Best Back-to-School Marketing Campaigns (Plus the ‘Worst Ad Ever’)
This post was updated on August 24, 2023.
As the summer heat reaches its breaking point, back-to-school-and-college season is upon us. What does the busy shopping period mean for marketers in 2023? Let’s see.
Overall, the landscape is more competitive than ever. According to a recent survey by Deloitte, the average back-to-school spending per child is expected to decrease by 10%, down to $597 from $661 in 2022. “Spending fatigue” means that many parents will have done most of their back-to-school shopping in July, taking the pressure off last-minute deals. Plus, parents will spend less on clothing and technology, shifting their buying habits to focus on school supplies, so for brands selling non-essentials, the target market fight is on.
Many brands are adapting to these trends with their back-to-school advertising campaigns. Although themes focused on saving money are always a safe bet, many companies are turning up the creativity with thought-provoking campaigns to claim their share of parents’ disposable income. And here are 7 back-to-school marketing campaigns we’ve already seen (and enjoyed).
Best Back-to-School Marketing Campaigns in 2023
Staples Canada – Back to school, and the past
We have to admit, we’d watch just about anything with Howie Mandell in it. In this ad for giant school supply brand Staples, Howie takes us all the way back to the 90s, which couldn’t be more topical right now, considering the 90s are back. This is an ad series that really speaks to today’s parents who – in the late 80s and early 90s – rocked Will Smith/Fresh Prince style flat tops and pre-rave pastel tie-dye backpacks.
So what’s this ad all about? The brand is making the 90s cool again by giving today’s parents the items they would have loved at prices from that era. We have to applaud the brand for doing a clever job of targeting modern kids and parents alike in one smart campaign.
DoorDash – Don’t go back
Returning to school isn’t always an exciting experience for parents or kids. DoorDash gets it. And that’s why in this commercial, they capitalized on the pain parents experience when the summer months rocket to an end and they must go from store to store to find everything their kids need.
DoorDash did a great job of poking fun at back-to-school commercials in this ad while showcasing how much easier ordering food and supplies is with its Back-to-School hub. Created by The Martin Agency and Superette, the spot promises parents they’ll get everything they need in under an hour, so they can spend more time enjoying the rest of summer. The campaign was launched on July 20th on TV, radio, paid digital media, and social.
Dell India – Dance moves
This charming commercial from Dell India sees the brand’s “doing is the new learning” mantra with a teen DJ remixing classic Indian hits for an old-folks dance party. The brand’s Marketing Director, Mayuri Saikia, explained that “Students today are more fearless and eager in their pursuit of knowledge, seeking information from a variety of sources and utilizing new tools and technologies to enhance their learning experiences.” And this ad shows us how much more creative kids can be if they have the right technology. We love seeing potential unlocked!
Released in April this year in 4 languages, the ad does a beautiful job of showcasing both the brand’s target audience and its powerful product.
Amazon – Dormz
Have you met Jess Judith? Well, this is your opportunity, thanks to Amazon. This clever ad invites you to see how Jess – a well-known influencer – lives for less at her college dorm because she buys everything she needs at a discounted price on Amazon. What’s even smarter is that all of the items shown are available on the massive online marketplace, and viewers can “shop” her dorm room with a click. Jess’s dedicated Amazon page contains all of the products shown in the commercial.
Amazon seems to get advertising right every year and in 2023, it’s no different. Besides this impressive partnership, the brand also targets parents with the Spend Less campaign, whose concept was rehashed from last year’s back-to-school campaign, this time with a new celebrity appearance by actor Randall Park.
Instacart – You’ve got this, parents
One of the most common pain points among parents of younger kids has to be school lunch inspiration. And that’s where Instacart rushes to help with its “You’ve Got This, Parents” campaign. The set of ads showcases the “Ask Instacart” experience that lets parents search for the types of lunches they (or their kids) want to make and then adds the foods needed to make it happen to their online cart.
Currently being shown across North America, the campaign spans multiple channels including TV and paid social, CRM, and affiliate marketing as well as popups on the app itself.
