If branding, or lack thereof at historically black colleges is at crisis level, Jackson State University must not have gotten the memo. In the last nine months, the university has changed its logo, redesigned its website, made national headlines for ambitious plans to build a domed stadium, and has launched a branded debit card partnership with BancorpSouth.
All of these elements add up to more attention being paid to Jackson State, and for reasons unrelated to its high academic and research capacity, its sports, or its community service, all of which, relatively speaking, get a fair share of talk in HBCU circles. Their activity in the marketplace now forces us all to look at black college branding in a different way – to consider the capacity HBCUs have to reach the masses when low on marketing funds, but big on dreams.
History helps to brand a small section of private HBCUs – these include Howard University, Morehouse College, Spelman College, and Fisk University. The whisper of their name communicates a sense of elite achievement and expectation, and among high achieving students who want a historically black college experience, their name and legacy holds weight without advertising or high level marketing influence.
Guerrilla marketing bolsters awareness for other HBCUs, heavily driven by alumni pride and student activities. These schools, like Florida A&M University, North Carolina A&T State University, Southern University and Tennessee State University, have their stories championed by advocates spread throughout the nation, building their legacy more through word of mouth than by market strategy.
Some presidents brand their HBCUs, and Hampton University is the premier example of aligning a president’s vision and personality with that of the school, and in its case, they continue to enjoy the market value of the greatest HBCU president of all time, William R. Harvey. HBCUs like Alcorn State University with M. Christopher Brown, Dillard University with Walter Kimbrough and Paul Quinn College with Michael Sorrell, follow this same path and reap similar benefits. This is the trickiest HBCU branding of all because it requires longevity, an equally loyal and capable staff of administrators, and endlessly energy on the part of the president to support its worth.
But Jackson State has created a new model, blending the three classic HBCU marketing methods with an intense focus to earn free media through strategic marketing investments and initiatives. With one of the largest HBCU alumni networks, high respectability in research and academic circles, and a popular president in Carolyn Meyers, JSU could very easily rest on its prestige, its passionate alumni promotion, or its leadership brand to cultivate support and interest among communities.
Instead, it activates those three elements with specific projects that intrigue reporters, excites students and draws attention from non-supporters. Even when projects don’t go to form, such as the recent domed stadium project, Jackson State’s bold pursuit of public brand equity is enough to energize its base, and those who want to see an HBCU grow to a higher place of national prominence.
HBCU relevance is a topic of national discussion because HBCUs can’t afford to market an opposing narrative. Jackson State is designing a blueprint on how the true story of HBCUs can be told through development and marketing, and not solely through tradition, academic strength, or cultural imprint.