Higher Ed Marketers for Black Lives Matter: A Two-Part Panel Discussion

Posted: June 30, 2020


Read time: 9 minutes

The Black Lives Matter movement is redefining how we think and act as a society. Higher education is no exception. 

As the bastion for the free and unfettered pursuit of greater understanding and the growth of human potential, higher education ought to be one of the central arenas for conversation that can influence real change. 

However, speaking out against racial injustice brings forth its own set of risks and challenges. Some institutions may be afraid of alienating their audiences. Others may be unsure how to navigate internal divisions across their campus communities. And yet, others that have spoken out and shown solidarity have been met with mixed reactions that could be perceived as rattling the safety of their brands. 

Still, our conviction at VisionPoint is that this is a time for action. 

What follows isn’t a “Top Five Tips” article on how to game-plan your way through this marketing challenge, or any other such reductive (and, frankly, tone deaf) sort of advice column.    

Rather, what follows is some honest, open-eyed and thoughtful reflection from some of our smartest minds and most passionate proponents of higher education. These are our (evolving, growing) thoughts regarding how institutions of higher learning can help be leaders in this moment – agents of positive change. 

Each of the following voices hail from different socio-political backgrounds and professional experiences, and each have responded with a spirit of humility and a recognition of the gravity of the moment.  

Question #1

Generation Z and millennial consumers have put increasing pressure on the brands they support to speak out on the Black Lives Matter crisis. Given that relevant topics like achievement equity and on-campus diversity have been in focus for higher education for decades, what can higher education institutions do from a brand messaging standpoint to break the silence and contribute to the BLM conversation in ways that authentically reinforce their brand values and institutional culture? 

Jasmine Matthews, Marketing Strategist

“The key word is authenticity. Simply put, practice what you preach. With the pressure to put out statements and join the conversation, a lot of brands have missed the mark because of the lack of alignment with their message and action. I encourage organizations to not rush to put out statements to occupy space within the moment, but to take the time to carefully reflect on the ways in which they are currently supporting diverse cultures and where they may need to commit to making improvements.”

Holly Simons, VP of Integrated Strategy

“This month at University of Oregon, activists toppled iconic statues of west-going pioneers from their bases. One, the rumored model for The Simpson’s Jedidiah Springfield statue and captured in National Lampoon’s 1978 campus cult movie Animal House, was laid on the doorstep of the university’s administration building. This act – the forcible removal of symbols that celebrate western expansion and laud the pillagers of indigenous peoples’ lives and land – was a gift to people in power. Higher education leaders, most of whom are white, need to consider Black Lives Matter a gift at their own doorsteps – a reckoning that, if deeply considered, can educate the educators and transform the transformers.

We will have a drumbeat of authentic messages that show, rather than tell, that we are living the educational values we profess to hold.

Higher education’s brand expressions are made not on what we say momentarily, but on the actions we take consistently. Our day-to-day focus is often on the words, impressions and ROI with which we trade. If we shift focus to invest in direct campus action now – because Black Lives Matter – our brands will be stronger. We will have a drumbeat of authentic messages that show, rather than tell, that we are living the educational values we profess to hold.”

Katy Campbell, Associate Director of Account Leadership

“The power of the consumer is being fully realized by this new generation of advocates. Where their dollars go is important, including one of their biggest purchases: their college savings/debt.

Higher Ed institutions can be part of this conversation in a productive way if, to Jasmine’s point, they are authentic. Do not post a black square on your organic channels and then go back to normal. This movement is designed to disrupt normal.

Do not post a black square on your organic channels and then go back to normal.

A big part of the change is education itself – learn about the black experience, the inequalities, the challenges, the successes. How can institutions help educate their followers, their students and their constituents? Start by sharing stories from students of colors. Call out opportunities the institution uses to help social mobility and opportunity. Highlight Black faculty. For example, NC State’s Dr. Nacoste – who was a life-changing professor for me – is actively posting teachings from his Social Psychology and Race course/book and the University is reposting/hosting them on their channels (with a much larger reach). 

Real, genuine and consistent support is key. For example, California Community Colleges response included walking their talk and paying $25,000/year to participate in the alliance.”

Dana Cruikshank, Director of Strategic Partnerships

“Some higher education brands are walking a tightrope right now when it comes to different generations. For the most part, younger generations are demanding change and wanting it now.

At the same time, many older alumni are either less passionate or downright skeptical of the BLM movement. In this regard, some institutions may feel like they’re being asked to take a side in yet another ‘culture war’ issue, and are therefore not wanting to wade in at all; or to just do the minimum required, hoping the issue will blow over.

Higher education institutions need to do what they’ve always done – embrace their role in laying down the intellectual and educational foundations of what comes next for society.

