The Back-To-School Lesson Marketers Keep Forgetting

August 31, 2017 Shane Schick

I’m not as embarrassed about this as I probably should be, but I don’t really do any of the back-to-school shopping for our three kids.

That means I’m fairly oblivious to all the ads geared at busy parents ramping up for next week -- but it’s hard to ignore the ones promoting liquor, lingerie and condoms.

In fact, the Daily Mail’s recent roundup of inappropriate (or just ill-placed) back to school promotional store displays almost boggle the mind. “A good deal for school -- go back happy!” exclaims a sign above early pregnancy tests. Though some of these were just unlucky accidents, others seemed quite deliberate, such as an ad for Georgia State Television with the slogan “Students Turn Us On,” and a gun rental company with a “Welcome Back Students” sign.

Perhaps this level of ridiculousness helps explain why, generally speaking, back-to-school advertising isn’t working as well anymore. According to the most recent YouGov Brand Index, for instance, awareness of campaigns by major retailers is down substantially compared to a year ago. This includes giants like Walmart, whose ads were recalled by 50 per cent of those polled in 2016 but whose recall now sits at 42 per cent.

At a time when marketing is supposed to be more targeted, more personalized and contextual than ever before, the back to school season is a good reminder of how eagerly brands want to rely upon the most shopworn tactics for getting consumers’ attention.

Even with all the new places to reach an audience, most advertisers typically seem to just do more of the same. A video analytics company called Ace Matrix offers a look at how marketers are using online video for back-to-school advertising in addition to more traditional TV spots. It offers the top clips a score based on the following criteria: relevance, likability, information, change, attention, and desire.

In other words, the same criteria that you could apply to good advertising that runs during any other shopping season.

Of course, the back-to-school period is a time when purchase intent is high among consumers, and for the right brands it makes sense to strike when people are actively searching for specific items. That doesn’t mean all brands should try and hijack the end of summer and use words like “students” and “school” to temporarily attract eyeballs.

This isn’t just an problem with traditional advertising. Marcus “The Sales Lion” Sheridan made a similar point about the way content markers were trying desperately to newsjack the recent solar eclipse.

“Can we please stop trying to tie current events to things that literally have nothing to do with them?” he asked.

Amen, brother.

Even for those brands that have a legitimate reason to be advertising during back to school season may want to reevaluate their strategy. From a budgeting and resource perspective, you’re making a big bet on a relatively short span of weeks.

Think instead about companies like Moleskine, which makes what are arguably the best notebooks for students of any age but has developed a brand with such a rich, evocative and emotional association for consumers that it doesn’t need to rely on a panicked back to school campaign.

Fortunately this will all be over in a few days, once classes are in session. But will some marketers ever learn? 

Shane Schick is the former Editor-in-Chief of Marketing magazine. He tells stories about technology, marketing, innovation, fashion and more. 

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