As the back-to-school season reaches a fever pitch, some brands are pulling out all the stops to stand out, even taking a page from decades past. For American Eagle, that entails bolstering its denim-centered marketing campaign with a ‘90s-inspired clothing collection influenced by past champions of fashion — a nod to Gen Z’s interest in hitting rewind.
“I think that Gen Z loves to look back,” said Craig Brommers, chief marketing officer of American Eagle Outfitters. “Some of their favorite shows are from the ‘90s and early 2000s, some of their favorite style inspirations come from those eras.”
The retailer in late July unveiled its multichannel back-to-school campaign, announcing with it a collaboration with Maddie and Kenzie Ziegler, a Gen Z sister duo best known for starring in the popular reality series “Dance Moms,” to craft a custom clothing collection, an assortment that the pair developed with inspiration from icons like Drew Barrymore, Kate Moss and Cindy Crawford. The dialed-in effort could signal how marketers are attempting to level up during a season plagued by macro headwinds, though Brommers sees bright spots ahead, nodding to recent data about slowing inflation.
“It could be a choppy external environment that we're navigating,” Brommers said. “But I think it's actually more optimistic right now, today, than our customer base was feeling three or six months ago.”
Still, forecasts for projected consumer spend this season have painted a dour outlook. Deloitte expects spending by families with students in kindergarten through 12th grade to drop 10% year-over-year for a total of $597 per child, per the company’s annual back-to-school survey, with overall spend for the season forecast to total $31.2 billion. The need for brands to market around value will be critical if they wish to capture the lion’s share of consumers’ modest budgets.
“It is the first time we’ve seen [that] kind of a drop in a decade,” said Lupine Skelly, retail, wholesale and distribution research leader at Deloitte. “It really is telling that it’s been 18 months of inflation, parents are having to prioritize where they’re putting their money, whether that’s summer vacations or trying to re-pad savings.”
Anticipating the slowdown
Paired with shrinking back-to-school budgets is a more fine-tuned list of items to be purchased, per Deloitte, with 34% of parents reporting that they plan to postpone buying nonessential school items this year. Tech and apparel are expected to take the biggest hit, forecasted to be down 13% and 14% year over year, respectively. The decline could signal a return-to-earth for the two categories, which each saw periods of soaring sales in recent years tied to adjustments around the COVID-19 pandemic and return to in-person learning.
“There was a really strong replacement cycle last year, and perhaps this year, [parents are] like ‘What can we get by with these first couple months?’ and just buy what is needed,” Skelly said.
Accordingly, spending on school supplies is expected to jump 20% year-over-year this back-to-school season, though inflation on such items has risen 23.7% over the last two years, per data cited in Deloitte’s report. It’s worth noting that nearly six in 10 parents reported that they would be willing to splurge on some items in pursuit of better quality or to treat their child — clothing (57%) and tech (56%) being the two likely categories — findings that some marketers, including Old Navy, have seemingly already tried to capitalize on.
“I think it speaks to how back-to-school has some nostalgia and family traditions involved,” Skelly said. “This idea of treating my child or allowing my child to express themselves or fit in with their peers really came through on the data.”
This year’s spending outlook is expected to have a number of critical implications for advertisers, according to Aruna Natarajan, chief client officer of GroupM’s EssenceMediacom. Among them, the exec expects to see advertisers match consumers’ tone this season with softer, more intentional media spend.
“Advertisers are pulling back spend for the season and have to prioritize what products they support,” Natarajan said in emailed comments.
Among other implications, campaign messaging will see increased verbiage around discounts and promotions, Natarajan added. Lighter consumer spend for the period will also have a “knock on effect,” the exec said, which will see advertisers bring forward seasonal items for holidays like Halloween and Thanksgiving at an earlier date in an effort to sustain momentum.
Doubling down on value
Looking to strike a chord with price-conscious parents, Amazon for its back-to-school campaign this year resurfaced its “spend less” messaging used for last year’s campaign, a nod to similarities in consumer behavior year over year as macro headwinds endure. The campaign, launched in July, is designed to be lighthearted while still addressing the conflicting realities of the season head-on, according to Jo Shoesmith, executive worldwide creative director at Amazon.
“Back-to-school advertising traditionally shows smiling kids, bright colors, and happy music, but it ignores what parents are really thinking about: how caring for children can be incredibly expensive, with school shopping each year being a daunting reminder of this,” Shoesmith said in emailed comments.
