Best Back to School Campaign Ideas: How 14 Big Retailers Nailed It

Back to school campaign ideas

The Back to School season is always an attractive opportunity for retailers to get a foothold ahead of the holiday season. In fact, the Back to School shopping season is second only to Black Friday as America’s largest retail event.This year may be more lucrative than ever. The National Retail Foundation predicts K-12 back to school spending in 2020 is set to hit $33.9 billion, breaking the previous record of $30.3, set way back in 2012.

Taking college into account, Back to School 2021 could bring over $101 billion, up from $81 billion in 2019. If the forecast comes true, it will be the first time the season will break the $100 billion mark.

As you examine how you’ll work toward meaningful ROAS this season, draw inspiration from these creative Back to School campaign ideas from the past.

Back to School Marketing and COVID-19

If you’ve been concerned that the pandemic might adversely affect back to school season, don’t fret. The NRF reports that families plan to spend a record-breaking $800 as they prepare for the school year, whatever it might look like this year.

Deloitte makes a similar prediction. The firm expects the pandemic to change the focus of back to school spending.

CNBC: How the coronavirus pandemic and classroom closures affect the back-to-school shopping season.

Marketers will need to keep this uncertainty in mind as they move forward with their campaigns. The NRF reports that 88% of surveyed consumers say the coronavirus will affect their back-to-school shopping in some way:

  • 43% plan to shop more online, including the websites of brick-and-mortar retailers.
  • 63% of K-12 families and 60% of college shoppers expect to buy computers and other electronics, up from 54% last year.
  • Parents plan to spend slightly less on clothing this season.
  • Parents expect school supplies like pencils and paper to cost them an average of $93 more than in years past.

The 14 Best Back to School Campaigns You Should Copy

1. 2019 Amazon Prime Day Back to School Campaign

Type of Campaign: Social Media, Television, Email, Print

Amazon Back to School Sale
Image source: NewsletterMonitor

Why We Liked It:

  • By launching Back to School on the wildly popular Amazon Prime Day, Amazon could grab the attention of Back to School buyers sooner.
  • The campaign was highly targeted, aiming shoppers who have expressed interest in computers, office supplies as the more likely consumer for Back to School offers.
  • Amazon, with its vast multi-channel catalog, expanded the breadth of typical Back to School target purchases, stretching into beauty, grooming, wellness, household appliances, and more.
  • In addition to its core messaging, the retailer reframed their back to school approach as a great time for everyone in the family to reset and get back into healthy routines they abandoned over the summer.

2. 2019 JCPenney Back to School Campaign

Type of Campaign: YouTube, Social Media, Print 

JCPenny Back to School Campaign

Why We Liked It:

  • The multitargeted “Back to You” campaign was aimed at both students and teachers but had a message that was sure to draw in parents. Real-life teachers talking about their local schools and cities added authenticity that both parents and teachers loved.
  • JCPenney took a smart, omnichannel approach for this campaign, a well-timed move given the retailer’s financial struggles as a legacy brand that seems “old-fashioned” to younger segments. The retailer pushed their Back to You campaign on all their social channels, through email and targeted digital ads.

3. 1996 Staples Back to School Campaign

Type of Campaign: Television and Print

Staples Back to School Campaign

Why We Liked It:

  • The 1996 Staples Back to School campaign is a classic. In the ad spot, parents danced in the store’s aisles singing “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” as their kids trudged unhappily behind them. The concept was clever and catchy.
  • Staples knows a good thing when they have it. The office retailer has created at least five variations on this theme since it first aired, and each time, it has felt fresh and funny.

4. 2019 Gap Back to School Campaign

Type of Campaign: Television

Back to School Gap

Why We Liked It:

  • The 2019 Gap Back to School campaign came hot on the heels of the retailer’s 2018 controversy. Parents did not respond well to ads that seemed to play into gender stereotypes. Gap tried to undo some of the damage with this inclusive, omnichannel 2019 Back to School #GaptoSchool campaign, featuring empowered, capable young musicians.

5. 2017 Nike Back to School Campaign

Type of Campaign: Television, Social Media, Print

Back to School Nike

Why We Liked It:

  • #Best1stDay multi-platform social campaign followed seven social media influencers excited about going back to school. As a legacy brand, Nike runs the risk of losing its edge, but #Best1stDay made it clear that the company has a forward-facing mindset and still knows how to motivate and inspire today’s youth.
  • Nike made it a point to take an inclusive approach, another signal that the sports apparel giant understands the most ethnically and racially diverse generation in history, Gen Z. Inclusion isn’t just a desirable goal among this demographic — it’s an expectation.

