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Can marketers turn "Back to School" into the next big Cyber Monday?

by John Wheeler
    UNiDAYS x AdAge: Gen Z Marketing Playbook

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    If you ask most people in the US what the biggest shopping day of the year is, they'll likely tell you Cyber Monday.

    But as little as 15 years ago, Cyber Monday didn’t even exist. In fact, the only reason Cyber Monday exists at all is because of a PR Newswire release dated November 21, 2005. For better or worse, the opening paragraph to that press release is now a legendary piece of Americana:

    “While traditional retailers will be monitoring store traffic and sales on Black Friday (the day after Thanksgiving), online retailers have set their sights on something different: Cyber Monday, the Monday after Thanksgiving, which is quickly becoming one of the biggest online shopping days of the year.”

    What a difference a decade of internet exposure can make. By 2013, comScore was reporting how Cyber Monday had grown into the largest shark-shopping frenzy of the year, raking in over one billion dollars in just 24 hours… a lot more money than Black Friday.

    Today, that trend continues. A recent study shows how Gen Zers are willing to drop twice as much money on Cyber Monday as their Baby Boomer friends and neighbors.

    This begs the question: Can the same be done for back to school shopping? Can marketers create a student-specific holiday that will attract Gen Z’s lasting attention (and wallets), year after year.

    The answer is yes they can. So what’s stopping them?

    Marketing is powerful enough to create global shopping holidays.

    Is “Cyber Monday” simply the case of a press release by the National Retail Federation that somehow “got lucky” and went “viral”? Nope.

    Cyber Monday became Cyber Monday through the combined marketing efforts of hundreds of thousands — maybe even millions — of brands, agencies and publishers working together to deliver a shopping experience that took all the ingredients of a successful marketing campaign (e.g. value, convenience and fun) and gave it enough juice to become a global holiday.

    Nowadays, calendars regularly mark “Cyber Monday” right up there alongside Christmas. And Black Friday and Cyber Monday form the long tail of one of the largest (and most enduring) cultural holidays in the United States, Thanksgiving. Even the travel aspect of Thanksgiving is such big business that there is now a “Red Wednesday”, the day prior to Thanksgiving, hailed as the most-frequently traveled day of the year in North America. (Incidentally, “Red Wednesday” is also a newly minted marketing term, c. 2010, from the J. Peterman Company of Lexington, KY).

    Want to score big with Gen Z shoppers? Turn a relevant cultural moment  into a shopping holiday.

    How? Here’s how: Turn an ongoing cultural phenomenon into an annual shopping event — and watch profits soar. Remember, even when Cyber Monday didn’t have a an official title, it was still the 12th-most profitable day for the online sales year.

    Since Gen Zers respond best to advertising that combines great content/entertainment value with great savings, it’s easy to see why certain cultural events seem readymade for Gen Z-related brands. If brands were to pool their resources and energies and deliver an advertising experience on a platform built to catch the eye of the world’s most powerful group of consumers, that would be a pretty good thing.

    The only question is… What would the ideal cultural event for Gen Z college students be?

    The “Back to College” season comes readily to mind. After all, Back to College is already a “cultural event” on marketing calendars...Why not officialize it and get it placed on regular calendars, too?

    According to the National Retail Federation, the 2018 “back to school” season is already set to command $55 billion in spending from Gen Z consumers and their parents — an average of $250 more than K-12 shoppers (and their parents).

    The table stakes are already huge. Why not raise them? Why not turn “Back to School” into an official event that celebrates Gen Z students’ futures — and subsequently attracts their spending?

    Think it couldn’t happen? It happened with Cyber Monday. And Cyber Monday’s not the only recent case where a marketing initiative turned into an annual, self-sustaining festival.

    If Dubai can do it, so can you.

    Gen Z marketers can take a page from an unlikely playbook: the Emirati city-state of Dubai. Few ad agencies in the 21st century have practiced the art of Instagrammable, content-meets-value-based advertising better.

    In 1996, Sheikh Mohammed bin al-Rashid inaugurated the “Dubai Shopping Festival”, a month-long celebration at the beginning of each calendar year with the stated goal (in the festival’s own words) “[of promoting] Dubai as the ultimate global shopping and tourist destination by creating world class events and retail promotions, and to set the benchmark for events and festivals around the world.”


    Few would have believed that a tiny city-state at the edge of the desert would forge a name for itself in such a short span of time… all through the power of shopping. But that’s exactly what Dubai did, and keeps doing.


    The Dubai Shopping Festival’s strange juxtaposition of major shopping giveaways (“The Infiniti Mega Raffle”) alongside events that carry high cultural cachet (the Welsh National Orchestra playing Zabeel Park) isn’t so strange when you consider that the Festival isn’t just tasked with creating new opportunities for tourist spending, but also developing “cultural content” able to attract the curiosity of consumers throughout the world.

    Dubai has since capitalized on the success of its festival, going on to build entire city neighborhoods for the sheer sake of building its brand (the world’s tallest skyscraper! The world’s largest and second-largest shopping malls! The world’s only seven-star luxury hotel! An indoor ski lodge at the edge of the desert! An archipelago of man-made islands shaped like the world that you can actually see from outer space!)

    #Hashtag #Hashtag #Hashtag #OMG

    Whatever else it might be, Dubai is an Instagrammable moment playing out in real time. No wonder it’s also becoming a favorite vacation spot for Gen Z travelers, who see it as appealing to their desire for unique experiences — and value shopping.

    In conclusion… With Gen Z, aim for epic.

    One can easily argue the most successful marketing tactic throughout history is creating (or popularizing) holidays and festivals. Can such a global shopping holiday be created around students? It can be done.

    History has already proven the point.

      UNiDAYS x AdAge: Gen Z Marketing Playbook

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