Marketing Strategies

Back-to-school: How to engage your audience and maximize your market share

If you’re a parent, teacher, or student, you probably don’t want to start thinking about “back-to-school” in June. But if you’re a marketer, you can’t wait any longer to plan out your campaigns. In 2023, U.S. consumers spent a total of 41.5 billion U.S. dollars on “back-to-school” season. This makes this shopping event second only to Black Friday and Cyber Monday. And the number is only rising. 2023 spending is up from $36.9 billion in 2022, which was already up from the record-breaking high of $37.1 billion in 2021. Average spend per household rose almost $200, from $700 to $890.1

The best news (for retailers) is that, unlike other shopping events such as Black Friday and Cyber Monday, which only last a day, back-to-school sales span across a few weeks, giving retailers more time to engage and convert their target audience. The National Retail Federation says that in 2023, back-to-school shopping started as early as July and college students were still shopping even after classes had begun.

Let’s take a closer look at how consumers have typically behaved during back-to-school, so we can dive into best practices.

Who is buying?

Parents of K-12 children are the biggest back-to-school shoppers, but grandparents, teens, young adults, teachers, and college students all spend on the holiday. It probably comes as no surprise that the largest demographic of back-to-school shoppers are women, however, with so many different demographics in the mix, retailers have to ensure they are segmenting their audiences in order to personalize their messaging and make it relevant to their audience. A high school student looking to buy a new school wardrobe requires very different creative from the parent who is researching the best laptop for their child.

Retailers should target several key demographics for back-to-school campaigns to maximize their reach and effectiveness. These groups include:

1. Parents of K-12 age children

  • Elementary and middle school parents: These parents are typically purchasing basics like clothing, school supplies, backpacks, and lunchboxes.
  • High school parents: This group often looks for more specialized items, such as electronics (laptops, tablets), advanced school supplies, and sports equipment.

2. Students

  • High school students: Often have a say in their clothing, technology, and accessories. They are influenced by trends and peer recommendations.
  • College students: They need dorm essentials, furniture, electronics, and textbooks. They tend to be independent buyers with their own preferences.

3. Teachers

  • Teachers often spend their own money on classroom supplies and resources. Marketing campaigns that offer discounts or special deals for educators can attract this segment.

4. Tech-savvy shoppers

  • Tech enthusiasts: This group looks for the latest gadgets, software, and educational technology. They can include both parents and students.

5. Early shoppers vs. last-minute shoppers

  • Early shoppers: Typically start buying supplies in late July or early August. They respond well to early-bird promotions.
  • Last-minute shoppers: Tend to shop just before school starts. They respond well to urgency-driven marketing and last-minute deals.

6. Bargain hunters

  • These shoppers look for the best deals and discounts. They can be parents, students, or teachers. Clear communication of sales, deals, and loyalty programs can attract this group.

Targeting strategies

  • Personalization: Use data-driven strategies to personalize offers based on past purchasing behavior.
  • Omnichannel approach: Ensure a seamless experience across online and offline channels. Use social media, email campaigns, and in-store promotions to reach different segments.
  • Content marketing: Provide valuable content such as checklists, buying guides, and educational resources to engage and inform your audience.
  • Influencer collaborations: Partner with influencers who resonate with students and parents to promote back-to-school products.


  • Early planning: Start campaigns in late June to capture early planners.
  • Peak season: Intensify efforts in July and early August.
  • Last-minute push: Offer special promotions and deals in late August and early September to attract late shoppers.

By understanding the specific needs and preferences of these groups, retailers can create targeted and effective back-to-school campaigns that drive sales and build customer loyalty.

Back-to-school campaigns in the wild

Let’s take a look at these real-world campaigns that succeeded by addressing the specific needs and preferences of their target audiences, offering convenience, value, and incentives to encourage purchases.

1. Target – “School List Assist”

Target’s “School List Assist” campaign provides parents and students with an online tool that allows them to find and purchase all the items on their school’s supply list in one place. This convenience-focused campaign taps into the stress of back-to-school shopping, making it easier for busy parents.

2. Staples – “#StaplesForStudents”

Staples runs an annual “Staples for Students” campaign, often featuring celebrity endorsements and social media challenges. The campaign encourages students to share their back-to-school moments and enter contests for a chance to win scholarships and other prizes. This engages the student demographic directly and builds brand loyalty.

3. Old Navy – “On-Trend Fashion at Affordable Prices”

Old Navy’s back-to-school campaign focuses on trendy, affordable fashion for kids and teens. Their ads highlight stylish outfits and often include promotions like buy-one-get-one deals or significant discounts on bulk purchases, appealing to both fashion-conscious students and budget-conscious parents.

4. Apple – “Back to School” Promotion

Apple’s back-to-school promotion typically offers discounts on Macs and iPads, plus bonuses like free AirPods for students and educators. This campaign targets college students and educators looking for high-quality tech, emphasizing the value and added perks of purchasing during the promotion.

5. Amazon – “Off to College”

Amazon’s “Off to College” campaign provides a one-stop shop for college students. It includes curated lists of dorm essentials, tech gadgets, textbooks, and other necessities. Amazon also offers discounts on Prime memberships for students, making it a comprehensive and convenient option for back-to-school shopping.

6. Walmart – “Here’s to a New Start”

Walmart’s back-to-school campaign emphasizes affordability and one-stop shopping convenience. Their ads highlight a wide range of products from clothing to school supplies and tech, often featuring price comparisons to show savings. Walmart also integrates online shopping with in-store pickup options.

7. Kohl’s – “Kohl’s Cash”

Kohl’s leverages its “Kohl’s Cash” rewards program during back-to-school season, offering shoppers cash back on purchases that can be used on future shopping trips. This campaign not only drives initial purchases but also encourages repeat business as customers return to spend their Kohl’s Cash.

8. Microsoft – “Education Discount”

Microsoft’s back-to-school campaign includes discounts on software and hardware for students and educators. They also offer free workshops and resources to help students and teachers make the most of their technology, adding educational value to their promotional efforts.

9. Gap – “Be You” Campaign

Gap’s “Be You” campaign celebrates individuality and self-expression through fashion. The campaign features diverse models and encourages students to express their unique style. Promotions often include discounts and special offers for back-to-school shopping.

10. Dick’s Sporting Goods – “Back to Sports”

Dick’s Sporting Goods targets student-athletes with their “Back to Sports” campaign. They offer discounts on sports gear, apparel, and equipment, and run promotions like team discounts and flash sales to attract both individual shoppers and school teams.


If you have any specific audience targeting needs or questions, feel free to reach out to us.


Kevin Burke, Data Axle
Kevin Burke
Senior Manager Digital Strategy

For over 7 years, Kevin Burke has driven digital data and media strategy for Fortune 500 brands and Agencies. As an expert in digital marketing, he has worked with clients to develop and implement comprehensive omnichannel media solutions that drive success across all key performance indicators and business objectives. In his free time, he enjoys spending time with his wife and dog at the local brewery and cheering on the Eagles.