6. 2016 H&M Back to School Campaign

Type of Campaign: Television, Social Media

Back to School H&M

Why We Liked It:

  • First of all, the casting was on point. Good call putting together such an adorably fierce, diverse collection of high-energy kids decked out in H&M.
  • H&M is popular partly because their style is just edgy enough to please the kids, but still appealing to parents. They are also known for their very low price points, and this ad makes it clear that while these clothes are affordable, they’re still what all the kids will want to wear this year at school.

7. 2018 Walmart Back to School Campaign

Type of Campaign: Television

Back to School Walmart

Why We Liked It:

  • Unique, fun, and creative, this tv spot for the “Big Day Back” campaign showcased Walmart’s Back to School offerings in a literally big way. It was also the perfect vehicle for the brand’s “Go Back Big” slogan.

8. 2014 Old Navy Back to School Campaign

Type of Campaign: Television, Print, Social Media

Back to School Old Navy

Why We Liked It:

  • It wasn’t just us — everyone liked Old Navy’s 2014 viral “Unlimited” spot. Within a week of its first play, the video captured almost 3 million viewers.
  • The online-only 4-minute mini-musical featured a middle school girl singing her way through her first day of school. The song was available on iTunes. Old Navy hit precisely the right tone to capture the Gen Z attention span. 

9. 2017 Ikea Back to School Campaign

Type of Campaign: Snapchat, YouTube

Back to School Ikea

Why We Liked It:

  • The interactive, college-focused 2017 Ikea Back to School campaign was a partnership with Snapchat. Adding a couple of mega influencers made this approach a guaranteed win.
  • Ikea’s Snapchat was already quite popular, so this campaign felt very natural as a way to enhance the customer experience. 

10. 2018 Tesco Back to School Campaign

Type of Campaign: Social Media

Back to School Tesco

Why We Liked It:

  • International grocer Tesco partnered with “mommy bloggers” to create detailed, authentic content about Tesco’s school uniform offerings, mom to mom. Blog entries like this one show just how engaging this medium can be — check out all the comments below the post.
  • The whole concept of Tesco offering school uniforms so parents can grab their groceries and take care of school clothes in one trip was already smart. Having bloggers craft storytelling around the idea is brilliant.

11. Officeworks Back to School Campaign

Type of Campaign: Print, Television

Back to School Officeworks

Why We Liked It:

  • Australian office supply chain Officeworks is laser-focused. The brand targets its omnichannel efforts to parents facing back to school expenses and business.
  • Officeworks uses relatable actors who feel authentic. It’s a variation on the “mom to mom” approach used by Tesco, as outlined above.

12. 2016 Gucci Back to School Campaign

Type of Campaign: Print, Social Media

Back to School Gucci

Why We Liked It:

  • Gucci is not the first brand consumers think of when they hear “back to school,” and the brand embraced this outsider status for its 2016 campaign. The imagery was lush and visually striking with a kind of Wes Anderson flair.
  • Gucci didn’t attempt to grab market share with a discount line or approachable feel that might have appealed to bargain-conscious consumers. The brand aimed squarely at the demographic that can afford to send the kids back to school wearing a designer label. The result was a campaign that felt whimsical yet quintessentially Gucci.

13. 2015 Adidas Back to School Campaign

Type of Campaign: Television, Social Media, Print

Back to School Adidas

Why We Liked It:

  • Adidas has always been about star power, and this campaign was no exception. The brand partnered with Foot Locker to bring in NBA stars and Jimmy Kimmel.
  • The “Start Fresh” campaign slogan struck the right tone — modern without feeling forced, a sure way to turn off younger consumers. 

14. Apple Back to School Campaign

Type of Campaign: Television, Print, Social Media

Back to School Apple

Why We Liked It:

  • Apple has been running back to school gifts with purchase promos for several years in a row (gift cards or devices like this year’s AirPod gift with purchase). This long-game approach is working. Ahead of each back to school season, Apple fans, always an impressive CLV example, speculate about what kind of freebie the brand will offer this year. 

Back to… Growth

Hopefully, you’re feeling inspired to create an impactful back to school campaign! The 2021 Back to School season offers a chance for retailers who have felt the impact of the pandemic to find solid footing. The data tells us that parents and kids are eager to spend this season, but the trick will be gaining their attention among the sea of retailers vying for this lucrative market.

Remember, the best campaign for you is the one you can execute well. Focus on telling the story of your brand and leading with authenticity.

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Joyce Qian

View posts by Joyce Qian
Joyce runs Growth & Strategy at ContactPigeon. On a daily basis, she ponders on different ways businesses, big and small, can grow and achieve success. Outside of work, Joyce loves reading, traveling and exploring her new found home in the ancient city of Athens.
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