Commentary

How Brands Can Honor Grads

With nearly half the country at least partially vaccinated for COVID-19, and more than a third fully inoculated, the rites of spring and summer are beginning to resume: proms, weddings, vacations and graduations; holidays honoring Mom, Dad, our fallen service members, national independence, and the labor movement. There there are picnics, concerts, movies, beach trips, and the simple pleasure of dining indoors.

As social gatherings resume and life continues on, we remember the pandemic’s nearly 600K confirmed fatalities; the millions left behind, mourning their loved ones; the nearly 10 million who remain unemployed; and those continuing to suffer from a virulent virus and its pernicious aftereffects. However, another group deserves recognition and consideration: the millions of Americans whose high school or college graduation has been disrupted.

The Class of 2020 missed all its major milestones: no prom, spring break, in-person graduation, Grad Night, award ceremony, Senior Reflections, or post-graduation travel. For the Class of 2021, some of these activities are beginning to resume, but slowly and inconsistently. The Wall Street Journal recently surveyed 50 colleges, and found that all held virtual graduation ceremonies last year, while just a third plan to resume in-person ceremonies this year.

As a result, recent grads remain in limbo. After three and a half years of hard work, the Class of 2020 abruptly returned home two months before graduation. Overnight, the economy cratered, taking with it a generation’s internships and careers. Now, they’re seeing the next class graduate into a world returning to normal, complete with vaccines, unprecedented government stimulus, a reopening economy, an acute labor shortage in so many sectors, in-person ceremonies and celebrations, and widespread resumption of air travel. As a result, some 2020 alums feel cheated, further deepening Gen Z’s mental health crisis.

How can brands honor these grads and help them recoup a portion of their lost year?

*Sponsor makegood trips. Now that the travel sector is reopening, with airlines and hotels looking to fill seats and beds, brands should encourage grads (and their families and friends) to make up last year’s cancelled trips. Those with a Class of 2020 diploma (and any others in their party) should enjoy a 20% discount so that they can finally go back to campus to walk in a ceremony; take the spring break or “gap year” journey of their dreams; or go visit Grandma and Grandpa and give them a big hug.

*Throw belated parties. Food, beverage and CPG brands should sponsor campaigns to “throw your new grad the party they deserve,” safely but splendidly. These campaigns can provide best practices for entertaining in a post-COVID world, while still toasting the grad with, say, Coca-Cola beverages, Frito-Lay snacks and Dreyer’s ice cream, served on Dixie plates with Bounty napkins. Few have hosted parties in the last 14 months, so these celebrations for the Classes of 2020 and 2021 could be a great way to ease back into socializing.

*Mark other milestones. Because the last two classes have missed out on so much, brands should make their next life events a little easier to achieve. A whole generation now struggles to obtain their first car, apartment, work wardrobe, etc. And, of course, birth rates have plunged, demonstrating all the new challenges of starting a family in the age of COVID. Brands should speak to this “lost generation” with empathy, extend discounts whenever possible, provide them with constructive advice and life lessons -- and streamline their customer journey to make it digital, mobile and virtual.

Millions will be graduating into a post-COVID world this spring. The brands that help walk them down the aisle will gain fans and followers for life.
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