Back-to-School Campaigns Go Online to Reach Teens Directly

We’ve reached that point in the summer when retailers across the U.S. kick off their big back-to-school campaigns, and this year is no exception. What is perhaps unique this time around is how much these retailers are relying on their Web presence to appeal directly to teens themselves.

Starting this week, Kmart is trying to stake its claim among the back-to-school crowd with a YouTube contest called “Show Your Back to School Style: Get in the Commercial.” Teenagers are invited to create and upload 30- or 60-second commercials to the video-sharing site that demonstrate how Kmart helps them go back to school in style. Judges will select the top 20 videos, which users can then vote on. The video with the most votes will be professionally produced by Kmart and aired on national television.

“We’ve added a lot more teen, junior and young-men lines in the store over the last year, so we do have a lot more to talk to teens about directly,” said Kirsten Whipple, director of marketing and public relations for Kmart’s parent company, Sears Holdings. “We’re trying to reach teens and create dialogue in a relevant way.”

Indeed, the direct-to-teen approach is a bit of a departure for Kmart, which in past years has targeted parents with its back-to-school promotions. Those efforts were waged largely on TV and radio and with circulars, said Whipple.

But the shift to a Web-based campaign is an outgrowth of its desire to influence teens directly. And that shift is not limited to Kmart alone.

Sears itself is also waging its back-to-school campaign online this year with a microsite called the “Arrive Lounge.” The content-rich site focuses on a video contest starring Vanessa Hudgens of “High School Musical” fame; fans can vote on which of several male co-stars should appear with Hudgens in the final installment of a series of commercials showing off the young star’s many different styles.

The site also includes a “remix master” that allows teens to make their own music videos, and exclusive content from MTV’s “The American Mall,” which features product placements from Sears. A wide array of campaign partners, including The Walt Disney Company, and Nickelodeon have created “boutiques” on their own site that link to the Arrive Lounge.

Whipple stressed that the campaigns for Kmart and Sears were separate, and were created by two different marketing teams, but said that appealing to teens, rather than parents, was a driving force behind each.

“A lot of the time teens are doing their own back-to-school shopping now, and if not they are deciding” where their parents will bring them,” said Whipple. “They have more of a purchase-decision-making capability now, and we have more to offer them [in both stores]. That’s what ties the two programs together.”

Another perennial back-to-school marketer, OfficeMax, this month began quietly rolling out its campaign for 2008. The office supply store has uploaded to YouTube a series of videos that show what happens when one tries to pay for big-ticket items — from a steak dinner to a carriage ride in Central Park — in pennies.

The videos are merely the first part of an extensive campaign called “Power to the Penny,” which is meant to drive home the message that pennies go further at OfficeMax. The centerpiece of the campaign is, where students can generate lists for school supplies by grade and get back-to-school planning ideas. In a nod to parents, the site also has a “graffiti wall” where parents can trade tips.

The campaign will culminate with an event August 5 at Minnesota’s Mall of America in which OfficeMax will unveil a massive tray of pennies — $2 million worth — that children can use to perform their back-to-school shopping.

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