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How can back-to-school brands keep up in the COVID-19 landscape?

A widespread shift to at-home learning makes online offerings especially important.

"We're living in unprecedented times."

To be honest, I’d be fine if I never hear that phrase again. Like, ever. And I think I speak for a lot of us when I say that. But despite how draining and demoralizing it is to hear what has become the “COVID-19 anti-mantra,” there’s a sobering truth to it.  

These ​are​ unprecedented times. Among the social, racial and economic reckonings occurring in the U.S., on top of it already being a wildly important and controversial election year, we’re deep into a pandemic that’ll last for years. How could things ​possibly​ get any more stressful? Oh yeah... ​it’s back to school season.  

With so much uncertainty at play, we’re set to be ambushed by a new wave of questions: Will the learning be physically distanced or virtual? Is it safe to buy school supplies? How does one parent, guide learning and work all at once? And these questions only scratch the surface… whew. 
Beyond the angst that parents, teachers, administrators and students worldwide face, back-to-school brands are confronted by changing consumer behavior and are being forced to innovate and adapt to the new normal. 

Consumer behavior has never changed so quickly

There is currently a cocktail of circumstances that is shifting things for consumers at a fast clip. 
To set the scene all we need to do is look around. Unemployment has soared, pulling from disposable income budgets nationwide. Social distancing has skewed shopping habits toward the online marketplace, intensifying the threat that brick-and-mortar stores have been facing.

In fact, ​22% of boomers and 34% of Gen X said that they were letting current circumstances affect their shopping habits compared to 50% of millennials, according to consumer firm First Insight.​ Not only that, but in-store activations are becoming effectively useless. Brand loyalty is also being put under a microscope—with so much uncertainty in the world, consumers are leaning into the products and services that they know and trust.

Homeschooling has also taken on a whole new definition, forcing parents to redefine what their kids' classroom looks like. This transformation has also created a new need for online smart products, services and subscriptions that’ll aid in education—both formally and informally. 

To sum it up, ​brand trust is everything right now. Leaning into your ​why​ will only help break the conversation barrier between who you are now and how you can help meet your target customer's evolving needs​.

How brands can earn their extra credit 

Imagine if we could give our favorite brands report cards. The ones getting by unscathed right now would be your A students. The ones that have failed to transform digitally, well, they’ve probably flunked out by now. The back-to-school brands in question, however, are your B and C students. Sure, they usually get by fine relying on the tactics that have gotten them here today... but that’s not gonna cut it anymore. 

They’ll need to ​pull it together ​(think “college all-nighter to pass the final”) and get focused on what they can bring to the table in our current COVID landscape. The school season norm is no more, so they need to start acting like it. 
Amplifying marketing and storytelling efforts around online offerings is a first step. We know that winning the hearts and minds of consumers will eventually lead to winning their wallets. By leveraging consumer loyalty trends and data, these brands can position their products and services to their audiences at the right times, giving them an opportunity to "open the funnel" and earn that A+. 

Streaming platforms and service providers have a huge opportunity to capitalize on at-home learning in an untraditional way. About 35% of Netflix users now say they use the streaming service for educational content. Informational programming can spin traditional values to align with what consumers want and need now. It poses the question: What other brands could benefit from shifts like this? 

Back-to-school shopping is not what it used to be. And while this year is the first in a pandemic landscape, it will certainly not be the last. We must learn what we can and roll with the punches to stay ahead of the changes to come.

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