Learning Curve

School for most may only be nine months long, but identifying and developing successful promotions for K-12 school clients is a year-round challenge. Even when class isn’t in session, students, parents and educators are still engaging in school-related activities such as sports, fundraising and classroom planning. This long-term involvement means promotions for K-12 target audiences must be as effective and memorable off campus as they are on school grounds.

Melanie Peyton, owner of distributor Diesel Promotional Products LLC (PPAI 616379) in Tucson, Arizona, says breaking into the K-12 market can be tricky, so building relationships with school leadership and involved parents—or even being an involved parent at your own child’s school—can help you get a foot in the door and gain valuable experience. “That’s actually how we got started, and that school is still our biggest school client,” says Peyton. 

Though her children’s school was already served by another distributor, Peyton says the products lacked creativity. “I realized a need for cool spirit wear,” she says. “One of our strengths is ‘cool’ design creation.”

Peyton says she started slowly, making sample t-shirts and gifting them to individuals in different school departments. “Then, I got a break. I volunteered to serve on the committee that plans the school’s annual fundraiser—an enormous event that attracts over 500 attendees and raises around $250,000 each year. So I positioned myself in a place to help with the marketing.”

The marketing campaign she created brought in an extra $50,000 that year, and the school received so many compliments that the school began to take note. After that, she helped establish an online spiritwear store and has since served other departments’ marketing needs. 

“With the experience I’ve gained with this one school, we’ve been able to move forward with confidence in the school market,” she says.

Peyton explains that many schools often face the same basic problems. “There is not usually one single person at the school whose job it is to promote school spirit through internal spiritwear sales and to stay informed about the school’s branding and individual department apparel needs,” she says.

Time constraints are also a challenge. Peyton says school officials often have no time to take extended meetings, so distributors should be ready with samples and case studies of past projects when they meet with school clients. “Be clear in how you communicate, send quotes in a timely manner and follow up,” Peyton adds.


Market Snapshot

In 2017, an estimated 51 million students attended public elementary and secondary schools in the U.S. Nearly four million high school seniors are expected to graduate this year. In 2015, 69.2 percent of graduating seniors entered college the next fall.


It’s Tradition

High schools in the U.S. boast dozens of traditions, many unique to individual states and campuses. Check out some of these time-honored activities, many of which have lasted several generations.

Senior Skip Day
Whether a sanctioned or “unofficial” event, seniors at high schools across the country take a day off to engage in some good old-fashioned hooky.

Torch Run
Members of the cross-country team at Fremont High School in Utah start at their rival high school and run a 17-mile relay back to their home stadium, often covered in blue paint (their high school’s primary color).

Senior Pranks
Ranging from silly and simple to expertly planned and executed, senior pranks have been a hallmark of high school life. Entertainment site BuzzFeed’s list of epic pranks includes letting pigs loose inside a school, placing a car on the roof of another school, putting a school up for sale on Craigslist and hiring a mariachi band to follow a school principal around.

Speedo Dash
In California, the Cupertino High School water polo team makes a mad dash across the football field just after the Homecoming king and queen are crowned—wearing only their Speedo swimsuits.

Homecoming Mums
The flower-ribbon combinations that are ubiquitous throughout Texas have grown in size and sparkle over decades. Early versions simply featured fresh chrysanthemum heads pinned to ladies’ shirts. Now, homecoming mums run the gamut from simple silk flowers adorning stretchy headbands and beribboned arm garters for the gentlemen to weighty, multi-flower, multi-ribbon, light-up masterpieces on sashes. 


Promotional Possibilities

We asked industry pros to name their best ideas for successful K-12 school promotions. Here’s what they said:

“Many schools require children to bring their own water bottles. Bottles like these [from ADG Promo] may be personalized with student names or even have student pictures or class photos or all of the above. For booster clubs, they could be individualized with a student’s  name, or a photo of the school or school mascot.”
- MARK SHINN, MAS, President, Incentives West, PPAI 224617

“Think beyond apples for teachers. Be creative about how they can use things for fundraising. Think inexpensive for the most part. Contact the school about a month before their budget is going to expire.”
- DANIELLE LUM, Promotional Products Stategist, American Solutions For Business, PPAI 101656

“Custom ornaments can be used as appreciation gifts, to show school pride and for fundraising. Changing the designs yearly creates a sense of tradition and ensures annual repeat business.”
- SUE KINCH, Owner, Tangico Promotions, PPAI 651709

“In addition to hoodies, hats, t-shirts and water bottles, here in California, earthquake kits are popular. They can be sold as emergency kits in other parts of the country. You can donate free spec samples to schools for their auctions, or as raffle prizes.”
- DANA GLASSBURN-THAME, Owner, Amp’d Promotions- A Geiger Partner, PPAI 105182


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Jen Alexander is associate editor of PPB.