories:

What makes this ad work so well is the way Walmart highlights their offerings — their easy-to-use mobile app and affordable items — in an eye-catching, entertaining way. But most of all, the ad helps viewers feel truly connected to the brand — back-to-school does feel big for many families, whether it’s the schedule change or the emotional impact, and a brand that helps families feel understood is a brand that’s going to stick in their minds.

7. Macy’s appeal for a fresh start and individuality

In their 2019 back-to-school campaign, Macy’s capitalizes on the excitement of a fresh start by pairing their clothing and accessories with the song “All Brand New” by the Danger Twins:

As with American Eagle’s Lil Wayne concert, Macy’s does a great job of letting their clothes and accessories speak for themselves. Active, dancing kids model the clothing, but there’s no overt, stale prompts to purchase anything. Again, this could be a video you’d choose to watch on your feed and in today’s retail environment, that makes it a success.

8. H-E-B’s children and adults role-swap

Though H-E-B is a regional grocery store, it’s one of the top 20 retailers in the United States, and during this year’s 2019 back-to-school season, they’re reminding shoppers that they carry a wide variety of school supplies, too. Their ad features a role-swap for children and adults in which children encourage their parents to shop at H-E-B for this year’s supplies.

The relatable, adorably-delivered message here for all brands is to think outside the box: even if your brand is back-to-school adjacent, you can still capitalize on the late-summer flurry of retail activity.

9. Staples’ call to support teachers before the first day of school

In honor of back-to-school 2019, Staples is offering parents and families a way to connect with their child’s teacher before classes even begin:

What works so well about this campaign is the emotional value Staples is offering families: yes, certainly it’s a call to shop at Staples, but it’s also offering families a way to feel good about their purchases and pay it forward. This ad is poised to make a lasting impression on back-to-school shoppers: getting all the supplies your child needs for the school year while also supporting their teachers is something everyone can feel good about.

Bonus: Staples is also running a campaign on Instagram and Twitter called #ThankATeacher that promotes audience interaction and lasting positive sentiment about the brand. All entrants have to do is include #ThankATeacher, #Sweepstakes, and @StaplesStores and thank an inspirational teacher in their lives or the lives of their children. The winner receives $10K in Staples gift cards for their school, and there’s no purchase necessary — definitely a value-add for @StaplesStores community members.

Make the most of back-to-school marketing

Back-to-school season is not one that retail marketers want to miscalculate, so take note of what worked well for your brand this year, and we hope you found some inspiration for next year in these stand-out ad campaigns. Finally, keep in mind that many of the above lessons are applicable for holiday marketing campaign planning, too. Learn more about this topic by reading our Social Media Pocket Guide.

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