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Back to School Advertising: How David Can Take On Goliath


For many, the start of Back to School advertising is the telltale sign that summer is coming to an end. The season traditionally begins in early August, but just like Holiday ads airing on Halloween, it seems the advertising is appearing earlier every year. Coupled with the addition of Amazon’s Prime Day, which now signals the unofficial start of the Back to School shopping season, the larger retailers are stepping into the game in an attempt to capture this newly expanding market, which creates added trouble for seasonal advertisers.

David, meet Goliath

Last year, large retailers such as Walmart, Target and Macy’s ran blowout sales to counter Prime Day and capitalize on the increased consumer awareness. This trend inadvertently made mid-July a shopping event comparable to Black Friday and forced the Back to School advertising season to shift.

While the higher volume of Back to School sales and deals are great for consumers (hello 80% off and free shipping), it poses a challenge for smaller, seasonal advertisers such as Staples or Office Max. These retailers generally don’t advertise during the rest of the year and allocate the majority of their advertising dollars towards Back to School campaigns. Meanwhile, heavyweight retailers such as Walmart, Amazon, and Target are consistently advertising throughout the year, which attributes them with a larger Share of Voice (a measure of a brand’s visibility in the marketplace). According to a 2018 study conducted by Phoenix Brand Effect, when compared to the other main Back to School players (Amazon, Target, Staples, Office Depot/Max), Walmart held 33% SOV (Share of Voice) on National TV, the highest for this group.

In 2018, Walmart led the Back to School category on both Ad Memorability (number of viewers able to remember the ad’s content) and Brand Linkage (of the viewers who remembered the ad’s content, those who also connected the ad to the brand). This success could be attributed to the fact that they utilized entertaining and relatable concepts and a consistent creative approach. Coupled with a large amount of media weight and share of voice behind it, Walmart was able to dominate the Back to School category on almost all fronts. So, what does this mean for smaller advertisers and how can they stand out when they’re up against Walmart and Amazon as key competitors?

Best Practices to Break Through

While some seasonal advertisers, such as Office Max, connected well to their core demographic by using relatable and sentimental themes in a back-to-college/middle school setting, their low Share of Voice and lack of prominent brand cues hindered their Brand Linkage score. Consumers were able to remember the ad itself, but they had difficulty linking the ad back to the proper advertiser. So, what can seasonal advertisers do next year to compete with larger retailers and keep their brand at the forefront of consumers’ minds?

The main thing advertisers need to keep in mind is that, above all else, creative is key. Regardless of the chosen flighting strategy of a campaign, the brand still needs to be clearly integrated into the storyline to make an impact. Generic and montage-style ads have a particularly difficult time breaking through in-market, especially when they have little or no time to gain traction. Brands need to be overtly clear with what their value proposition is; if the content or idea is muddled, they won’t be able to differentiate themselves from their competitors.

Creating an entertaining and engaging ad is key, but driving impact in-market also requires a solid media investment. Brands that advertise only periodically face additional hurdles compared to brands with an ongoing presence and higher SOV. To maximize the impact of a periodic brand on TV, be consistent with your advertising where possible, which can help build and maintain familiarity with your brand.

Going Toe to Toe

Even though the Back to School arena is more crowded than ever, the smaller, seasonal advertisers shouldn’t be counted out of the race. There are three key things a Back to School advertiser should do in order to stand out: 1. Nail the branding, especially if they are not on the air consistently throughout the year. 2. Have a distinct creative concept and value proposition to differentiate from the droves of Back to School clutter 3. Be sure to effectively use your media investment to optimize placement strategy. Using the right tools, seasonal advertisers can rest easy knowing they stand on the front line and can take on Goliath.

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