DTC, Back-to-School Brands Are Propelling Comeback of Outdoor Ads

Nothing says brand legitimacy like a bold billboard as people return to the streets and parents prepare kids for the return of in-person classes

Now that consumers are congregating on the streets of major cities again, a resurgence of out of home ads appears to be following along. And direct-to-consumer marketers are particularly aiming to be out in front.

As an ad channel, OOH has always appealed to digitally native DTC companies as an immediate way to generate brand awareness. And since billboards literally loom larger-than-life over city landscapes, highways and public transportation platforms, they allow brands to make a similarly over-size impact using smaller budgets.

The OOH space took a hit during the pandemic, but currently brands are activating public spaces again with campaigns in weekend/vacation destinations. After a year when the public remained indoors and socially distant, nimble DTC brands are poised to jump in quickly, according to Brian Rappaport, CEO of OOH agency Quan.

“It has been fast and furious since early February, to be honest,” said Rappaport, whose agency represents such DTC brands as Away, Banza, Ro, Fresh Direct and United Sodas among others.

“As soon as vaccines started rolling out, brands realized that people were already planning their own ‘return to normal.’ Cities slowly started to reopen, and DTC brands wanted to ensure they were seen and in front of their target audience as people started getting out and about again. As April rolled in, it was full steam ahead, as prime placements were already being snapped up for the summer months.”

By mid-May, it was virtually impossible to find a prime wall space in New York’s SoHo from July through September, Rappaport said. The rapid grab for placements in SoHo was indicative of the entire OOH landscape: there is limited availability now on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles and River North in Chicago.

“Buying OOH earlier this year was like investing early in a hot stock,” Rappaport said. “You just didn’t want to miss it—and now if you’ve waited… well, you just have to wait longer.”

The DPAA, the trade group promoting digital OOH advertising and media, confirmed Rappaport’s view that most of the aggressive growth is in the DTC, as well as tech, entertainment, social and shopping space.

“Streaming brands like Hulu, Paramount+, Amazon, HBO and others have found our bright, high quality digital screens to be terrific messengers for video products,” Barry Frey, president and CEO of the DPAA, told Adweek. “Facebook, Zoom, Amazon and Uber continue to increase spend due to programmatic and other new digital data features and services. Food delivery and other essential services have also stepped up their DOOH.”

OOH’s Comeback: Back-to-School

Along with DTC, Rappaport reported that retail is racing back to OOH. Within that category, back-to-school spending is already gathering momentum in the outdoor ads segment. Parents are preparing their kids for the return of in-person learning, and that is a signal across the country of “a return to normalcy,” a report from the Out of Home Advertising Association of America (OAAA) said.

And as with so many other marketing categories where spending was largely dormant last year, pent-up demand in retail is expected to show itself in major way this summer, Rappaport said.

About 53% of Americans say OOH advertising is playing a role in restoring their confidence as they prepare for the next school year, according to OAAA. A closer look into demographics shows even higher numbers among 25-34-year-olds (59%) and middle income earners ($50-$100K).

The OAAA stats, based on an online poll of 1,000 consumers conducted by OnDevice Research between April and May, offer a glimpse of how this transitional period of the pandemic is impacting back-to-school shopping plans, and what influence advertisements will have.

Three out of five consumers say that they will be looking to OOH ads to inform their back-to-school buying decisions with news of sales and discounts. That number climbs to three out of four among those 25-34 years old.

The survey also suggests that people plan to spend in preparation for the coming school year, with 67% of respondents saying they will be spending more this year than last.

Digital is part of the OOH resurgence

It also seems clear that the way OOH reaches consumers will have an impact, particularly as digital OOH becomes more prominent. The OAAA’s recent measurement revision, which involvedshifting from estimating exposures to counting impressions, was designed to spur greater spending by putting the oldest form of mass advertising on a par with digital media buying standards.

“During the past 15 months, our global industry has demonstrated tremendous resilience, re-invention and now… strong revitalization,” said Frey. This is due to a variety of factors, yet we can largely point to the industry’s digitization as the primary growth driver.”

You can’t turn it off

OOH’s shift to digital is also what is attracting DTC, as well as other categories, to the medium, Rappaport said.

“You see Fintech really leading the charge [to OOH],” he said. “Between the rising popularity of cryptocurrencies, and of course a strong interest in the stock market/investing, you’re seeing brands like fintech challenger Current running strong OOH brand campaigns.”

Lastly, the beverage category is “blowing up,” Rappaport said. “The country’s reemergence coincides with spring and summer, which people associate with being outside and getting together with friends. You see brands like JuneShine, Recess, Vide, Sunwink all running OOH campaigns. It’s the perfect time to introduce a new brand to an audience clamoring to do something fun [and] different, and change it up after a year of stagnation.”

Brand legitimacy is what attracts DTC and other brands to OOH “first and foremost,” Rappaport said.

“So many brands have essentially introduced themselves to consumers via OOH,” he said. “[DTC bedding brand] Casper essentially set the trend by dominating the NYC subway and so many others have followed that. Reaching an uninterrupted audience is such a draw. You can’t block OOH, you can’t turn it off. You run the right creative, you’re going to grab attention—and then on top of that, there’s the potential for your OOH ad to live a second life on social.”


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