Head of the Class — Back-to-School Marketing Language Trends

Share this:

Very few seasons connote change the way the back-to-school season does. Even for those of us who are no longer in school, the shorter days and cooler mornings mean that a new school year (and, by default, autumn, if you live somewhere lucky enough to experience it) is soon upon us. And every time summer comes to a close, there seem to be different back-to-school products that students want (trendy clothes or sneakers, the newest pencil case style) or need (hello, graphing calculator).

Brands should not be relying on the same marketing language for every single back-to-school season. Not only do the products change each year, but the customers—students and parents—do as well, and marketing language should follow suit, whether that’s in email subject lines, text messages or even the shopping cart and checkout pages. Brands: from back-to-school season to the holiday shopping crunch, show up for your customers with language that anticipates their needs and emotional drivers this time around. Doing so will pay off with greater engagement and conversions.

In my role at Persado, the impact of emotion on the customer experience is integral to pretty much everything we do. The Persado Motivation AI platform is a specialized class of generative AI technology, trained on a knowledge base of over 100 billion customer interactions annually. Retailers like Gap, Old Navy and Kate Spade use Motivation AI to personalize customer experiences by generating optimal language elements — such as emotion, descriptive language, functional language, formatting, and narratives — that resonate best with their customers and motivate action.

To ensure the Motivation AI platform is delivering on-brand, relevant and high-performing results to our customers, my team and I regularly train, test and analyze the AI. In the process, we often identify trends over time—certain words or phrases performing better than others within a given season or customer segment—which tell us quite a bit about consumers.

We analyzed over 250 million back-to-school messages from brands in 2022 and 2023 to determine what’s landing well with back-to-school shoppers — and which messages are receiving a failing grade. Here are some of our key takeaways:

Customers want a fresh start

This back-to-school season, we found the best-performing language was associated with fascination, newness or Some examples of this type of language would be “Nothing like a new fit” or “For your back to school moodboard”. We’ve all been there: the beginning of a new school year does feel like a fresh start, so it’s no surprise language that leans into that feeling performs well.

Details, details

With many retailers selling similar products for back to school—from supplies to outfits—it’s important to be as descriptive as possible with campaign language to set your brand apart from the competition. Being specific with your offers (“You’re getting 40% off back-to-school essentials”) performs much better than vague offer messaging (“Back-to-school fits for less”).

Back-to-school shopping is stressful enough – marketing language should be stress-free

Customers respond well to back-to-school language that guides them through the process, reassures them that the brand has the items they need, and confirms they can get those items quickly. This language is associated with emotions like safety and personal narratives like proactivity. Examples of reassuring language in our analysis include: “You’re covered with…” or “Perfect timing!” On the other hand, superlative language associated with urgency almost never performs well for back-to-school campaigns — likely because it’s adding to the stress of ticking off that back-to-school shopping list. An example of this would be: “Time is running out!”

Learnings for marketers

Back-to-school shopping can be hectic, so above all, it’s important your campaign language is reassuring, optimistic and descriptive to cut through the chaos. As the first few weeks of school tick by, retailers may be tempted to amp up the urgency (especially if they ordered too many pencil cases this year), but resist that urge: desperate, urgent language will turn customers away.

Generative AI can be a valuable partner to marketing teams, from back-to-school to graduation season and back again, as a specialized version is capable of identifying and leaning into the emotions and personal narratives that resonate best with customers throughout the year.  While some elements of back to school are timeless (looking at you Ticonderoga #2 pencils), your customers have changing needs season to season. Once your campaign and cart language reflects these changing needs and sentiments, you’re on track for a gold star.

Sheena Vira is Manager of Content Intelligence at Persado, an AI-powered language platform.