Back-to-school brand playbook: How brands can lend a hand as parents navigate back-to-school this year.

By C-K’s Brand Planning and PR/Social teams

How do brands help consumers head back to school in an era of COVID-19 uncertainty?

Back to school has never looked so uncertain, not to mention complicated. A combination of dread, panic and sheer exhaustion is causing lots of stress for parents, students, teachers and school administrators.

For parents with the choice to send their kids to school in-person, the answer isn’t clear. The American Academy of Pediatrics says kids learn best when in school while a study out of Korea says younger kids are not immune from contracting and spreading the virus. What is clear: the choice to send kids back to school isn’t easy. And for those who have opted for in-person learning, they’re having to deal with parent shaming, which is now at an all-time high.

Some affluent families are using their resources to enroll their children in second home regions, while others are creating private pandemic pods and hiring their own teachers. At the other end of the spectrum, some low-income families are struggling to feed their kids, let alone provide them with laptops and access to the internet. So far, the beginning of this school year is looking like it will only increase the educational divide.

Many working parents are also left wondering what to do. In a recent LinkedIn poll, 60% of working parents said their employers are not making any accommodations for the uncertain school year even though 30% don’t have any childcare.

While there are three different back-to-school scenarios – in-person learning, virtual learning and hybrid models – experts predict that all students at some point will return to virtual learning this year.

At the college level, about 300 colleges still have yet to announce their plans and as many as 35% of all college freshman plan to take a gap year, avoiding going back to school altogether.

As back-to-school plans remain uncertain, so do after school enrichment and sports programs, which have traditionally helped parents bridge the childcare gap.

There’s no doubt about it: back to school has been hijacked by COVID-19, turning an exciting time of year upside down. Brands now, more than ever, need to help parents and students navigate this unprecedented, stressful and turbulent time.

C-K’s special Back-to-School Brand Playbook edition offers brands advice that can help parents and students alike.

Option 1: In-Person Class Resumes

While we continue to navigate the risks, some schools prepare to reopen. Brands need to figure out how to help parents, teachers and students prepare for a different kind of school year.

Some states with lower rates of coronavirus, like New Jersey and Connecticut, for example, have announced plans to open schools for all students in the fall. This comes after the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended that schools prioritize in-person learning, based on the importance of school socialization for childhood development and the functions that schools provide for lower income students.

In-person learning is even more of a priority for children with cognitive disabilities who depend on school socialization and special education classes that require high-touch learning that isn’t easily translated over screens.

Still, these in-person school systems will likely look a lot different than previous years. The CDC offered guidelines for schools to help minimize health risks, including social distancing desks, having teachers and students wear masks, increased hand washing and thorough cleaning of all surfaces. Other schools may opt for in-person classes to occur outside (weather permitting).

  1. Brands should help parents feel safe sending their kids back to school. According to an Ad Age poll, 92% of parents are planning to back-to-school shop this year, but their priority materials are different. At the top of the list, 58% plan to buy stationery and desk supplies, 57% will purchase cleaning and disinfecting supplies, and 52% will buy personal protective equipment. Other in-person school items,such as apparel (51%) and backpacks (44%), followed. This gives brands a unique opportunity to support parents in these endeavors. Some brands, like Kohl’s, Crayola and Target, are advertising face masks along with their back-to-school products to help consumers adjust to this unusual climate.
  2. Brands should also consider what they can do to help teachers adapt to the new normal. With increased sensitivity to germs and cleaning, schools and teachers will need to purchase more cleaning supplies. Many teachers are worried about this as a study found 90% of teachers must purchase some supplies out of their own pocket to support their classrooms. In order to help ease the burden, Clorox donated $1,000,000 to ClearTheList foundation to provide resources for teachers going back to school.

Option 2: Virtual Learning

Virtual learning will still play a key role in education this year. With time to prepare, brands can help fulfill the unique needs of parents, kids and teachers that have emerged with the advent of widespread virtual learning.

With COVID-19 cases back on the rise and many teachers’ unions threatening to strike if schools return to in-person teaching, there’s a good chance virtual learning will play a role in the following school year. Even if schools begin in person, a high number of infections could cause plans to quickly change to a hybrid model or go fully virtual once again.

That means big shifts for students and parents co-working at home once again, and major challenges for underserved families without access to proper technology. It also means headaches for teachers who may be putting together multiple curricula plans or be forced to quickly switch gears once the school year has started.

  1. Find ways to support parents whose kids aren’t returning to school in person in both entertaining and educational ways.
  2. Look for ways to instill a “normal school” feeling into this new way of learning. For example, Natural Light brought a real-life “dorm” to a student living at his parents’ house.
  3. Embrace new not-so-back-to-school needs that consumers are expected to spend more on, like comfortable clothing, technology for e-learning and supplementary e-learning software. Retailers will need to pivot from traditional needs like backpacks and lunchboxes to more tech-focused back-to-school messaging.

Option 3: Hybrid Learning

What applies for in-person learning and for virtual learning applies to hybrid learning too.

However, there’s added stress of juggling two different learning scenarios at once. Anything brands can do to help parents, students and even teachers cope and adapt to this model is welcomed.

  1. Expect a different back-to-school shopping season. With some colleges staggering students’ return to campus by class year, there may be two back-to-school shopping seasons. Parents in the hybrid model who can afford it may end up buying twice the supplies – for school and home – potentially leading to a bigger BTS shopping season than in the past.
  2. Be ready to turn on a dime and help consumers do the same. It’s unclear if any in-person learning will actually happen as the plans are changing day by day, minute by minute. It’s also unlikely that plans including in-person learning will continue without interruption through the school year. Brands that can adjust their retail plans and communications plans fluidly and help parents maintain their routine will be rewarded.
  3. Find ways to create levity and bring humor to the situation. The atypical school schedule of a hybrid model means the grind of online learning, makeshift childcare and stunted workdays will continue. Getting back into a groove will be challenging for all family members on a hybrid model, and especially so for families with children on different hybrid plans. With stress at an all-time high, brands that can find ways to create levity and bring humor to a daunting toggling situation will be in short supply but just what parents need to cope.

Option 4: None of the Above

The uncertain fall outlook for schools and universities has parents and students exploring alternatives, including “taking the year off.”

Amidst the flurry of education plans and pivots, with nothing seemingly locked in, some parents and students are taking the wheel. Not waiting or relying on school districts and university trustees, they’re designing their own path forward.

Some families with resources are exploring hiring private educators, some of which are teachers uncomfortable with their school’s fall plans and who may find private teaching more lucrative. Other families with more time on their hands are focusing on designing their own curricula and getting their home school license. Parents with little ones are holding them back instead of pushing them into kindergarten.

And when it comes to waiting it out, the “gap year” has taken on renewed focus for college students, with many students feeling the college experience packaged into hefty tuition bills won’t materialize this year. Traffic to the Gap Year Association’s website is up 300% in places, as are Americorps applications.

  1. Parents choosing to go it alone could benefit from brand-developed content. Brands like Outschool have an entire business models built around supporting parents and learners with interest-driven content. Not every parent is cut out to take on the role of teacher. Looking to capitalize on private teacher gigs, Swing Education started as a service matching schools with subs but has shifted to offering to provide teachers for “your own in-home learning pod.”
  2. Brands can provide opportunity and structure to keep gap years productive. Gap year experiences are going to be different from the pre-pandemic norm. Travel is likely out (especially foreign travel). One of the most direct ways brands can support is by way of employment and internships for gap year students. Virtual opportunities are welcome and can be listed on Indeed, Glassdoor, Chegg and Virtual Internships. Brands can also lend assistance to the many enterprising young women and men who may kick off their entrepreneurial dreams and start-up businesses.

COVID-19 & After School

As schools mull over their options this fall, extracurricular activities hang in suspension as enrollment faulters and budgets are slashed.

A recent report showed that nearly 90% of after school programs are experiencing long-term funding concerns caused by school closures. Sixty percent are concerned they might have to permanently shut their doors. While these cancellations might be a headache for working parents with young children, high school and college students who rely on extracurriculars to further their futures are panicking.

Student athletes planning to return to the field this fall with hopes of further recruitment aren’t likely to get scouted if their season is canceled. The same goes for high school musicians hoping to secure a place in university conservatories. Without in-person lessons or group ensembles available due to the easy spread of COVID, musicians aren’t sure when they will be able to safely move forward in this pandemic.

  1. The playgrounds are closed along with the schools. Brands should work to fill the playtime gap with enriching content. As schools decide what to do, one thing is certain: the playground at recess will look a lot different. Some experts who suggest limiting physical contact as much as possible have gone so far as to propose “recess squares” for individual students. One brand offering a playground replacement solution is Follies which is open-sourcing its popular interlock-able building block shapes that create climbable forts so educators can download and recreate the shapes out of cardboard. Established after school programs like the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts have gone virtual, allowing new and existing members to earn badges through online events and engaging programs.
  2. Brands should think how they can help students stay on track with their extracurricular goals as COVID threatens to cancel them. For high school athletes, the closure of schools and athletic facilities will cost them valuable playing time and face-to-face sessions with coaches. FinalForms, a sports technology company, has developed a tracking app to help coaches remotely monitor the health of their student athletes and watch for possible symptoms of COVID. Schools partnering with the brand’s technology are hoping the app will help them with a responsible reopening ofthe sports season this fall.

Implications: What back-to-school trends mean for brands

Support is the name of the game. Back to school is filled with uncertainty, but brands can provide some much-needed support with parents, students and teachers.

Normally, the back-to-school season is filled with excitement and goals for the upcoming year. However, COVID-19 has turned the season into a ball of stress that looks different depending on each local school’s reopening plans and each family’s household financial situation. Consumers have a lot to consider during this time, and there is an opportunity for brands to help ease some of this tension and create loyalties in the process.

  1. Support parents that are choosing to send their kids back to school. As parents shop for back-to-school items, their priorities have shifted to include safety. Brands can help by the products they offer and the messaging and imagery they use.
  2. Look for ways to support teachers. As teachers usually need to buy their own supplies, the added cost of additional cleaning supplies can add up. Provide opportunities for brands to drive loyalty through supportive efforts.
  3. Provide content to help parents that are choosing not to send their kids back to class. Even if schools reopen, not all parents will feel comfortable sending their kids back. Brands have an opportunity as content creators to put their efforts to good use by providing educational and entertaining content for the whole family.
  4. Rethink your featured product in messaging. As students face virtual learning or a more hybrid approach, past best-selling products may not be at the top in 2020. Think about what products are being featured within BTS messaging to drive interest.
  5. Be flexible. With the ever-changing landscape amidst the pandemic, be ready to shift not only your messaging and campaign flighting, but also your retail strategy.
  6. Don’t be afraid of a little humor. If your brand has a history of humor, don’t be afraid to provide some laughs. They are much needed in these challenging times.
  7. Reconsider your employment needs. With so many students considering taking a gap year, companies have a chance to offer opportunities to gain experience and make gap years productive with the bonus of building a list of potential future employees.
  8. Localize your media strategy. School reopenings and classroom solutions may differ by school district and may change depending on the case count in that area. This should be accounted for in a brand’s media strategy to ensure brands are budgeting appropriately.
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