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We Still Don't Get It

Diversity marketing must be more than skin-deep

October 5, 2017
 
 

Last week, the Wall Street Journal released its best college rankings for 2018. Among the 15 factors considered, a value on diversity accounted for only 10 percent of the score. Yet the U.S. Department of Education places a higher value on diversity, reporting that “research demonstrates that student body diversity in institutions of higher education is important not only for improving the economic and educational opportunities for students of color, but also for the social, academic, and societal benefits that diversity presents for all students and communities.”

Hispanic female—check. Black male—check. Native American—check. Is this how your marketing department decides whether advertising and communications are focused on "diversity?" If so, you're in the majority. And you're wrong.

As higher education marketers, we are tasked with diversity marketing in order to hit recruitment targets for underrepresented minority students. We mail our glossy brochures with a picture of an attractive black female on the cover to prove our efforts. We tell our provost and board of governors all the superficial things we do to recruit diverse students and show them pretty images.

But is this really diversity, and does it work? Or is it just insulting?

A study in 2013, We’ve Got Minorities, Yes We Do: Visual Representations of Racial and Ethnic Diversity in College Recruitment Materials, compared the actual racial and ethnic diversity of 165 higher education institutions with how they portrayed diversity in recruitment materials. The results aren’t surprising. The majority of institutions presented inflated images of diversity to prospective students that were significantly different than the actual student body. In addition, African American students were pictured at higher rates rather than reflecting a more accurate student body.

Clearly we don’t get it.

So what is diversity? Is it just race and ethnicity? This is what most institutions measure when reporting the number of diverse students. But what about religious, ethnic, gender, and socioeconomic diversity? And how do you visually depict LGBTQ students in advertising and marketing? The answer is: you don’t.

Communications must be more than just cosmetic. We want students who are curious, driven, service-oriented, and eager to learn. We need to show WHO these students are—their aspirations, their passions, their needs. Their stories cross racial, religious, sexual orientation and gender boundaries. These higher-level messages create connection, meaning, and last longer than a pretty picture.

By singling people out visually by race alone, this is the opposite of diversity and inclusion. We are missing the mark on winning hearts and minds. The mistake is not intentional, but nevertheless shows we are out of touch and ineffective.

Even when we try, we just don’t get it. The recent backlash over Pepsi's marketing decision to use the Black Lives Matter movement as a theme in a television ad proves it. Pepsi didn't understand Ferguson, or the depths of its meaning for people of color. A privileged white social media star with a can of Pepsi didn't signify peace, and instead created more pain and outrage.

The Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) suggests that diversity should be talked about as “inclusive excellence.” This excellence is what we should focus on in marketing departments. We need more diverse contributors generating ideas and making decisions about what resonates for all types of diversity. We should think deeper and tell stories that evoke higher level emotions and connections that are more than just skin-deep.

We should be leaders in what diversity and inclusion marketing "looks like,” and should hold ourselves to higher standards—especially in our world of higher education.

Rebecca Darmoc, MS, is director of marketing at Rush University College of Nursing in Chicago and a graduate of Northwestern University’s integrated marketing communications program. She is a Rush University Public Voices Fellow.

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