Advertising Insights – A Summary of the 2017 Back-to-School Season

As students put away their bathing suits and flips-flops in exchange for backpacks and jackets, the CPG industry gears up for one of their biggest shopping seasons, back to school. The “back-to-school season” is the second largest shopping span, outside of the holiday shopping season. This year, total expenditure for school and college combined is projected to reach $83.6 billion, a +10 percent increase from $75.8 billion in 2016. 

In the U.S., parents scrambled to the stores to find the best deals on school supplies and clothing. Already, the total 2017 back-to-school expenditure for grades K-12 in the United States has reached to nearly $29.5 billion dollars. So as the back-to-school season comes to a close this year, it’s difficult to not get at least a little nostalgic of old times when having the latest Trapper Keeper meant everything (flashback to circa 1980 Trapper Keepers). 

As an analyst, I have over 20 years of experience in advertising intelligence for Consumer Packaged Goods, and now the back-to-school season is interesting to me for different reasons. Instead of looking for the latest Trapper Keeper, the newest fashions, or even the coolest fidget spinner, I’m researching and analyzing what leading global brands are promoting and advertising. 

Before we dive into this year’s leading ads though, let’s quickly review an iconic and humorous campaign from Staples dubbed “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year” that ran during the mid-90’s.

Staples "The Most Wonderful Time of The Year"

The end of summer vacation isn’t typically something that one would associate with Christmas, but that is exactly what Staples accomplished with this ad. It features an overjoyed father getting into the spirit of the season, joyously tossing any and all school supplies into the cart, while his children follow along dejectedly lamenting the end of summer vacation. Additionally, they not so subtlety established themselves as the experts of the back-to-school season with their closing message that proclaimed Staples as “the back to school experts since 1986.” As you’ll soon see, this advertisement differs quite significantly from the Staples ad today.


Back to the Future

So, what were the most compelling and interesting ads this back-to-school season? Fast-forward to 2017, the back-to-school supply marketing season began almost as soon as the school year ended. Unlike the father from 1996 that had little to no plan on what exactly he was throwing into the cart for his children, the main ads from some of the biggest names in back-to-school products aimed to provide convenience and appeal to organized parents through modern messaging and innovative technology usage.

Staples (our #1 pick!)

With their Scan My List feature, Staples took almost all of the work out of the back-to-school shopping experience with an efficient multi-channel customer experience across mobile & in-store.

This ad again features a mother with kids getting ready to leave when she grabs their back-to-school supplies list off of the fridge and opens the Staples App. With the help of the Staples Bot, the mother is able to scan the school supplies list and create an order that Staples will fulfil and alert her via the app when it is ready to pick up. This helps take convenience to the next level and is underscored by the placing of the list on the counter as the commercial concludes.

Staples “Scan My List”


Staples (Honorable Mention)

Staples also ran a campaign with shorter, 15 second, ads titled “Back to School Like A Pro” that received tremendous engagement on YouTube with well over a combined 4 million views. 

Staples "Back to School Like A Pro"


Office Depot

In Taking Care of Back to School, Office Depot was able to key on their often used “Taking Care of Business” theme while focusing on back-to-school shopping. By offering a helpful school supply checklist that featured school supplies (sorted by grade) in addition to the option of picking up an online order in-store in as little as one hour, Office Depot appealed to busier parents and the “Chief Everything Officer” that didn’t have the luxury of time that parents in the 90’s were afforded.

To underscore the busy lifestyle of today’s parents, the commercial ends with a scene of the kids jumping into the van headed off to soccer practice. This helped convey Office Depot’s message that they were there to fit into your busy schedule by “supplying” helpfulness and convenience in addition to school supplies. 

Office Depot “Taking Care of Back to School”


Old Navy

In one of the more interesting developments in back-to-school advertising this year, long-time school time clothing advertiser, Old Navy, changed its tactic away from celebrity vignettes to tell more of a personal story. 

Their "Make Some Noise" TVC wordlessly shows off the brand's low-cost kids wear, targeting anxious kids and cost-conscious parents. The commercial depicts a blunder in the cafeteria that turns into Old Navy-clad kids coming together to make music – creating the feeling that Old Navy clothing allows you to fit in.

Old Navy "Make Some Noise"



Conversely, Converse featured a celebrity actress from the hit Netflix series, "Stranger Things." 13-year-old actress, Millie Bobby Brown who plays “Eleven” on the show, captures all the "feels" commonly felt during the first day back at school. And not only through a variety of facial expressions, but also with a vast array of Converse shoes, clothing, and backpacks.

The ad is meant to appeal to teen viewers while assisting them with their sense of style and personality during the complex times that the first day of school can sometimes provide.

Converse “First Day Feels”


Fruit of the Loom

Fruit of The Loom pulls the viewer in with an action-packed story fueled by a child's imagination, but every practical parent should just be prepared to roll with what their children do, just like they should be prepared for back to school with Fruit of The Loom bonus packs.

Fruit of The Loom "Magic Marker"


Wrap Up

Brands today are utilizing technology in more strategic ways than ever; and although back-to-school shoppers are still purchasing in-store, mobile is helping make the experience easier and more enjoyable. Who knows what the future may hold, virtual assistants are re-defining how consumers purchase products so it will be interesting to see how they play a role in the future.

For CPG, they are closing the book on the back-to-school season and looking towards the upcoming holiday season. Their marketing and media plans have been set and are about to debut in full-swing – if the back-to-school season is any indication, the holiday season will be chock-full with innovative advertising and compelling marketing.


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By Jennifer Gaag
About the Author:

Jennifer Gaag is an Analyst, Senior Account Manager for Ebiquity-North America's Advertising Intelligence group

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