Bic South Africa – Together we can make the future write
“This isn’t just a story about stationery” the ad begins, setting the scene for social justice in a country where 41% of students don’t finish their secondary education. And it really isn’t. This campaign by Bic is about getting school supplies to those who don’t have the money to buy them.
The ad doesn’t count on what’s funny or on parents paying less to bring attention to its brand. Instead, it uses the back-to-school season to drive purchases with a purpose, stating that as parents buy Bic pens for their kids’ school needs, they should also buy one to donate.
The goal? To reach 15 million pen donations. At the time of writing, the count was up to 14,800,000. And we love to hear it.
Honda UK – A day in the life of a busy mum
What does a car have to do with going back to school? Well if you’re a busy mom (or dad) who has to drive kids from school to activities, to friends, to anywhere at all, you’ll know that the right vehicle makes a big difference.
That’s exactly what we like about the brand’s partnership with Birmingham blogger Brummy Mummy of 2. Rather than trying to tell us it understands what parents have to deal with every day, it lets this local influencer do the talking, taking the target audience through a typical day in her world. And of course, she is given a Honda CR-V2 to use – which according to her, makes all the difference. These days, social proof has become more important than brand promises and Honda is smart to capitalize on that.
Top Picks for Back-to-School Marketing Campaigns
Back to school? Back to business!
In 2022, back-to-school retail spending was expected to reach close to $40 billion in the US, or an average of $864 per household. The back-to-college industry is even bigger, with forecast spending of nearly $74 billion, and average household spend of $1199 for college-related products.
It’s not just school supplies, like books and stationery. Clothing, footwear, electronics, and furnishings are also big sellers during the back-to-school and back-to-college shopping season.
Other categories are trending too. One example is beauty products, thanks to TikTokers sharing their back-to-school makeup ideas and skincare routines.
For many retailers and e-commerce sites, this is your opportunity to shine with inventive, effective back-to-school marketing campaigns. So we’ve rounded up our favorite commercials and campaigns to inspire you. Check them out below (and just for fun, make sure to read to the end for the back-to-school ad that’s been named ‘the worst commercial of all time’).
Macy’s – Own your style
During back to school season, parents fork out the cash, but it’s the kids who tell their parents what to buy. Kids have a major influence on back to school purchase decisions – around 80%! This Macy’s back-to-school commercial works because it completely takes the kids’ viewpoint, and places them at the center. More than that, it features a diverse cast and boldly showcases the brands kids love. The cherry on top? The tagline, “Own Your Style”, which perfectly encapsulates the Gen Z mindset that places high value on having a unique identity.
Santander Bank & Twinkl – The numbers game
UK-based Santander Bank and online education company Twinkl have teamed up to provide a free “Money Confidence” learning pack for kids at over 30,000 schools. Together, they launched an engaging back-to-school commercial to promote it, featuring famous comedy team Ant & Dec. As the owners of “Antandec Bank”, the hapless duo visit a local school to ‘educate’ the younger generation about financial management. When a student suggests “hedge funds” as a smart investing option, Ant responds with “There’s no money in gardening.” There’s much more in that vein, and watching the kids’ exasperated expressions makes for a good laugh. Ant & Dec are always fun, and the ad has enough comedy juice to keep you watching till the end. All in all, a fairly dry subject, spruced up nicely with a celebrity collaboration campaign, just in time for the new school year.
The North Face – You can carry it forever
The best of traditional Japanese animation comes through in this simple yet moving back-to-school commercial by The North Face Japan. The outdoor clothing brand has managed to combine nostalgia, nature, family, and the back-to-school season vibe, in a story about one man on a life journey, from high schooler to business professional to retiree. (Or is it three generations? You decide.) Set in a peacefully illustrated lakeside cabin, the student packs his books into a North Face backpack and skateboards to school, the middle aged businessman packs his work into a North Face bag and hops on his bike, while the grandfather loads up his North Face backpack to go fishing. As he sails away, the tagline appears: “You can carry it forever”. Nice!
BodyFX – Back-to-school challenge
Back-to-school is not just a huge event in kids’ lives. It’s a big time for parents too! BodyFX, the popular online fitness program, uses email marketing to capture the attention of fitness-minded parents exactly when they might be wanting to step up their game. The Back-to-School 28-Day Challenge is designed to engage BodyFX subscribers for the first month of the school year with a daily email that includes a recommended workout, meal plan, and recipes, as well as an ongoing cash prize competition to keep up user interest. As far as back-to-school retention campaigns go, we think this is pretty fit!
