In 2020, due to the spark ignited by the senseless slayings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, we saw global movement towards causes focusing on Black America. One of the main staples in that call-to-action: more support for Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). Madison Avenue paid attention and seized the opportunity to show their allegiance to the community. At the very least, brands were aware that HBCUs were and have always been one of the pillars of Black culture and that engaging with this target audience could tap into 1.6 trillion dollars of Black spending power.
HBCUs = The Culture
If you’re a current student or graduate of an HBCU, you may be reluctant to embrace the newfound attention that some brands and marketers are showing for the culture. Is it real? Is it genuine? How long will it last?
“HBCUs are one of the pillars of the Black community. From education, athletics, music, entertainment, politics, and philanthropy, HBCUs have served as the catalyst for trends and innovation across mainstream America,” said HBCU graduate and global business marketing professional Will Ayers.
“It’s important that brands invest in HBCUs because their students are the heartbeat and soul of America. Not only are they pushing culture forward every day in real life, they are the future leaders of corporate America,” Ayers continued.
HBCUs have always led the way, from producing Fortune 500 CEOs to Vice Presidents of the United States of America. In 2022, HBCUs led the Nation in Black baccalaureates who later earned Doctoral Degrees, demonstrating their immense impact. And while HBCUs account for just 3 percent of four-year nonprofit colleges, their alumni account for roughly 80 percent of Black judges and 50 percent of Black lawyers and doctors, and their students account for 25 percent of Black undergraduates who earn degrees in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), according to a recent article in The Atlantic.
So, what are the most effective ways for brands to break through barriers and immerse their messaging into the fabric of HBCU culture?
Learning “The Why” Is Integral
Any self-help coach will tell you to learn your “why” in life. For HBCUs, learning “the why” means understanding why it matters so much to Black America. It goes back to 1837, when the first institution of higher education for African Americans was created. For Black America, HBCUs were Wakanda before Wakanda. They were and still are a place where young Black men and women are able to experience the power of being oneself and the luxury of being vulnerable without consequence of prejudice. Everywhere else the sky may be the limit, but back on earth at an HBCU campus, the opportunity to be unapologetically Black is abundant.
Invest — HBCUs Are Not Charity
There are brands who have, for years, developed equity with HBCU culture due to their synergistic campaigns and investment. However, many still miss the mark when it comes to truly connecting with the HBCU culture. If a brand is serious, they will invest or develop a strategy that doesn’t focus on a one-off event (e.g., homecomings).
“HBCUs are the pipeline for major brands and corporations looking for brilliant Black men and women that can add value to their organization,” said Ayers, who works with brands on investing in HBCU programming. “By attending an HBCU, I had access to the brightest scholars from all over the world and it’s imperative that brands make long-term investments in the future leaders of America,” he concluded.
Don’t Put All Your Eggs in Homecoming
Immersing your campaign during homecoming (or even graduation), on the surface, makes sense because an HBCU homecoming is truly an integrated experience of Black Culture at the highest level. However, it’s only one week and a brand risks the chance of getting lost in the sauce of all of the activities taking place. In addition, it can be very cliché. HBCU culture is a 365-day experience and for any partnership to work, a brand must show up for more than just the celebration. Be creative, put in the work and learn what each campus needs and when they need it.
HBCUs Contain Multitudes
Every HBCU campus is as different as the city or town they reside in. From Howard University (Washington D.C.) to Spelman College (Atlanta) to Xavier University (New Orleans), all 101 HBCUs come with a different DNA and history to their campus. Marketers should understand this and be very intentional when determining how, when and why they’ve chosen to market to HBCU culture.
Reach out to My Code to learn more ways your brand can authentically engage with Black consumers.