It’s not going away. And higher education institutions need to recognize that and do what they’ve always done – embrace their role in laying down the intellectual and educational foundations of what comes next for society. This is different than activism, and it needs to be rooted in each institution’s core values. It also takes time, which can be tricky when inside and outside voices are demanding immediate changes. Higher ed brands need to be communicating and showing what they are doing to affect real change.”

Matt Walters, VP of Client Services

“I’m sure I’ll be echoing some of my colleagues, but I think this is a time to think more about what brands are doing than what they’re saying. It’s unfortunate, in a way, that given how quickly conversations escalate on social channels, a lack of comment is absolutely read as a sort of statement in and of itself. For institutions who are hesitant to wade into waters that I understand are uncomfortable, I’d simply encourage them to remember that affirming, in no uncertain terms, that Black lives (and their Black students) do matter isn’t so much a “statement” as, I would argue, a moral imperative. After all, taken at face, how can anyone argue “against” that stated conviction in a way that’s intellectually honest without in some way advancing a racist argument? 

Black lives matter isn’t so much a “statement” as, I would argue, a moral imperative.

Beyond that clear assertion, I think each institution has to spend time and energy really thinking about what it wants to do about all this. Let that decision drive what you want to say about all this. In terms of the positions I’ve seen institutions taking, I’ve appreciated those that have been clear and unequivocal in their denouncing racism and dehumanizing violence (both physical and rhetorical), honest and introspective about the complicated nature of decades-long, and sometimes centuries-long, institutional histories and legacies, and firm in their convictions about the future. 

Beyond the message, though, I really think this is more a moment to focus on action. A brand promise, after all, is only good if the spoken promises come true. What can institutions promise their students, alumni families and greater communities will be the characteristics of their institutional cultures moving forward. And what actions can be taken as a deposit on that promise?”  

Question #2

Brands from every sector imaginable – including Starbucks, Nike and Taco Bell – have been criticized for setting a precedent of sanitized responses that either reveal the true colors of their complicity or pay lip-service to the cause without being grounded in meaningful actions that will actually move the needle toward real change. How can higher ed marketers close the gap between surface-level messaging and organizational realities to avoid falling victim to hypocrisy and alienating audiences under the pretense of pseudo allyship?

Dana Cruikshank, Director of Strategic Partnerships

“The way to avoid appearing vapid or to be just going through the motions on this, or any controversial issue, is to be as authentic as possible in ones’ response. And the best way to do that is to say something original and true: true to either the institution’s voice and perspective or the perspective of the leader who’s called on to make a statement. Avoid cliches like the plague. This is not the time to borrow phrases from others in society. Similarly, avoid being retrospective on what you’ve done. It’s great that you set up a committee last year to look at building names or that you admitted your most diverse class this year, but such statements make your communications about your institution instead of focusing on the real challenges of the day and those who are most impacted by systemic racism.”

This is not the time to borrow phrases from others in society. 

Holly Simons, VP of Integrated Strategy

“Higher education marketing teams are well-positioned to amplify the Black voices advocating for change on your campuses. Your content for web and organic social media can offer resources for students or faculty dealing with daily experiences of micro- and macro-aggression.

You might work with campus colleagues and launch a campaign to change a building name currently honoring a Klan member. Also, your partnership with campus colleagues can be crucial to gain traction on the changes they’re trying to make. In turn, your work could help enrollment colleagues shape rationale to address access inequities in the enrollment process.”

Your content for web and organic social media can offer resources for students or faculty dealing with daily experiences of micro- and macro-aggression. 

Jasmine Matthews, Marketing Strategist

“The most impactful messages shared during this time have been action-oriented and very specific about current or forthcoming steps, as well as goals associated with diversity and inclusion.

In a recent Red Table Talk discussion, legendary civil rights leader, Angela Davis, said this of University involvement: 

Diversity and Inclusion are okay, but only when paired with justice and when connected to transformation.

Matt Walters, VP of Client Services

“I believe this is an opportunity for faculty – some of our society’s brightest voices – to model difficult discussion, productive debate and reconciliation that comes from a true and authentic pursuit of greater knowledge and understanding. Rather than focusing on “messaging” or marketing-speak, I’d love to see institutions focusing more on substantive “content.” Higher ed has the distinct advantage that our “product” is intellectual exploration, conversation, discussion and the exploration of diverse, and even contrary, ideas.

How can institutions bring those conversations out of the classroom, into the public square and maybe even into “advertising” settings? That’s a challenge and an opportunity that excites me as a marketer.” 

Continuing the Conversation

Be sure to check out next month’s edition of EduInsights as we continue the Black Lives Matter conversation. Until then, leave us a comment to let us know your take on the issue. And feel free to reach out to us to discuss ways we can help your institution connect with your audiences and support Black Lives Matter through branding, creative and messaging approaches that achieve your awareness and engagement goals.

VisionPoint Marketing stands with the Black community in vocal opposition to police brutality and all forms of systemic racism and injustice.