Throwing SHADE at HBCUs...not that kind of shade 😉

Nicholas Love

There’s never been a cooler time to be an HBCU grad than right now.

Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) stand on business and are at the forefront of challenging the higher education landscape and the educational fabric of the world. Rooted in culture, diversity, equity, and inclusivity, HBCU marketers have a rich opportunity to emerge as global thought leaders within the discipline of marketing– forcing the world to take notice.

As a two-time graduate of Grambling State University, I’ve had an opportunity to see the pendulum swing. Trust me, I’m grateful to my alma mater for giving me a chance and showcasing what a second chance can mean to a student whose high school counselors said I wouldn’t be admitted into a four-year institution. My experience at Grambling nurtured me and opened doors to experiences that shaped my career arc. From NBC Sports to ESPN, to the University of Chicago Booth School of Business and The Ohio State University, there seemingly was always a Grambling connection. I know I’m not the only #GramFam or HBCU graduate who has had this experience, but how often are these stories shared by the brands themselves? 

The Value of Cultural Currency and HBCUs

HBCUs have long been a nurturer and accelerator of black excellence. These historic institutions have often served as cultural hubs, producing iconic moments and birthing trends that resonate far beyond campus walls. As we know, Black culture quickly becomes pop culture. Just as any institution would share a profound piece of research, HBCUs do that AND serve as incubators for cultural movements that shape society. They are vibrant epicenters where artistic expression, musical innovations, fashion statements, and social activism meet, take root, and flourish. From the creation of influential fraternities and sororities, to the birth of entire music genres and entertainment styles, HBCUs have been the catalysts for cultural phenomena that have left an undeniable mark on the world. The saying goes, “Yesterday’s price is not today’s price.” When speaking about HBCUs, be true to the ideology of standing on business as the value of our universities, and graduates get higher and higher.

But how can communicators and marketers at these institutions leverage these differentiators to better position their HBCUs? There’s no shortage of students of color looking for safe, supportive, and innovative spaces to continue their education– knowing higher education provides them with a leg up in their career path. However, the age-old challenge of HBCUs uniquely marketing their brands continues.

For Kulur, it’s easy.

We have an entire framework devoted to capitalizing on how HBCUs can challenge higher education at the intersection of brand experience and omnichannel strategy.

The SHADE Framework: Kulur’s Client Engagement Model

To outline how HBCUs can leverage branding and omnichannel strategy, let's apply Kulur’s SHADE framework:

S - Strategize with Omnichannel Focus

HBCUs have an opportunity to pivot from primarily leveraging multichannel marketing strategies to their target audiences to leveraging an omnichannel approach–, and yes, there is a difference between the two. Multi-channel marketing refers to the ability to interact with audiences through various channels, including social media, mobile, direct mail, print ads, landing pages, and websites. Each channel operates independently from the other marketing channels and abides by its own outlined strategy and goals. Like multi-channel marketing, omnichannel marketing involves interacting with customers via various channels. However, omnichannel marketing focuses on cohesively delivering value across all channels and providing audiences with an integrated experience. So, unlike multi-channel marketing, where each channel operates separately, the omnichannel approach involves integrating all the different channels together to provide a seamless, connected experience. In practice, there’s often a disconnect in messaging from recruiters, campus guides, external marketing activity, and more. The fix is simple: creating a comprehensive omnichannel strategy that accounts for every touchpoint because in the information overload age, consistency is key to driving a clear understanding of the value proposition brands in higher education offer. Gone are the days of the “alleged funnel.” Information is available in so many different areas that access to information isn’t controlled by one source. So, the key to winning is ensuring the same information shows up consistently in reflecting your brand. 

H - Humanize Your Brand

Consistency and authenticity are how you humanize your brand. Whether it’s featuring compelling narratives of students, faculty, staff, and alums, you can showcase their journeys, aspirations, and unique perspectives. This can be done through video, audio, or print, or allowing prospective students to relate and envision themselves as becoming part of their culture-creating community through virtual or augmented reality. HBCUs can begin to foster pride by connecting prospects to the culture before they even set foot on campus. From Drumline to College Hill Celebrity Edition to All-American: Homecoming, we've seen several producers attempt to create the modern-day impact that A Different World had on the culture during the 90s. Each has a core message positioning that elevates black excellence in ways that allow future generations to see possibilities in a different light. While each show or movie featured fictional characters that demonstrated a level of charisma and connectedness, some of the best content creators exist on HBCU campuses these days.It will be critical that Marketing & Communications Directors form relationships with these creators, so they become more of an asset towards influencing and humanizing your brand versus de-influencing and becoming detractors of your brand. As always, your brand image is not what you say, but it’s the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors people have when experiencing your brand. Shared storytelling is a must in 2024 and beyond.  

