American Eagle channels TikTok culture for virtually produced back-to-school campaign

Dive Brief:

  • American Eagle Outfitters is rolling out a back-to-school campaign that was directed, shot and produced through digital communications app Zoom, according to a news release. The effort emulates the production style of TikTok videos and features a mix of phone photography, Polaroid and camera film capture.
  • The seasonal marketing push was spearheaded by a team of non-professional kids as part of the apparel brand’s ongoing #AExME platform that emphasizes authenticity and real people. The creative concept was inspired by TikTok’s destination as a platform for music and dance-related content and its relevance to American Eagle’s young target audience, the release said.
  • American Eagle enlisted Addison Rae, the second most popular TikTok creator, to round out a diverse cast that touches across different disciplines of dance, including ballet, jazz, hip-hop, tap and contemporary. Their performances are captured in a 60-second spot that is set to the song “Boa Noite” by Tropkillaz. The ad mirrors the shooting style of user-generated TikTok videos.

Dive Insight:

American Eagle’s back-to-school campaign takes advantage of several trends that have emerged as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, which has disrupted both brick-and-mortar operations and school reopening plans, imperiling a critical sales period for retail marketers. The ads spotlight new apparel offerings from American Eagle, including Dream fit denim for women and a line of clothing drawing on nostalgia for the ’90s and ’70s.

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While the latest #AExME effort arrives during a rocky start to the back-to-school period, it could appeal to American Eagle’s core customer base. The brand handed over the keys to a team of non-professional teens and popular content creators, who both shot and star in the TikTok-inspired ads. Behind the scenes, American Eagle leveraged remote communications tools to give its cast instructions, including by partnering with artist Allie Smith on hair and makeup tutorials and using its U.S. creative team to share live edits with #AExME partners.

Zoom factored heavily into American Eagle’s production pipeline, reflecting marketers’ growing reliance on video communications apps to keep up creative output while studios remain shuttered. But the real star of the campaign is TikTok, which continues to influence youth-focused marketing despite facing a shaky future in the U.S. as government officials threaten to ban the app, citing privacy concerns stemming from its parent company’s connections to China.

Still, it’s easy to see why retail marketers keep returning to TikTok. American Eagle generated almost 2 billion impressions from a TikTok campaign for its Aerie brand earlier this year — a viral bit of social media marketing that helped bolster digital sales at a time when store foot traffic was decimated.

Key competitors are enacting a similar strategy to American Eagle as the pandemic puts the brakes on regular marketing plans. Hollister, another brand targeted at Gen Z, last week launched a back-to-school marketing campaign that is centered on TikTok and stars its most popular creator, Charli D’Amelio, who commands over 71 million followers on the ByteDance-owned app. Rae, who leads the American Eagle campaign, has 50 million followers.

American Eagle’s campaign also steps beyond TikTok to try and replicate the look and feel of the app’s content in video ads. Other marketers have tried to translate the app’s bubbly appeal to more traditional channels, such as Taco Bell, which shot a TV campaign in TikTok’s distinct vertical video format before the novel coronavirus took hold in the U.S.

Like Hollister, American Eagle is checking a lot of boxes for what’s resonating with its target audience, but it remains to be seen whether such campaigns will connect amid a lack of clarity over how schools will open and whether they will be safe for teachers and students to attend. Back-to-school advertising so far in July is down almost 50% versus the year-ago period, as families remain unsure of whether their kids will return to in-person classes in the fall, according to a recent Numerator study.

“Although back to school may look different this year, we know that our customers will continue to express themselves through music and dance and that social media will remain the #1 one way they interact,” Chad Kessler, American Eagle global brand president, said in a press statement. “Technology, innovation and social media offer AE an opportunity to connect our community with each other, and our brand, even if we aren’t physically together.”

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