Marketers get smart as kids head back to school

Classrooms have changed a lot in recent years, but the back-to-school season still marks a key time for marketers to engage students and families.
January 25, 2016

The classrooms that kids are returning to have changed significantly since most marketers were children. Outdated policies and trends are making way for new back-to-school shopping habits, fresh styles of clothing and high-tech challenges. Here’s what going back to school means for the current class of digital natives.

While the US school year historically started after Labor Day to accommodate the agrarian economy, that policy has shifted, with many states and districts starting increasingly earlier in August—some even during the very first week of the month. (Giving teachers more time to prep for standardized testing that happens in the fall played a significant role in this timeline shift.) Though there are school and teacher benefits to a shorter break, families are finding difficulties in adjusting to the new schedule. For example, they have to take vacations earlier in the summer and start back-to-school shopping sooner—at a time when shopping for fall clothes is the last thing on their minds.

Summer BTS marketing With earlier start dates, schools, stores and brands are aiming to make purchasing school necessities easier for parents. From JCPenney to Walmart, retailers are pushing up dates of their back-to-school sales—some even before July 4—to accommodate families’ revised spending schedule. However, this creates a disconnect. Shopping for this period used to be a time to invest in fall and winter outfits, but it now falls in June and July, when temperatures are soaring and stores are stocked with summer clothing. This presents a challenge (as well as an opportunity) for retailers as items traditionally acquired in one sweep over a few days are now purchased in waves over several months.

Some families, however, don’t want to invest their time and energy in multiple rounds of shopping, crisscrossing town to find the best deals and hauling purchases home. New businesses have popped up and partnered with school districts to give parents a one-click option to get everything their student needs delivered right to their door. For example, Edukit not only customizes school supply bundles for districts across the country, but it also allows parents to pay classroom fees at the same time. Such services take marketing out of the equation. But if brands can make their way into the bundles, they can also make their way into homes and schools. In addition, brands are attempting to create their own one-stop back-to-school shops by way of printing lifestyle catalogs. Target’s impressive mailers—one for kids and one for college students—help outfit a student from head to toe, as well as from decked-out study desk to bedazzled locker door.

The meaning of the first day of school itself is changing for students. It used to be a chance to see everyone after a long summer apart—a time to see what the cool kids were wearing, hear about everyone’s summer vacations, and check out how one’s crush had changed and matured. But now with social media and digital messaging to keep them in constant contact over the summer, there’s far less suspense. That said, the first day back is still a critical moment in students’ lives. They carefully plan their outfits, not only because they want to make a good impression among their peers, but also because they’ll want to post it on Instagram for all their friends to see and like.

The social network has made personal style more of a focal point than ever, and students are responding by putting increased attention on their fashion choices. While self-expression has always been important to young people, it is now recorded on multiple social sites for the world to see—so it’s an even more significant part of their lives.

Instagram isn’t the only app revolutionizing the school year for students. Schools are beginning to give up fighting the cultural current and are relaxing smartphone bans on campus, which means more apps are becoming a regular part of the school day. While some teacher-approved apps aid instruction, students are drawn to those that help them connect with their peers. Messaging apps are surging, and the most popular among them understand key needs and desires in students’ communication habits. Kids love Popkey because it lets them send animated GIFs. The app’s funny scenes from pop culture essentially allow them to communicate without having to type a single word, making messaging quicker and easier between classes.

Addressing young people’s limited data plans for their devices, Jott is likewise quickly growing in popularity among students because users don’t need to have a messaging plan or be connected to Wifi to text. The app employs a mesh network, which uses nearby phones, rather than cell towers, to distribute messages.

While students and teachers may occasionally battle over cell phone use during school hours, kids tend to view educators in a particularly positive light. As much as parenting has shifted toward “peerenting,” instruction style in the modern classroom is becoming less prescriptive and more hands-on and collaborative. At the same time, teachers are cultivating a different mood, outfitting their rooms with cool curtains, comfy sofas and chairs, and colorful rugs. Kids admire their teachers and they learn and develop together. As a result, teachers can be a brand’s greatest untapped resource as they indelibly shape children’s preferences. When the hip head of the class announces he or she prefers a specific brand over all others, 30 kids run straight home to demand their parents buy it.

Wynne Tyree is the president of Smarty Pants, a youth and family research and consulting firm. Heads Up! is derived from the company’s daily in-person and digital immersion into kids’ and families’ lives, as well as proprietary quantitative research. For more information contact Meredith Franck at 914-939-1897 or visit

About The Author
Wynne Tyree is the founder and president of Smarty Pants, a youth and family market research and consulting firm. She is also a leading authority on kids’ digital engagement and IP development. Contact Wynne at



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