Fall 2021 Back-to-School Planning Starts Now: Real Learnings for Marketers

By Barnes & Noble College Marketing

We’ve heard it—adversity gives way to innovation—and we’ve lived it this past year. Now in 2021, how do we keep pace with new ideas and enhancements that our consumers will love? How do we continue to innovate?

Part of moving forward smartly comes from taking a look back, evaluating what we’ve learned, and applying it to future programs. Successful marketers will leverage the many learnings from the past year.

So, now, as we look towards Back-To-College (BTC) for Fall 2021, let’s continue to focus on what we’ve learned.

Gen Z College Students Crave Social Interaction.

With campuses extending full or partial close downs, students are hungry for social interaction with their college friends and communities — not just for fun and relaxation, but to aid in their academic learning. Students say that study pals, group projects, and lively classroom discussions enhance their learning experience and effectiveness.

To help fill the social void, 46% of students are interested in attending virtual events.¹ But not just any virtual event. Gen Z college students have high expectations and want events that are all about them and how brands can make their lives better. Special promotions and product offerings need to be infused into virtual social gatherings.

Consider Autumn Anarchy, the premier collegiate gaming event of the Fall semester, which brings together college, amateur, and professional players as well as fans for thrilling collegiate esports rivalries. Delivering a unique social experience, it connects college students nationwide virtually with livestream integrations and offers product promotions to both participants and spectators.

Key Takeaway: Incorporate creative social elements into your campaigns at every turn. Seek out sponsorships with unlikely partners. Stand out by reimagining the shopping experience in new ways with virtual shopping events, interactive sponsorships, and engaging product launch parties.

Gen Z College Students Live and Shop in a Hybrid World.¹

Due to COVID-19, it’s not surprising that in-store shopping has decreased as online buying increased to compensate. But it’s important to note that while nearly 60% of college students have shopped online during the pandemic, over 80% have still gone in-store to shop.

These savvy shoppers are plucking the best options from pre- and post- COVID to form new shopping patterns. For example, 31% of supermarket shoppers have used curbside pick-up and 17% have had groceries delivered while 88% continue to go inside to buy groceries.

Promotional discounts (64%) and instant gratification (52%) are the strongest drivers for bringing Gen Z shoppers into stores.

Key Takeaway: Brands need to make the experience seamless and comfortable within and across channels. Your brand needs to delight these discerning consumers at every interaction, while making each experience frictionless and convenient. Offers and promotions should be aligned with each channel, so offering a special in-store purchase incentive or a limited-capacity event would be useful when retailers are looking to drive in-store traffic.  In-store curated displays of products frequently bought together or themed (like “beach getaway” and “clean skin routine”) enhance the experience and reduce time spent searching the aisles.  Continuing to offer curbside pickup for convenience post-COVID is a must and also offers unique branding sponsorship opportunities at pickup spots.

Gen Z college students discover brands primarily online.

As it did prior to COVID, social media continues to play a prominent role in this demographic’s brand discovery, research, and purchase activities.   Determine which digital and social media channels will be most successful driving Gen Z to your channels. What does your path-to -purchase look like? How are these consumers discovering your brand?

Among those who said they have been using social media to learn about what their favorite brands are doing, top social media platforms were:

Key Takeaway: Social media and recommendations of others play a key role in brand discovery. Your digital strategy should be dual, consisting of messages that you push out as well as fostering organic discussions about your brand. Creatively engaging consumers in contests, photo challenges, new flavor ideas, and so on, will spur brand conversation. In this digital-heavy world, it’s also more important than ever that you make it right when missteps happen or customers are unhappy.

What and How this generation is now buying has changed too.  

Gen Z college students have become more value conscious and promotion-driven, focus more on items they consider necessities, and pay greater attention to how and where products are made. They want convenient, frictionless shopping and expect brands to utilize technology and latest advancements to enhance that experience.

Key Takeaway: Appeal to new consumer priorities. Remember that Gen Z is opening their wallets for purposeful spending, so tie messaging and promotions to what they are buying. Use customer profiling data to the fullest to stay on top of changing preferences and personalize the experience and offers. They demand convenience, so make it easy for them. Contactless payment (i.e. Venmo) and installment payment plans (Afterpay) is here and it’s also the future. This generation expects a truly seamless shopping experience from brand discovery through to checkout.

Gen Z college students are feeling stressed right now, but they’re hopeful about the future.

Our world is a stressful place these days and college students are feeling it too. Mental health and wellness is top of mind more than ever. 7 out of 10 students are feeling stressed about their current situation.

They’re searching for ways to alleviate stress and anxiety and welcome brands that recognize how they’re feeling. Nearly 70% if those who are challenged with online courses have found that exercising and physical activity is helping reduce stress.

Despite the difficulties they face, they remain optimistic that many of the positive aspects of our pre-COVID world will be restored.

Key takeaway: Acknowledge that stress affects everyone in different ways, so be mindful of that in your brand messages and your partnerships. Brands that reflect student mindset in their messaging and interactions with college consumers will bolster loyalty well after the pandemic. When you can tie products or promos to physical activity (think hiking challenges or free online yoga sessions), you will enhance their lives and be embraced by Gen Z students.


Everyone’s asking these questions.

What will college look like this Back-to-School season? Will universities fully open for in-person learning in the fall? Will college campuses go back to some sort or normalcy?

Without a crystal ball to look into the future, marketers must leverage key learnings from last fall and prepare for contingencies. They will channel Gen Z’s positivity and create strategies for a “re-opened world” but be ready to pivot should things change.


Customized partner solutions are more important than ever before. Barnes & Noble College guides our partners above and beyond the media buy, using our unmatched college expertise to help brands navigate college marketing during the pandemic and into the future.

We’re reinventing what it means to market to Gen Z in our new world.


[1] Barnes & Noble College Insights: General Merchandise Retail Shopping, October 2020
[2] Barnes & Noble College Insights: Barnes & Noble College Insights: COVID-19 Impact on Mental Health, September 2020

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