A - Audience Intelligence

Everything starts with an idea, whether private or not. The fundamental aspect of who we are is based on how we think and are influenced by our experiences. No sustainable and effective marketing activity is happening without a firm understanding of your core audience and their tendencies. At the Kulur Group, we focus on segmenting data into two categories, and they’re as simple as Belief (formerly recognized as Declarative) and Behavioral (what you do). Marketers have emphasized market share for years, but mindshare is critical, especially for HBCUs looking to demystify the perception of academic inferiority. The 4-R methodology we use to align specific questions with the categories of Reputation, Relevance, Resonance, and Recognition should guide how Communicators and Marketers at HBCUs attack messaging and develop content strategies.

Cookie-cutter data isn’t going to cut it. Google Analytics isn’t enough, and the NET Promoter Score can’t be the end-all-be-all. Utilizing data and analytics via focus groups, surveys, social listening, keyword research, engagement tracking, and market research to better understand your unique audiences should equip institutions to deliver either customized or better-personalized experiences that resonate with their target audiences.

D - Diversify Across Digital Channels

We know experience is the new brand, and community is the currency driving reputation, relationships, and revenue at scale. The pride and instinctive advocacy across the HBCU landscape are second to none. One of the beautiful things about the HBCU Culture is that while there are rivalries in athletics, fraternities, and so much more, the feeling of purpose, belonging, and community is a cornerstone of the HBCU experience. But how can these rich elements of the HBCU experience be disseminated in ways that drive recall and improve recognition for core target audiences when deciding in such a competitive marketplace? It starts when you stop simulcasting your content.

We live in a world where customization and personalization are more important than ever. In a recent EAB Student and Parent Communication Preferences Survey, 89% stated that a well-designed website would improve their opinion of a college. Additionally, EAB found HBCU seekers were more likely than their peers to use YouTube and Virtual Tours in their college search. There’s no shortage of the volume of content creation that surrounds us. For example, when creating a social media strategy, we often counsel our clients on the importance of establishing specific channel roles. After all, each social channel is different, user behavior will vary, the frequency in which users are active on certain platforms will vary by age and demographic, and each platform will offer similar but different capabilities.

With such rich content from HBCU brands that can entertain, educate, and inform audiences, leaders must approach digital activity with an audience-first mindset, specifically focusing on creating unique content that appears across social media, search, websites, and email.

E - Educate with Intent

HBCUs have an opportunity to showcase how brand and cultural experiences ARE educational experiences, and that its faculty can operate uniquely and effectively at such an important intersection. By elevating awareness of the intellectual capital on campus, HBCUs can position themselves as knowledge enterprises and leverage their community-forward platforms with a corporate-facing lens for broader brand building. While we may be firmly experiencing the rise of artificial intelligence in communications and marketing, human and cultural intelligence remains essential. Cultural understanding of audiences’ beliefs and behaviors can often be the difference that drives message resonance to elevate brand recognition and the brand’s reputation. For example, the Kulur Group follows a process in social listening, where we believe it’s necessary to align thought leaders with relevant trending topics in the digital space to scale the visibility of the brand's intellectual capital. This approach can help brands build broader affinity and advocacy through owned, earned, and paid efforts. Often, faculty are tasked and required to conduct academic research to strengthen the profile of their school, department, or University, but tying that research to discernable content– whether it’s through podcast, video, infographics, and more– is where educating with the intent to build the brand can have an impact in student or partnership recruitment.

HBCUs have rich stories to tell and DOPE people to feature. We welcome the opportunity to partner with any HBCUs looking to enhance how and where they show up using SHADE, but that’s “no shade” to what you’re doing now.  

Looking for more...