Adweek published a perspective suggesting that White advertising agencies and brands go beyond viewing HBCUs as potential promotional heat shields, and instead provide meaningful investments to back the colleges and universities. It’s a tough proposition, given that industry support—whether for HBCUs or any non-White enterprise—has not yet progressed from crumbs to cash.
Allyship With HBCUs Is More Than a Marketing Campaign
Brands can bridge funding gaps through meaningful long-term investments in infrastructure
By Will Ayers
Since the inception of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) in the 1800s, HBCUs have been a driving force in developing successful Black professionals in America. According to a White House report, HBCUs have produced approximately 40% of all Black engineers, 50% of all Black lawyers, 70% of Black doctors and 80% of Black judges. These prestigious colleges and universities have also produced close to 50% of the teachers in America, and many of the most accomplished names across the world of sports, business and entertainment are products of an HBCU.
Even many of the trends we see today, whether it be in fashion, music or social media, have been driven by some of the brilliant minds that have walked HBCU campuses. Collectively, these colleges and universities sit at the four-way intersection of authenticity, academia, culture and commerce.
Markedly, HBCUs have accomplished all of these feats while being underfunded, so imagine the potential if they had meaningful support. Brands across America can bridge the gap, not only by showing up during key moments throughout the year but also making meaningful long-term investments in HBCU students and institutions.
Over the past five years, brands have begun to align themselves with HBCUs and diverse communities more often. However, it’s important that brands’ alignment transcend symbolic gestures in marketing campaigns, sponsored events and brand activations. Now is the time for brands to build a more meaningful relationship with HBCUs that nurtures campus life, professional development and talent pipelines that enhance the HBCU experience.
It’s not enough for brands to just be present—they must authentically engage with HBCU culture, their graduates, students at the university and its rich history, in an always-on approach that helps HBCUs overcome the obstacles of being underfunded for many decades.
One recent example of a brand authentically engaging with HBCU culture is when Flamin’ Hot partnered with Grammy award-winning artist Megan Thee Stallion to raise scholarship funds for HBCU students. Knowing the importance of homecoming season at HBCUs, Flamin’ Hot teamed up with the Houston rapper to launch Flamin’ Hot University, a fictitious university that offered online courses and limited-edition merchandise inspired by popular streetwear designer Melody Ehsani.
The collection also included a Stallion Varsity Jacket and a Hot Girl Club sweater, which was inspired by Megan Thee Stallion. Proceeds from the collection went towards starting a scholarship fund of up to $150,000 at Texas Southern University, which is also Megan Thee Stallion’s alma mater. The partnership with Megan Thee Stallion was organic, the campaign was seamlessly integrated into HBCU culture and it left a meaningful impact on students at Texas Southern University.
The campaign illustrated a successful and authentic way to engage with and invest in HBCU culture, so how else can brands tap into HBCU culture in meaningful ways?
Invest in campus infrastructure
Long-term investments in infrastructure enable brands to be more present in the daily nuances of the HBCU experience. Financial support for infrastructure such as dorms, athletic facilities and classrooms enhances the college experience of HBCU students. These types of investments and partnerships allow brands to be authentically woven into the fabric of the everyday lives of HBCU culture and students who are pursuing their degrees.
Empower students through mentorship
At the core, HBCUs are schools of higher learning that build leaders and some of the most esteemed professionals, not only in the Black community but in America—it’s important that brands understand this mission. Establishing mentorship programs at HBCUs seamlessly aligns with this assignment by providing students with the proper insight and guidance to help them secure jobs once they graduate. It also provides them with access to conversations with individuals who have once walked a similar path. This will not only accelerate their professional development but also help them build a strong network of professionals they can lean on to help navigate their academic and career journey.
Build talent pipelines
Building a career pathway for students will also make a significant impact on bridging the gap for HBCUs. Create a calendar of events throughout the year that includes professional development workshops, panel discussions that provide career insight, and internship opportunities that are designed to establish clear pathways for students to have successful careers in their respective fields. Additionally, brands should also consider investing in curriculum development and campus career fairs in an effort to ensure that students are being prepared for what their respective industry looks like now, and in the future.
Allyship with HBCUs is more than just a marketing campaign. Marketing campaigns only represent a moment in time or in the world of advertising a “flight.” In an ever-changing world where budgets are getting tighter and the return on investment is more important than ever, one of the best returns on investment for a brand is investing in HBCUs. Not only are you showing up in front of an audience that is one of the driving forces behind trends for young people, but there is also an opportunity to help students become leaders in their respective fields, creating a sustainable pipeline to hire Black professionals and helping nurture the HBCU experience in a way that drives authenticity and allyship.
This can be accomplished by forming apparel partnerships with HBCU athletic programs similar to Nike’s partnership with Florida A&M University, establishing internship and mentoring programs for HBCU students, creating unique brand activations at HBCU homecomings, hosting exclusive product launch events on HBCU campuses and by leveraging social media to engage with HBCU students in a way that lets them know you care.
It’s one thing for brands to say that they care, but the impact comes from actions rooted in authenticity.