Microsoft – Get back to school with Microsoft Teams
There are several target audiences for back-to-school marketing: kids, parents, and teachers too. This back-to-school campaign video by Microsoft Teams is a good example of the importance of product and product marketing. The video launched in August 2021, at the height of the global pandemic when many schools were operating remotely or in a hybrid model. It appeals directly to educators, showcasing several features of the video conferencing software that help teachers manage their classrooms and curricula, and communicate effectively with students remotely. For an explainer video, the best approach is direct, clear, and simple. Microsoft succeeds on all three fronts with this back-to-school ad.
Nissan – Accelerated!
School books? Sure.
Stationery? Of course!
Sports shoes? Yes, please.
Auto checkup, repairs, and detailing discount? Why not?
Nissan Dubai takes advantage of the back-to-school mood to entice car owners to get their family vehicles in check. A pun-filled tagline – “Back to School Offers, Accelerated!” – is all that’s needed to connect a great offer to the season. The campaign is a good example of how holidays and occasions can be the perfect “excuse” to engage customers with tempting offers. This is particularly relevant for customers who are already signed on to your brand or product, but need a little nudge to re-engage. Back-to-school season is as good a time as any to work on your customer retention strategy – just follow Nissan’s lead.
Pepsi – Back to the mini-fridge
Following on from Nissan, this TikTok video by Pepsi is another example of a brand getting creative to tie the back-to-school theme into an advertising opportunity. In this case, Pepsi is promoting their mini-cans, which are the perfect fit for the Pepsi mini fridge…which is the perfect solution for your Pepsi break at school or college. A short clip like this demands zero budget – just a great idea, smartphone, and TikTok account, and voila! There’s a fun, fast and engaging promotion. Pepsi can do it, and so can you.
ASUS – Back to school necessities
The bite-size TikTok video format is a winner, but so is long-form video, and this back-to-school promotional video by ASUS is the perfect example. Featured as a Facebook Live, it runs at over 2 hours, showcasing a range of ASUS products that are great for school studies. The show was simultaneously streamed on other platforms too, but on Facebook alone, it garnered 16,000 views – not bad for a video that doesn’t rely on fancy production values and expensive staging. Just pure product and the opportunity to win giveaways and prizes – always a drawcard!
Amazon – Kathryn Hahn X Amazon
“This year, no price is too low for your children.”
With tongue stuck firmly in cheek, this Amazon video does a nice job of taking the sting out of back-to-school shopping during a recession. As consumers feel the pinch in their wallets, Amazon collaborated with actress and comedian Kathryn Hahn to lighten the mood, reminding parents that they can save money on school supplies at Amazon. Done properly, humor is a powerful tactic to entertain and engage the target audience. Amazon shows how it’s done here, and while Hahn’s star power is definitely a big help, SMBs can still take inspiration from this back-to-school campaign and test out their own funny ideas.
Marks and Spencer – Back-to-school countdown
See exactly how content marketing is done with a quick look at Marks & Spencer’s back-to-school guide. The British retailer didn’t settle for your average e-commerce catalog page. Rather, they created a dedicated back-to-school web page, full of useful tips and links to relevant products, organized into easy-to-consume categories, such as “New Term Kit” and “Stress-Busting Uniform”. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that content marketing must be complicated or sophisticated to work. Clever organization and repurposing of existing product pages makes back-to-school content marketing a cinch, and very successful!
Bonus: The Worst Back-to-School Commercial of All Time?
Just for fun, let’s take a look at the adage, “There’s no such thing as bad publicity”, in action.
Back in 2014, the East Hills Mall in Missouri, USA, released an ad that went viral, and not for good reasons! Created to promote the mall as the place to go for all your back-to-school needs, the video was so bad, some people wondered if it might actually be fake. Either way, it’s fun to watch, and also a lesson in what-not-to-do, unless you’d like to go viral as the worst commercial too. Watch for a dose of back-to-school inspired cringe: