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Back-to-school marketing campaigns are in full swing as students prepare to return to class. The stakes are high: according to the National Retail Federation, back-to-school spending (including at the college level) will reach $68 billion this year. The average family will spend $630, mostly on apparel and electronics.

So, what are retailers doing to stand out during this back-to-school season? Here are four trends worth noting.

  1. Turning to music

To connect with young customers, some companies are using a good old fashioned approach: music. Inspired by the movie Pitch Perfect and the popularity of singing groups like Pentatonix, Macy’s launched an a cappella contest for the season.

“The retailer will kick off a national challenge—open to elementary, middle and high schools, as well as colleges—in September in order to tap into the growing a cappella trend,” according to AdAge. “Three winning schools will be chosen based on video submissions and each will be awarded $25,000.”

This year’s contest follows a successful contest last year that leveraged the lip dub trend.

Another brand that’s using music is Old Navy, which released a music video titled “#Unlimited” starring personalities from AwesomenessTV, a Nickelodeon comedy series that started as a YouTube channel. According to MarketingLand, the clothing company posed the question “What does it mean to be unlimited?” to kids at Boys & Girls Clubs across the U.S., and highlighted some answers in the video.

“The song reminds kids that they are #Unlimited no matter what obstacles and fears they face and to ‘be strong, be bold, and be brave’ when challenges arise,” says Old Navy’s press release about the campaign. The t-shirts featured in the video will be available in Old Navy’s stores as well.

  1. Going aspirational

Dell is featuring young achievers in a docuseries that aims to inspire students. Produced by the advertising agency Y&R, the series features 21-year old nuclear physicist Taylor Wilson, 14-year-old fashion designer Isabella Rose, 19-year-old tech entrepreneur João Pedro Motta and 19-year-old YouTube sensation Jenn McAllister.

"Dell wanted to make teens the experts in technology and speak to them in a way that was on their level," Meredith Kinee, senior copywriter at Y&R New York, told AdWeek. "What better way to talk about expertise than to leverage kids that are actually experts in their field? It was important to us to find kids who weren't just YouTube stars, who weren't just influencers, but they had those bigger technology stories and those bigger achievement stories."

  1. Working with social media influencers

To establish itself as a one-stop spot for back-to-school shopping, Target is tapping young social media stars for its campaign. The retailer rolled out six spots featuring influencers such as dancer Maddie Ziegler (best known for Sia's "Chandelier" and "Elastic Heart" music videos) and YouTuber EvanTubehd to show kids that it has the styles they want.

"Kids are looking to other kids for the latest on what's on trend and what's stylish," Rick Gomez, SVP-marketing at Target, told AdAge. "We wanted to leverage these kid influencers."

  1. Addressing social issues

J.C. Penney is using its back-to-school marketing campaign to address a timely issue among students today: online bullying. Called “Bend the Trend,” the campaign encourages teens to compliment each other’s style instead of criticizing others.

Just like Target, J.C. Penney is tapping YouTube talents for the campaign. It is developing a four-part video series featuring the likes of the Merrell Twins, stars of the popular YouTube channel Primrose Makeup.


As back-to-school shopping gears up, brands need to figure out a way to stand out, while also underscoring their core positioning and product mix. During this critical shopping period, customer intelligence is more important than ever. Companies need to deepen their understanding of their target market in order to optimize their marketing approach and deliver products and services that this season’s shoppers want.

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