Key to the campaign is a tongue-in-cheek spot starring actor Randall Park, who presents the idea of spending less on back-to-school shopping as novel, later receiving support from financially astute children, including one who notes that spending less is “fiscally advantageous.” The effort, developed in-house, is airing on TV, online video, digital, and across social media throughout the summer and promotes Amazon’s numerous deals and online back-to-school shopping guide.
Much of the tone for Amazon’s back-to-school campaign this year resembles its 2022 effort, an intentional choice supported by positive feedback from consumers last year who felt the messaging helped relieve the pressures of the season, Shoesmith said. The exec also noted that, in making the spot, it was vital to align with Amazon’s underlying values.
“Candor is incredibly important, because consumers are savvy and will ignore campaigns or messaging that don’t feel relatable or real to them,” Shoesmith said.
Approaching the season with lightheartedness has been a focal point for a number of retailers this season. For example, Gap in July teamed with “Recess Therapy,” a web series popular for conducting candid interviews with children like the now-iconic “corn kid,” to ask quick-witted kids for their opinion on the first day of school. Similarly, Carter's brand OshKosh B’gosh unveiled an upbeat spot, “Find Your Back To School Beat,” featuring a number of kids busting a move in back-to-school attire.
As consumers focus on cost-cutting, other once-prioritized values have moved to the back burner. Notably, consumer interest in purchasing sustainable goods dropped to 35% this year, down from 50% last year, Deloitte found. During the 2022 season, parents concerned about sustainability were expected to spend 22% more than average.
“It’s sort of like when push comes to shove and [with] 18 months of inflation, suddenly parents are like, ‘Yeah, I’m gonna protect my wallet and not the planet,’” Skelly said.
To find the best deals, consumers continue to signal that shopping earlier is best, with 59% of budgets expected to have been spent by the end of July, per Deloitte, up from 53% in 2022. Parents will also favor mass retailers (80%) and online retailers (60%), indicative of a desire for convenience.
Winning Gen Z
For American Eagle, making the most of the back-to-school season means marketing directly to its target Gen Z audience, a strategy observant of the fact that the cohort can make independent choices, Brommers said. While less prioritized, the retailer also utilizes some below-the-line marketing efforts intended for “mom and dad,” the exec added.
“We’ve always found that if you capture the hearts and minds of Gen Z, you’ll have the ability to capture the wallets of their mostly Gen X and Gen Y parents,” Brommers said.
To reach the younger cohort, a tie-up with the Ziegler sisters, each of whom command millions of followers across social media, is meant to transcend the “multi-hyphenate hustle” of Gen Z, Brommers said, nodding to the stars’ multiple career advances following their run on “Dance Moms.” The two will promote their versatile clothing collection across social media, notably by posting self-shot content in an effort to communicate authenticity.
"The fun thing about Threads is that we’re letting it rip — I’m not sitting here approving anything."
Chief Marketing Officer, American Eagle
American Eagle also will heavily utilize social media to promote its larger back-to-school campaign, counting on Gen Z-favorite platforms like TikTok and Instagram while leveraging partnerships with hundreds of content creators. The brand additionally is testing its luck on Threads, Meta’s answer to Twitter, which it activated on soon after the platform’s debut in July. Following its launch, Threads quickly amassed over 100 million users, angling it to be a factor for social-focused brands like American Eagle.
“The fun thing about Threads is that we’re letting it rip — I'm not sitting here approving anything,” Brommers said. “The [social] team is really going for it, and we seem to be rewarded by that experimentation and risk taking so far.”
Beyond social media, American Eagle for the back-to-school period has planned its largest outdoor push since the pandemic, the exec continued, with activations slated for August and September inclusive of advertising liveboards throughout New York City and a 3D billboard in Times Square. The move comes from the observation that, despite being digitally driven, Gen Z wants to stay connected to the real world, Brommers said, especially as conversations around mental health endure.
At the top level, the retailer’s back-to-school marketing approach this year sees the brand stretching itself across the various ways Gen Z wants to express themselves, Brommers said, adding that the cohort doesn’t want to be placed in a box. With a diversified strategy, and a shopping season the exec defines as “optimistic,” Brommers is confident that American Eagle has hit the ground running.
“Our opportunity is to connect with this customer base in a very authentic way, in something that only AE can do, be a bit disruptive out there, and offer product that has the ability to be worn in all the different occasions Gen Z has,” Brommers said. “We feel like we're set up for success as we get into the heart of that August and September back-to-school shopping.”