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Data, strategies, & more: The state of back-to-school this year

For many, back-to-school season is usually an exciting mid-year refresh. But this year, the pandemic has introduced a new air of uncertainty. 

To find out what is on parents’, influencers’ and brands’ minds, we analyzed surveys and data to unearth how COVID-19 is impacting consumer behavior during what’s normally one of the biggest retail seasons of the year. 

In addition to the data, we’re also providing some helpful strategies to help you adjust to our new reality, and pairing those tips with strategies from brands earning an A+ on this unexpected pandemic pop quiz.

The back-to-school facts: How COVID-19 has flipped the landscape

Brands, rest assured: While only 44% of parents say their child will for sure go back to a physical classroom this year, consumers are still going back-to-school shopping in roughly the same numbers as last year. 

The key change is where parents shop: 2.5x more people say they will shop exclusively online versus last year — which isn’t super surprising.

What’s also changed is where back-to-school campaigns are taking place. While influencers still heavily use platforms like Instagram (99%), Facebook (48%), and Pinterest (27%) to promote back-to-school, this year, 2.7x more influencers are posting about the subject on TikTok than they did last year. 

To see more data you don’t want to miss, check out our colorful infographic below.

3 back-to-school strategies for success

You understand the lay of the land — now, how do you thrive? We have 3 tips to keep your brand ahead of the curve.

1. Lean into your communities

Our data shows that 79% of people are influenced by other people, rather than ads, when making back-to-school purchase decisions. Of those numbers, 53% of people are influenced by personal recommendations from friends and family, and 26% are swayed by social media influencers.

Here’s our take: Multiple events have caused a complete shift in brand strategy. COVID-19 is one, but at the beginning of July, we also saw a trend in brands boycotting Facebook. As brands continue to reduce dependencies on any single platform, they are reallocating marketing dollars and investing in their communities. This data proves that consumers are persuaded more by real people than ads, so brands should tap into their most powerful advocates — e.g. customers who write reviews, experts who recommend products, and affiliates — to drive results with BTS promotions. 

In other words, let other people do the talking for you. And if you’re not sure of the right strategy? Just ask! Your community has all the answers you’re looking for, so feel comfortable reaching out to them for feedback on how they personally are dealing with back-to-school emotionally and physically.

2. Shift from transactions to storytelling

Even though back-to-school shopping is still in full swing, there are some major changes in the messaging behind influencer marketing campaigns.

Last year, most influencers’ messaging revolved around outfits, backpack essentials, sales, dorm decor, and preparing children for the first day of school. But when we’re all home in loungewear all day and you don’t need to lug your books from your locker to the classroom… shopping needs are a little different. 

Instead, this year, the common themes in influencers’ back-to-school messaging are school supplies for in-home classrooms, tips for parents who are homeschooling, and safety tips for those returning to campus.

When it comes to these themes, pushing hard for sales isn’t necessarily the right approach. The key is to instead transition to storytelling, knowing that if you can provide value, sales will follow. Brainstorm how you can partner with content creators to tell broader messages. Which leads us to…

3. Think outside the box

Back-to-school season is a time to get in touch with your inner child — aka, get creative, and not just in art class.

What are the real-world challenges your audience is dealing with? 

Some college students are struggling with their lack of independence as they’re forced back into their childhood bedrooms instead of their dorm rooms. So many are looking at this as an opportunity to reimagine those bedrooms in a college-friendly light, adding mini-fridges and funky decor. This is a fantastic opportunity for home goods brands to step in with inspiration and can’t-miss deals.

Similarly, many children are tackling virtual education for the first time in their lives. Many kids and parents could use help setting up engaging study areas. They may not need clipboards and staplers, but there is gear that will help them study and collaborate. Connect them with helpful tools and resources on their new journeys.

Back-to-school brand campaigns we love

To put this in a tangible perspective, we’re shining a light on 3 stellar brand campaigns and breaking down what makes them successful.


Hollister catapulted to TikTok celebrity-status by partnering some actual celebrities: Charli and Dixie D’Amelio, Noah Pugliano, and Bill Nye. 

Popular TikTok creators, Charli and Dixie collaborated with Hollister to serve as “Jeanealogists” who ran video experiments that tested the quality of Hollister denim. Avid fans of the fashion brands, they were excited to work with Hollister to perfect their favorite denim — and in doing so, help teens boost their confidence during a turbulent time. Their enthusiasm showed: In less than a week, the campaign had 2.5 billion views.


As one of the first brands to launch on TikTok with a hashtag challenge, Aerie’s #AerieRealPositivity campaign is a booming success. Similar to Hollister, Aerie partnered with TikTok creators to spread the word about its campaign among its young demographic.

The challenge, which is ongoing, asks users to post a video sharing three things they’re thankful for and upload the video with the sponsored hashtag. It resulted in a rise in sales and a 75% gain for Aerie, so that stores reached 95% of their usual productivity as stores reopened after the lockdown.


Even if parents aren’t all packing lunches this year, families are still looking for delicious, nutritious and convenient options for their kids to enjoy while at home. Recognizing this need, Danimals Yogurt launched #AtHomeAdventures, a multi-channel campaign inspiring fun and creativity, even if kids are stuck at home.

The campaign offers ideas for games and entertainment, so kids can keep experiencing adventures and stimulating their young imaginations. In the image above, you can see Danimals sharing advice for upcycling its smoothie bottles to replicate a foosball table.

Our predictions for August & September

Even if things look a little different this year, there are so many great ideas for back-to-school. But we know brands that have started their back to school campaigns are cautious, as the unknown has caused a delay. Between June 1 – July 22 of 2020, there was a 93% decrease in the number of back-to-school campaigns, compared to the same time period in 2019. 

Yet our data shows that brand searches for “back-to-school” have risen by 300% from previous year, so we’re optimistic that brands will get on board — they’re likely getting a late start, refining messaging and unique ideas in-house before launching. We predict a spike in August and September and look forward to new campaigns that inspire us all.

It’s not too late to start your back-to-school campaign. Need help with ideas? Get in touch with our strategists today.

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