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Get ready for Back to School 2021

girl walking outside with a yellow backpack

After a year like 2020, this year’s new and existing college students will be looking to you to make the 2021 Back to School season one to remember.

It’s been a year like no other for college students. Any student who kicked off their college experience in August 2020 did so amid COVID-19 restrictions. Some started their degrees remotely, from home. Others found themselves on campus, but unable to attend lectures or socialize with their peers.

Flash forward to 2021, and while COVID-19 is still very much a part of everyday life, the picture looks brighter each day as the worldwide vaccine rollout continues. For the class of 2020, excitement is building – this could be the year that they finally get to experience college life alongside 2021’s incoming freshmen. Once it is safe to do so, the release of pent-up demand will be a huge cultural moment for students across the US. Brands, it’s time to get ready for Back to School.

Back to School key themes: events, sports, mental health

The 2020 Back to School season was unique, to say the least, and certainly not the college experience that students were expecting. Last year, just 17% of students we surveyed attended in-person freshmen events during the Back to School season, while a substantial 57% of students attended virtual events. Clearly, there was an appetite for college events given the incentive to run virtual events during the height of the pandemic. This year is seemingly no different – 77% of students who started college last year will take part if in-person events can go ahead this year. Events are a great way for brands to tap into the student market and communicate with students in real-time.

Plus, with 89% of 16-24-year-olds looking to improve their physical fitness this year, and 85% wanting to take better care of their health, sports and fitness will certainly be high on the agenda for students during Back to School and beyond. In the height of the pandemic, sporting fixtures and clubs were forced to take a back seat to adhere to social distancing rules. By fall, it is hoped that most colleges and universities will be able to resume all clubs and sporting activities. Brands should consider getting involved with sports and clubs as a partner or sponsor, to truly engage with college students and gain brand loyalty long term.

student playing lacrosse

As well as looking after their physical health, we expect mental health to be a top priority and a key focus during Back to School season this year. When starting college, a lot of students will be feeling anxious about making friends, doing well in their studies and living in a new environment. Plus, having lived through a global pandemic, this year’s new students will most likely need some time to ease back into their normal routines, too. Back to School will be both an exciting and challenging time for students – make sure your messaging is positive but also sensitive to students’ wellbeing. When it counts, Gen Z students will remember which brands were looking out for them.

Back to School spending: an overview

During their college years, students develop loyalties to brands that will last their entire lives. It’s a short window to make an impression – but it starts earlier than you think. As soon as students know their college place is guaranteed, they’ll start to build their own shopping habits and develop an affinity for brands.

Despite the disruption of COVID-19, there were only marginal differences between when 2020’s Freshmen started their Back to School shopping compared to their predecessors. In fact, many students who shopped in 2020 opted to kickstart their shopping in the early months of Summer – June and July were more popular starting months than in 2019.

To make a crucial first impression on 2021’s freshmen, start planting seeds before they even arrive on campus. Whether they’re opting for online or heading instore (82% mix both methods), students will be heading into uncharted waters and discovering brands for the first time. Make sure yours is one of them.

Back to School marketing

As a brand, you owe it to the next cohort of new students to make their college experience as memorable and exciting and possible. Sophomores will equally be gearing up for the Back to School experience they didn’t get in their freshman year – so don’t forget about them!

Building a buzz over the summer vacation to get college students excited for Back to School will place brands in good stead for the fall semester, having built up a solid rapport with students prior to their orientation week. Offering exclusive student discounts on key Back to School purchases will be key – tech, fashion, and homewares brands have a big role to play here. Getting active on social media is also a great way to reach Gen Z students – 64% of students get ideas of things to buy from social media ads, 54% via posts from friends, and 53% from posts by brands. Consider posting relatable Gen Z content and Back to School memes to draw students in and position yourself as a student-friendly brand.

student playing lacrosse

With restrictions easing across college campuses, brands should definitely be including on-campus marketing in their Back to School campaign strategy this fall. Planting your brand on campus soil will instantly build a rapport with the student demographic, boosting your brand loyalty in the long-term.

When on-campus, pass out flyers and posters to get your brand name out there. Generate excitement by playing music and demonstrating some of your product offerings. Combine the real world with the digital world by creating QR codes that students can scan to sign up for your newsletter or student survey – methods that can help you get to know your audience. Don’t forget to offer freebies; small incentives like free candy bars or bigger items like branded shirts will instantly gain more students’ attention.

As digital natives, Gen Zs can blend seamlessly between the real world and the digital world – make sure your Back to School marketing does the same. Be creative, be positive and embrace the new normal.

Learn more about what Back to School has in store for 2021 with our guides for marketers, ecommerce and affiliate managers

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