Back To School, Back To Reality (Part I Of III)

With the advent of August, the annual migration of teens from "the real world" to the school world has begun. They return this year to headlines that have become all too familiar -- slashed budgets, program cuts, unrest in the teacher ranks. There are also some other headlines -- the teacher standardized cheating scandal in Georgia and Missouri's ban on teacher-student friendships on Facebook -- that have many at a loss for words. Indeed, "the real world" has encroached on the school world to such a degree that it's largely a distinction without a difference.

For marketers, the new, back-to-school realities present myriad challenges. In this three-part series, I'll explore a few of them in depth as well as the opportunities they may present to marketers seeking to reconnect with teens this fall.

Reality #1: Schools Face Hard Economic Choices
As school funding is cut at the federal and state levels to balance budgets, once "free" activities now come with a price tag or are being cut altogether. Arts, music, and physical education instruction are often the first on the chopping block, and things have gotten so dire in some communities that "pay to play" charges are being attached to once untouchable sports programs.



While marketers can't fix these problems, they can certainly find opportunities to align their interests with cash-strapped schools. Acclaimed documentary filmmaker Morgan Spurlock captured some of the challenges of in-school marketing in his latest documentary, "POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Story Ever Sold." It's a must-see for any marketer as there is a fine line to walk when pushing the in-school marketing envelope. Go too far, and you'll not only anger educators but you may also turn off savvy teens. Transparency of intent -- both to help the school and promote your product -- would seem to be the best course of action.

Another way marketers can positively impact the classroom while reaching teens is through more traditional cause-marketing efforts. VH1's Save the Music Foundation is a classic example that has provided over $47 million in new musical instruments to public schools in over 100 cities since 1997. Noteworthy brand partners include JetBlue, Energizer and Starburst -- each of which receives positive brand exposure to both students and parents, thanks to their sponsorship.

If large-scale, education-related cause-marketing is beyond your brand's reach, not to fear -- has thousands of options for you. The brainchild of former teacher Charles Best, DonorsChoose allows teachers from across the U.S. to post specific, classroom donation requests that individual or corporate donors can fulfill. Requests range from pencils to books, instruments to microscopes, and everything in-between.

Some brands such as Chase, Chevron, and HP support with donations of $1 million or more. Others, such as The Gap, offer to match donations -- dollar for dollar -- on certain projects. However, the brilliance of DonorsChoose is that companies of any size can identify and fulfill needs in the communities they serve -- often for just a few hundred dollars per project. The site's project search feature also allows marketers to strictly target projects that will positively impact the educational experience of teens. As a result, you can be certain that your contributions will align with your brand mission.

The economic challenges facing schools are profound, and they negatively impact the lives of teenagers who are at risk of being denied the educational opportunities their parents received. While marketers cannot solve the problem single-handedly, there are myriad ways we can contribute positively to the lives of back-to-school teens. School sponsorships, cause-marketing investments, and highly targeted contributions through strike a balance between educational needs and marketing objectives that parents, teachers, and even teens themselves can fully support.

Be sure to check back in next month when we'll take a look at how the reality of smartphones is changing the back-to-school experience for teens and marketers alike.

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