Kaitlin Kamp
Kaitlin Kamp is a Senior Marketing Intelligence Strategist at Mintel where she combines her passion for marketing with her expertise in research and consumer insights to deliver best-in-class recommendations to Mintel clients.

Despite a return to in-person learning, students and parents will still be relying heavily on digital channels for back-to-school inspiration and shopping in 2022. This year is expected to be filled with both excitement and anxiety as students approach the closest thing to normalcy since 2019.

It is critical that brands’ 2022 back-to-school marketing strategies not only make the shopping experience digital-friendly and efficient but also provide content that guides students through a simultaneously highly-anticipated and nerve-wracking experience. While some brands are already harnessing digital tools and connecting with audiences in new ways, there is still ample opportunity for more brands to step in. 

Mintel Consulting leverages marketing intelligence data and proprietary consumer research to  uncover and understand the potential commercial impact, providing tailored answers and expert recommendations to help clients turn insights into action. Here are 5 ways brands can elevate their back-to-school marketing strategy:

1.Talk directly to students  and utilize partnerships

Students have the purchasing power in 2022. When younger students are not purchasing back-to-school supplies themselves, they still hold massive influence over purchases. Mintel

research on back-to-school shopping finds that children are the number one resource that parents use for product recommendations, outperforming both schools and social media.

Students will be eager for new products and offers that align with their excitement, as a return to ‘normal’ learning is leaving them with heightened emotions. Four in ten parents agree that their children are more excited than usual about returning to school, but nearly three in ten agree that their children are also more anxious than usual about returning to school. Content that guides and supports them through the back-to-school experience will not only forge strong brand relationships but also help connect students with the right products to tackle the new school season with confidence.

Consider how a partnership with a brand ambassador or another brand could help you better connect with students. Would a medical professional, notable influencer, or even another brand with authority in the space allow you to create a back-to-school coach for students?

In 2021, JanSport partnered with the iconic drag queen Jan Sport to create its Disorientation YouTube comedy series, which provided levity and reassurance on all things school and the pandemic. The brand appointed a new position called a Chief Mood Officer to support the series on TikTok.

Source: Instagram

To encourage excitement and combat looming anxiety, messaging should ultimately aim to build confidence and facilitate relaxation. Some brands will benefit from utilizing medical partnerships that  can recommend easy ways for students to check in with their mental and physical health throughout the year, while others will find success by helping students establish morning and night routines that help them prepare and unwind from the day.

Brands in categories from home goods, apparel, personal care, and even snacks have opportunities to support students throughout the day if they include the appropriate occasions and need states in messaging.

2. Double down on the online experience

A return to in-person learning does not guarantee a return to in-person shopping. In fact, online shopping participation now matches in-store participation. Mintel consumer research on back-to-school shopping finds that parents and college students that participated in back-to-school shopping during the 2021-22 school year shopped for supplies nearly equally online and in-store. 

However, the current online shopping experience is left wanting. Parents are motivated to shop online not only for convenience but also to avoid product shortages, only to be faced with the same problems online. And from an experience standpoint, the online back-to-school shopping process leans more tactical and transactional than fun and interactive. What if brands and retailers were able to make this process more experiential or interactive? How can you keep students involved in the process? What marketing efforts would ensure online shopping still celebrates an exciting next step and helps parents bond with their kids? 

Prepare to be tasked with more B2B communication in 2022 to anticipate product demand and make it more efficient for parents and students to find what they need.

Online shoppers will likely convert via online channels. Ensure shoppable social media posts, paid social media ads, and YouTube pre-roll videos are in place, and that you understand what your competitors are likely to launch around the same time. But also consider where traditional channels can fit in. 

Avoiding product outages will rely on brands and retailers starting back-to-school messaging early and encouraging consumers to avoid the rush by either shopping early or pacing out purchases throughout the year. 

3. Expect non-traditional brands to throw their hat in the ring this year

The rise of TikTok among Gen Z’ers allowed a variety of brands to get in front of young audiences quickly. Notable examples include the proliferation of Kendra Scott jewelry in “Bama Rush Tok” videos or the rise in demand for the Dyson Airwrap. Many brands will be leveraging their five minutes of TikTok fame to cement relationships with high school and college students during the back-to-school season. Kendra Scott has since promoted product offerings on its owned TikTok channel for young consumers, encouraging them to create their matching BFF rings. Mintel research on back-to-school shopping finds that seven in ten college students use social media for ideas and recommendations on what to buy.

