Like so many other industries, higher education is no stranger to the microscope of diversity, equity, and inclusion work (often abbreviated as DE&I). It’s a system capable of immense social mobility and access, yet it remains riddled with complicated histories, barriers, and hierarchies. University and college marketers are taking a closer look at the stories they’re telling, and that can raise lots of questions. 

For example: How do we make sure that all populations are reflected in our marketing, both accurately and authentically? How do we gather insights about populations we don’t currently have on campus? How do we do so in a way that is respectful and inclusive?

Before we dive in, let’s be clear about something: If historically underrepresented populations aren’t truly a part of your story and community, marketing efforts alone can’t make up for that. In fact, if you’re marketing your institution as more diverse, equitable, and inclusive than it really is, you’re likely doing more harm than good. To be effective, DE&I initiatives must reach every level of your organization.

However, your role as marketer is a critical one. You can shift the narrative, tap the power of transparency, and center underrepresented communities. In fact, you have the opportunity to invite audiences to the table as co-creators of your institution’s story.

We often tell folks that strong brands have one foot in today and one foot in tomorrow. So: What if your institution isn’t as diverse as you’d like? What if your institution has historically excluded marginalized groups? How do you reach the communities you’ve left out in the past, and how do you reflect those efforts in your marketing? Here are some things to keep in mind.

It’s almost impossible to reflect all populations at once.

You don’t want to end up with a marketing piece that looks like the “It’s a Small World” ride at Disneyland. This misguided approach views representation as a matter of checking boxes, rather than reflecting a true sense of community and belonging. Instead, evaluate the breadth of the stories you tell. Start to make incremental changes to your content in a way that feels true to your institution’s strategic goals.

Diversify your marketing team.

One way to help ensure that you’re telling authentic stories is to take a look at the demographic makeup of your marketing team. Whose voices aren’t represented? Are all voices given equal value? The more diverse your team is, the broader the range of lived experiences at the table, and the less likely you are to make assumptions.

As a marketing team, invest in regular knowledge-building opportunities, like implicit bias training and DEI courses.

Unpacking implicit bias takes time, and working against it requires a dedicated effort. Whether we realize it or not, our socially conditioned habits and biases make their way into our daily decisions as marketers.

For instance: Brevity & Wit recently did a fantastic webinar on inclusive imagery, discussing the role of designers in centering underrepresented folks. This sort of knowledge building helps you be more aware of racial or cultural stereotypes and avoid tokenism. (My colleagues broke down some of the classic traps of tokenism in a previous article on navigating the ethics of telling student stories.)

Don’t hide your demographic stats.

If your numbers aren’t where you’d like them to be, say that. Transparency goes a long way. Rather than pretending to be something you’re not, make your statistics easy to access, and acknowledge that it’s an area where your institution is working to improve. And if you have specifics about how you’re working to improve your stats, that’s even better.

In gathering insights, meet different audiences where they are. Ask the hard questions. Then do something with the answers.

If you have the chance to talk to students and faculty who didn’t choose your school, ask them why. Ask current students and faculty: What is the experience like for disabled folks on campus? A Muslim student? A trans professor of color? What are their specific needs? Don’t be afraid to get specific. These unique experiences deserve their space and influence on the greater story. You can take those insights and adjust what offers you’re communicating, based on what those audiences need.

When you want to feature someone in a piece, be honest about your intentions.

If your intent is to showcase more stories from underrepresented identities, tell them that. When you’re honest up front about your reasoning, you help build trust — and you give them the power to decide if they’re okay with being seen in that light. This applies to students, faculty, staff, leaders, alumni, and more. When you’ve finished the piece, proof it with your subject. Take their feedback and make sure that, before you share their story with the world, they feel good about how you’ve framed it.

Intersectionality. Intersectionality. Intersectionality.

As individuals, we all hold multiple identities: gender, race, age, religious background, sexual orientation, and many more. When you highlight someone’s story, create space for those multiple identities. Students are more than their major and ethnicity. Faculty are more than their area of expertise. Alumni are more than their field of work and number of degrees. As you interview folks, give them room to let the details of their identities unfold, should they feel comfortable doing so. These kinds of stories can show prospective students that you see individuals for all they are.

Valiant efforts that are sure to fall flat.
  • Featuring students of color or underrepresented communities only on diversity pages. (That’s tokenism.) Or the clubs and orgs pages. (That’s marginalization.) Or the athletics features. (That’s stereotyping.) 
  • “Diversity of thought.” Give Gen Z a little more credit. This statement screams “We’re not racially diverse, but we have students with different political beliefs.”
  • Pictures of color runs on diversity spreads of viewbooks. (This doesn’t acknowledge the influence from the Hindu holiday Holi.)
  • Dining hall descriptions that reinforce harmful Americanized cuisine stereotypes and cultural appropriation. (Taco bars and hummus don’t really make a case for inclusion.)  
  • If all the students of color featured are international students. The United States is incredibly diverse. Make sure there’s a balance that aligns with your demographics.

As you prioritize inclusive marketing, we encourage you to use all the tools in your toolbox.

You’ve got many: Copy. Photographs. Icons. Audio. Animation. Channels. And more. After you make the piece, take a critical lens to it. For example, in terms of photography: Who is the focus of each image? What audiences are centered in the group? Does it show them in a position of confidence and power, or do they look somehow secondary? Are they being portrayed in a stereotypical way? Are you only using students of color on the athletics spread? Or only featuring LGBTQ+ students on the diversity spread?

And remember: If you misstep, acknowledge it and learn from it. DE&I work requires a growth mindset. The idea is that we’re human, and as we try new things, we’re going to mess up sometimes — even with the best of intentions. That’s okay! Often the misstep presents an opportunity to show approachability and inclusion in action. If you’re open to feedback, you’re open to change.