Target Gets an “A” on Back-to-College Direct Mail

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Target Gets an “A” on Back-to-College Direct Mail

Target-Stuff-Page-2-233x300If you’re the parent of a college-bound student, your mailbox is jammed with direct mail from retailers selling everything from computers to sheets to cereal.

How does a retail marketer stand out in such a crowded mailbox?

Here’s how Target scored an “A” on back-to-college direct mail marketing with a dynamite catalog — and some lessons from their approach for your smart marketing strategy.

Taking Aim at a $53.5 Billion Market

The National Retail Federation says college students and their families will spend an average $907.22 this year on everything from dorm furniture and collegiate gear to school supplies and personal care items. Back-to-college total spending is expected to reach $53.5 billion.

Target capitalized on this opportunity with a brilliant, 40-page, back-to-college catalog that shows other marketers how great direct marketing is done. Here’s what Target got right in their direct marketing strategy – and one way they fell short – from my perspective as a marketing consultant, long-time direct marketer, and college student parent with a credit card.

How Target Nailed Back-to-College Direct Marketing

  1. Mail to the right audience. Job 1 for every direct marketer is to get your mailing into the right mailbox. I have a college-aged daughter at The Ohio State University: Bingo.
  2. Create a clever theme. This mailing is all about stuff: Stuff guys needs, stuff girls need, stuff to put stuff in, “moved off campus & hafta cook your own stuff” stuff. Every product category fits brilliantly into types of stuff.
  3. Make it easy for the prospect to shop. The inside front cover has a checklist of products organized by market segment. For first-year students, there’s “stuff for getting started;” for older students, “stuff for apartments.” Scan the QR code on the inside front cover to upload the shopping checklist to your phone.
  4. Be relevant and real.  Everything about this catalog feels right for this market. The visuals, the copy, and the scenarios they create convey the need for their products (“stuff for when you’re (actually) studying at 3 a.m.”). The promotion rings true to the audience.
  5. Make a great offer. Target gives prospects multiple incentives to shop, like $5 off a $50 purchase and product coupons, plus opportunities to win scholarships (see #13 below).
  6. Give the prospect a reason to act now. The $5 off coupon expires August 13; product coupons expire September 10.
  7. Use an involvement device. The $5 off coupon is tipped onto the cover and peels off to fit in your wallet.
  8. Repeat the offer again and again. “Win” flags denoting the scholarships are scattered throughout and the website is on every page.
  9. Promote the right products. Coupon are for everyday products sure to be in every college kid’s shopping cart, like Tide, Advil, Axe, Clean & Clear, and SoBe Lifewater.
  10. Use design to showcase products. Page layouts are colorful and engaging but there’s also plenty of white space around products to show them off.
  11. Use call-outs to highlight product features. Handwritten call-outs point out interesting or useful product features.
  12. Be friendly and helpful. Notes in the bottom margins of all pages offer advice (“so what exactly is an extra-long twin bed you ask?”) plus links to helpful websites, like,, and There’s even a link to apply for an internship at Target.
  13. Find a creative way to engage the audience. Unlike traditional scholarships, Target’s scholarships are unique to college life: The “Dorm Gourmand” scholarship, for example, is for “a Magic Bullet blender, microwave and George Foreman grill so you can cook anything, and a year’s supply of cereal because you won’t.”
  14. Integrate social media and mobile marketing. To apply for the scholarships, you have to take a webcam video on Target’s Facebook page and get people to vote for you. The catalog also offers students mobile coupons at
  15. Build your database. Prospects are encouraged to sign up for emails for future offers and become social media followers (“Like us. Follow us. We’ll be your first ‘friend’ at college”).

The One Place Target’s Catalog Falls Short

Target-Cover-237x300I gave Target’s catalog an “A” but not an “A+” for one reason: The branding on the catalog covers is weak.

The bullseye logo is only ½” wide on the cover and it’s set within a complicated “Bullseye University” logo on a pennant; I missed it at first. On the mail panel, the logo is larger and it’s located in a familiar place: Around the eye of the Target mascot. But it’s still a bit hard to tell at a glance that this mailing is from Target.

Other than that, it’s a winner. Hats off to Target for a very smart direct marketing strategy.

Did you get this catalog? What did you think of Target’s approach?

  • offshore bank

    I hope that these tips have helped to dispel the myth that direct mail must always be expensive. In fact, direct mail is actually very cost-effective if done correctly, but it definitely requires some strategizing. Keep these tidbits of information in mind to ensure that your next direct marketing campaign remains low-cost and effective.

    August 13, 2012 at 3:05 am
  • Kathryn Lupoli

    Great commentary. We did not get this catalog but would like to see if you would be willing to share the entire piece in pdf or jpg form. Please advise. Many thanks.

    August 13, 2012 at 4:43 pm
  • Mandy Kilinskis

    Definitely agree with you about Target’s great catalog. I haven’t been in college for a few years, but I still received the catalog. Even though they aren’t specifically targeting me, I definitely recognize the clever copy and haven’t forgotten those 3 am study sessions. Then again, as I’m looking to get my own place, I am going to need most of the items highlighted in the catalog. So well played, Target.

    August 16, 2012 at 2:31 pm
  • search engine marketing

    One thing to keep in mind as you plan and execute your marketing strategy during back-to-school season is that this so-called group of “families with school-age children” actually covers a wildly diverse and varied range of people with all kinds of socioeconomic backgrounds, attitudes, lifestyles, budgets and shopping behaviors. This means that it is extremely important to segment your marketing campaigns accordingly. Don’t assume that everyone will respond to the same marketing message, or that they have the same resources to work with. They don’t, and failing to target within this larger umbrella category could hinder your marketing efforts.

    August 22, 2012 at 10:24 pm
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