Source: TikTok

While traditional back-to-school players will want to stay competitive with newcomers, they should be wary of trying to replicate these trends so as not to appear inauthentic.

If new to the back-to-school season, consider your audience. College students will provide opportunities for a wider variety of brands and categories, as college students are connecting with more categories such as credit cards, furniture, groceries, and cleaning supplies, in addition to traditional categories like apparel and technology.

Social media channels will be the name of the game. Prioritize newer channels such as TikTok and Instagram Reels to market where consumers are already finding and discussing products. The time is now to start creating content on those channels, if you have not yet already, to get a sense of what content does and doesn’t perform well with your audience. 

4. Support budget-conscious college students with approachable tools

The adage of the broke college student remains true; Mintel research on back-to-school shopping finds that eight in ten college students have a budget they try to stick to as much as possible and two-thirds of college students are mostly purchasing items themselves. College students will need help learning how to budget their expenses and inspiration for budget-friendly items. 

Amazon’s Prime Student TikTok appoints itself as a resource “to make college life easier and stress-free with short videos that promote budget-friendly items. Buy Now-pay-later provider Klarna promoted products such as apartment furniture and laptops on paid social media during the back-to-school season to reach budget conscious students during a period where they’re saddled with expenses.

Source: TikTok

Students will need approachable tools to manage their finances and brands should think about what types of products and content can help them navigate their new financial freedom.

Like Klarna, buy-now-pay-later brands can ease the burden of large purchases in a small window of time by reaching students on the channels where they are actively seeking out products.

While it will be important to advertise resources and content across digital channels where college students are active, ensure any content, planning tools, or lists are also available and promoted across owned media channels, such as the website or through email marketing. This will cement your brand as a true go-to resource.

The complicated and intimidating nature of personal finances warrants fully-developed content creation. Think about how to go beyond ads or one-time social media posts and instead consider everything from shopping lists, educational videos, a blog series, or even templated budgeting worksheets that students can utilize not only during back-to-school shopping but all year.

 To plan accordingly, college students will need to know what purchases are looming ahead. Brands that can push this type of content early can catch consumers’ attention and act as a resource throughout the entire process.

5. Go beyond clothing for circular purchases

Students’ interest in secondhand shopping is multifaceted, providing both cost savings and allowing consumers to live more sustainably. Mintel research shows that a third of college students would like to see more secondhand shopping options and trade-in programs for discounts/upgrades from back-to-school items. 

Secondhand apparel brands, such as ThredUp and Poshmark, have already hopped on the trend and advertised apparel and accessories during the 2021 back-to-school season on both paid and organic social media channels. ThredUp’s paid Facebook ad even encouraged students to utilize its Goody Box offering and click through to their style quiz, to personalize and simplify the secondhand shopping experience. 

Source: Mintel analysis of Pathmatics and Media

However, non-apparel secondhand categories like dorm furniture and technology are whitespace in back-to-school advertising. Retailers such as Facebook Marketplace or IKEA’s As-Is section have immense opportunities to connect with students’ budget-friendly and sustainable sides.

Secondhand or repurposed offerings are relatively new to consumers and available stock is dynamic enough that creating awareness should be the main focus of campaigns. 

Top-of-funnel channels such as TV, podcasts, and OTT streaming will successfully generate awareness to mass audiences. Discover which channels your competitors leveraged last year and use that information to predict future competitor behavior and determine where your brand can stand out in 2022. Keep the content alive throughout the year on the channels that you see strong conversation from; email marketing, paid social media, or desktop and mobile display are all options. 

Either cost savings or sustainability will be a strong value proposition for students. Get a sense of whether price or sustainability messaging is more effective through A/B testing, and consider how that success changes across particular audiences and channels. 

No matter what your back-to-school marketing approach is, Mintel Consulting is equipped with the data, expertise, and strategic thinking to make sense of what your brand should be doing next to strengthen its market positioning, audience targeting, and creative strategy.